Marlon Brando couldn’t have just been somebody — he was somebody. A fact taken quite literally in the title of the new biography offering unprecedented insight into the legendary actor’s life.
In The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando, William J. Mann uses painstaking years of research, conversations with those who knew Brando best, and his own knack for delving into the lives of Hollywood luminaries to offer fans up a staggeringly comprehensive tale of Brando’s life. While many of the stories will be familiar to those who love Brando, from this prankster antics on set, to his decision to stuff his mouth with tissues in The Godfather, there’s plenty of gems to be discovered.
The Contender is on shelves now and has plenty to offer readers, but here are 15 favorite tidbits from the new biography.
1. Marlon Brando hated ‘The Method’
Brando is perhaps one of the actors most associated with “The Method,” a style of acting associated with realism and a reliance on one’s interior emotional life that brought a new type of performance to Hollywood. There’s only one problem with that — Brando was not a “Method” actor and hated any association with it. His acting teacher was Stella Adler, who took a different approach to her teachings, encouraging her students to rely on their imagination and the text, rather than their “emotional memory.” She found no use reaching inside one’s personal life — it was too limited. Instead, she urged her students to tap into the full breadth of their imagination.
Brando became associated with the Method for a few reasons. One, because he was indeed responsible for bringing a startling realism and different acting style to Hollywood movies. It just wasn’t coming from the place people assumed it was. Two, he was a frequent collaborator with director Elia Kazan, who was a member of Lee Strasberg’s The Actor’s Studio, the birthplace of “The Method.” Brando resented Lee Strasberg for laying claim to him, insisting instead that the actors he admired were non-Method performers like Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, and Paul Muni.
2. Kazan gave Brando $20 to take a bus to audition for A Streetcar Named Desire
Without A Streetcar Named Desire, there is no Marlon Brando. And without Brando, there is no Streetcar. But his journey to his breakout role in one of the definitive plays of the twentieth-century American theatre was a convoluted one. Convinced Brando was perfect for the part of Stanley Kowalski, Kazan was eager for Tennessee Williams to sign off on the casting. Williams was in Provincetown for the summer, so Kazan gave Brando $20 for bus fare to go and audition for the playwright. Brando didn’t immediately take advantage, however. Instead, he used the $20 to buy food and throw a party. After a week, Brando finally decided to make the trip from New York City and hitchhiked his way to the Cape. Only to find Williams in a dark bungalow with a blown fuse and a broken toilet. Brando fixed the fuse and the toilet before giving a reading that immediately convinced Williams he was the only man for the part.
3. He once went to a costume party in a simple outfit — a t-shirt, boxer shorts, and a ‘red-rubber schlong’
Yes, that’s right. The immortal prankster Brando once went to a costume party dressed simply as a guy with his d–k out. He wore a tee-shirt, boxer shorts, and then safety pinned what is described as a “thick, red-rubber schlong” to the fly. Most outrageously, one of the guests was notoriously nearsighted — and in hushed, horrified tones begged her husband to tell Brando he’d been “hanging out of his shorts” all night.
4. Marlon was the first actor to earn a million-dollar salary
On The Fugitive Kind, Brando demanded a $1 million salary. As studios were still adjusting from moving to a contract to a freelance system, Brando became the first to earn such a sum for starring in a movie.
5. The notorious womanizer slept with someone else the night before his first wedding
Brando was infamous for his romantic exploits, carrying on relationships with countless women and co-stars, including Hollywood newbie Rita Moreno. He eventually married three times and had two other long-term female partners, but for a long time, it seemed the sexually fluid heart-throb would never settle down. Even after he did, he didn’t excel at marital faithfulness. His long-time secretary Alice Marchak remembered seeing another woman in his bed who’d just spent the night the morning he was getting dressed for his wedding to Anna Kashfi.
6. He almost starred in Lawrence of Arabia
Peter O’Toole’s baby blues cast against the epic desert provide some of the most iconic imagery in cinema. Yet, it was almost Brando who starred as T.E. Lawrence. He was on-board to star in the David Lean film because the money was good, but once he learned it was going to take six months to make the film, Brando backed out. He couldn’t stand the idea of devoting half a year of his life to a project he just wasn’t enthused about.
