Marlon Brando was one of the most influential actors of modern times. Decades after the height of his fame, his work is still the gold standard to which actors aspire. Almost as famed as his acting skills were his notoriously difficult personality and his tendency toward bad behavior. On what would have been Marlon Brando’s 87th birthday, we share eight facts – about both his legendary talent and his fabled personal life.
1. Brando was a bad boy long before his Hollywood reputation grew – in fact, he was a bad boy when he was still a boy. He was expelled from Libertyville High School, in the north suburbs of Chicago, for riding his motorcycle in the school halls. Sent to Shattuck Military Academy in Minnesota, he was expelled yet again – this time for sneaking off campus to go to town.
2. Known for his Method acting, Marlon Brando outshone the competition even as a young student of the Method. His teacher, Stella Adler, remembered a story of Brando’s unique approach: told to imagine themselves to be chickens hearing an air-raid siren, the rest of the class ran around wildly, like the proverbial chickens with their heads cut off. Brando instead sat and calmly pretended to lay an egg. Asked to explain himself, Brando responded, “I’m a chicken – I don't know what an air-raid siren is.”
3. The role that made him famous was his because he reached out and grabbed it. As a young man of 23, Brando learned that Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire would soon debut on Broadway. Brando drove to Williams’ home in Provincetown to lobby for the role of Stanley Kowalski. Williams remembered opening the door and knowing immediately that he was looking at Stanley.
4. Before Brando became Stanley Kowalski on the big screen in Elia Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, he screen tested for the lead in Rebel Without a Cause. Of course, it was a different iconic rebel who got the gig – but James Dean looked to Brando for inspiration, modeling his acting on Brando’s style.
5. A noted improviser, Brando sometimes created richer characters than the original script called for through his experimentation. He brought Col. Kurtz of Apocalypse Now to life through improvisation: director Francis Ford Coppola let him create while the cameras rolled, and a masterpiece was born. He worked similar magic on his character Paul in Last Tango in Paris, washed-up boxer Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, and others.
6. When he wasn’t improvising, Brando wasn’t too keen on memorizing his lines, especially as he grew older. He looked for ways to place cue cards around the set so he could just read instead of memorizing. Notably, his lines for Superman were written on baby Superman’s diaper.
7. Marlon Brando was a close friend to Michael Jackson for many years. He often visited Neverland Ranch, and his son Miko worked as Jackson’s bodyguard and assistant for years. At Michael Jackson’s 30th anniversary concert, Brando gave a speech on humanitarian work, though it wasn’t broadcast with the rest of the concert. Not long before Brando’s death on July 1, 2004, as his health had been failing for years, Jackson’s home was the last place he visited for an extended time.
8. Brando’s remarkable talent was honored many times: he was nominated for seven Best Actor Oscars, as well as one for Best Supporting Actor. He won Best Actor twice: for On the Waterfront in 1954 and The Godfather in 1972 (though he refused to accept the second, citing the film industry’s treatment of Native Americans as his reason). When he lost, it was to other notable talents: Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Lemmon, and Denzel Washington.