Marlon Brando, one of the great and most enigmatic stage and screen actors of the second half of the twentieth century was born in Omaha, Nebraska on April 3, 1924. His home life as a child was unhappy and tumultuous. His father, Marlon Brando, Sr., was an alcoholic and his mother turned to the bottle herself, apparently out of frustration with her husband. Brando’s parents separated when Marlon was 11 years old in 1935. His mother took her three children to live with her mother in California, where they lived for two years. In 1937, Brando’s parents were reconciled and moved to Libertyville, Illinois, a village north of Chicago.
Brando’s mother, Dorothy Pennebaker, was an amateur actress and was active in the Omaha, Nebraska thespian scene. She is best known as the woman who convinced Henry Fonda to attempt to become a professional actor when he was active in the same Omaha community theater she was active in.
Brando’s paternal ancestral background is somewhat cloudy. It is generally agreed upon that he is from Dutch, Irish and English stock, although the family name originated in Germany and was originally spelled as Brandau. His mother was apparently of solid Dutch background, and most of Brando’s biographical sketches refer to his primary Dutch ancestral background.
The young Brando was apparently quite rebellious and was expelled from several schools including the Shattuck Military Academy. Around the time Brando turned twenty he went to New York City where he studied in the American Theater Wing Professional School, the Actor’s Studio, and the New School’s Dramatic Workshop. At the latter school his famous teacher, Stella Adler, introduced him to the Stanislavsky Method, an acting approach based on intellectual honesty. The approach is colloquially known as method acting. At the Actor’s Studio the method mentor, Lee Strassberg, nurtured Brando’s talent.
Brando began his acting career in summer stock roles in Sayville, New York. He became first visible in 1944 in the play “Remember Mama”. He was then only twenty years old, and still developing his skills as a method actor.
Brando’s breakthrough acting role was on stage as Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, directed by Elia Kazan in 1947.
Brando’s first screen role was in “The Men” in 1950. However, Brando made a much stronger impression as an actor in 1951, in Kazan’s screen adaptation of “Streetcar Named Desire”. Brando played the unforgettable role of Stanley Kowalski, the role he had played in the stage play. Brando was nominated for the Academy’s Best Actor Award for the role but he lost to another Dutch American, Humphrey Bogart, for his leading role in the “African Queen”.
During the next three years Brando was nominated for the Academy’s Best Actor Award for his role in “Viva Zapata” in 1952, for “Julius Ceasar” in 1953 and for “On the Waterfront” in 1954. It was in the latter film that Brando won his first Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Terry Malloy.
Brando played a variety of roles in several films during the remainder of the fifties, but none surpassed or equaled his earlier successes. He played the role of Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls”, a Japanese officer in “The Tea House of the August Moon”, an Air force officer in “Sayonara”, and a Nazi officer in “The Young Ones”. He was nominated for an Oscar for his acting in “Sayonara” but did not win.
During the 1960’s Brando’s career seemed to be on hold. Although he appeared in a few films none of his performances came close to his earlier achievements. During that time period Brando became involved in several crusades for civil rights for the American Indians, and in several other causes. He appeared to have lost his zest for his acting career.
Brando was able to disprove his critics who claimed his illustrious acting career was over. In 1972 Francis Ford Coppola selected him to play the part of Vita Corleone in “The Godfather”. Brando performed brilliantly and was nominated by the Academy for Best Actor and he won handily. True to his nature as a rebel he turned down the award and boycotted the Academy Award Ceremony. The following year, in 1973, he had one of his greatest performances in “The Last Tango in Paris”. The Academy once again nominated Brando for the Best Actor Award, which he failed to win.
Brando’s film career following the above two films was uneven, and none measured up to his earlier performances. He continued to appear in a number of films but usually as a supporting actor. The last film he appeared in as an actor was in 2001, when he was 77 years old. The film’s title was “The Score”.
Brando’s personal life was even more hectic than his professional life as an actor. His first marriage was to Anna Kashfi in 1957. The marriage lasted for two years until 1959. In 1960 he married Maria Movita Castenada, a Mexican actress. The second marriage also only lasted two years until 1962 when Brando became enamored with Tarita Terripia, his co-star in “Mutiny on the Bounty”. The year in which he married Terripia is unclear since his marriage to Castenada was not annulled until 1968.
At the time of Brando’s death in 2004, Brando recognized eleven children in his will. There was one child, Christian, in his first marriage, two children, Miko and Rebecca, in his second marriage, and two children, Simon Teihotu and Cheyenne, in his third marriage. There were also three children by adoption and three children by his maid, Christina Maria Ruiz, during the latter part of his life.
Brando’s notoriety during his life, his self-exile from Hollywood, and his obesity did not make him an appealing or sympathetic public figure during the later years of his life. This unfortunately distracted from the smashing successes of his acting career during the 1950’s and the early 1970’s.
Brando died at the age of eighty on July 1, 2004. He died at the UCLA Medical Center from lung failure brought on by pulmonary fibrosis. He also suffered from congestive heart failure, diabetes, failing eye sight, and had recently been diagnosed with cancer.
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