7. He offered to take Montgomery Clift to AA
Brando and Clift are often paired together as revolutionizing acting in Hollywood cinema. The two worked together on The Young Lions and Brando surprised everyone by expressing how Clift’s performances were the bar by which he measured himself. Recognizing Clift’s struggle with alcoholism, Brando offered to accompany him to AA since the organization had helped his mother — Clift sadly turned down the offer and died less than a decade later from heart disease precipitated by drug and alcohol addictions.
8. The prankster convinced an entire crew he’d drowned
While making The Young Lions, Brando stayed facedown in a shallow pool of water for over a minute after the director called “Cut.” The entire crew panicked that they had accidentally drowned Marlon Brando. He came up grinning, revealing his extraordinary capacity to hold his breath.
9. When making his directorial debut, Brando was obsessed with the details
Brando pursued perfectionism while making his one and only directorial effort One-Eyed Jacks. One day, they needed an establishing shot of the Pacific Ocean. Brando waited over two hours to get the shot — he said he was waiting for the “perfect wave.”
10. The Oakland Police Force sued him for libel
Brando was an engaged political activist, speaking out for everything from abolishing the death penalty to Civil Rights. When he spoke at the funeral of a 17-year-old Black Panther fatally shot while surrendering to police, Brando charged the Oakland cops with the boy’s murder. In response, the Oakland Police Officers Association sued him for $26 million for libel.
11. The Godfather cast bonded over a pre-shoot Italian dinner that ended with an epic mooning
In the most Italian of ways, Coppola bonded his The Godfather cast with a pre-production meal at Patsy’s, a New York institution. Over spaghetti, meatballs, pizza, and more, the cast was instructed to spend the next two to three hours improvising in character to get the sense of a real Corleone family dinner. Brando took to the exercise like a fish to water, presiding over the head of the table, welcoming the actresses who served him his meal as his dutiful wife and daughters would. The night also ended with an epic prank. Brando was notorious for his own antics on set, but his new co-stars did him one better. While driving away from the restaurant, James Caan, on a dare from Robert Duvall, rolled down the window of his car and mooned Brando in the car next to them. This inspired the cast to launch a “Mighty Moon” contest on-set, which Brando eventually won after mooning 500 extras.
12. He met his second-to-last serious girlfriend in a threesome
Reportedly, Brando met Jill Banner, who was his serious partner in an on-again, off-again relationship from 1968-82, in a threesome. Brando was good friends, and allegedly even lovers, with actor Christian Marquand. Banner was sleeping with Marquand when she first met Brando, who suggested they engage in a ménage à trois.
13. John Wayne was, unsurprisingly, a jerk when Sacheen Littlefeather accepted Brando’s Oscar
John Wayne may be an icon of American cinema, particularly as a symbol of the American West and the cowboys. But he was also demonstrably a racist man who held abhorrent views about Native Americans, African-Americans, and more. When Sacheen Littlefeather took to the stage to make a speech declining Brando’s Oscar for The Godfather and drawing attention to the plight of Native Americans, Wayne didn’t respond well. Littlefeather reported that in spite of their immense size difference, she spotted Wayne having to be restrained by six security guards from confronting her backstage.
14. Brando was an early climate change activist
Years before it became commonplace, Brando was speaking out about the dangers of climate change. In a 1994 interview with Larry King, he revealed plans to work with a company designed to reduce the amount of Carbon Dioxide in the air. “Each one of us, everybody here in this room, sound, gaffers, assistants, we all have to do something to reverse the effects of CO2,” he urged in an on-camera interview.
15. He loved getting into political arguments online
It’s a shame, or perhaps a blessing, Brando didn’t live to see the invention of Twitter or Facebook. In his later years, he was an early adopter for the internet and technology. One of his favorite past-times was spending hours in AOL chatrooms getting in political arguments with strangers. Frequently, his account was suspended for ending arguments by telling others to “F–k off.”
The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando is now on shelves.