A legend in his lifetime, film and stage actor Marlon Brando — best known for work in films including "The Godfather," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "On the Waterfront" — died of lung failure in a Los Angeles hospital Thursday evening. He was 80.
"It’s a devastating loss," said Chris LaMont, a film professor at Arizona State University and executive director of the Phoenix Film Festival.
"He’s a cinematic icon," LaMont said. "He changed acting. Without Marlon Brando, you would not have Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman. They would be busboys and accountants. What Brando was able to do was change the way movie actors worked."
Brando’s roots were in the theater. He debuted on Broadway in 1944 in "I Remember Mama," but the actor first gained fame three years later, as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ "A Streetcar Named Desire." That play, which opened on Broadway in 1947 and ran for two years, was the last Broadway show in which Brando would perform.
Instead, he turned to film, and turned the art form on its head: While most movie actors carried over their broad, play-to-the-room theatrical performance style, Brando used his innate charismatic manner, an intimate appeal and the Method technique of acting — a style of empathetic embodiment of his characters — to develop an uncanny bond with the camera and win two Academy Awards.
"Brando became his characters absolutely," LaMont said. "From stuffing cotton balls in his mouth to become the Don (for 1972’s ‘The Godfather’) to learning how to ride a motorcycle for ‘The Wild One’ (1953), he became his characters."
David Ramsey, president of the Phoenix Film Critics Society, points to Brando’s almost muted, mumbling style of speech as a key to his intimate style of film acting.
"It separated him from a lot of actors," Ramsey said, "and it opened the doors for a lot of actors that were not classically acting. Clint Eastwood had one tone, but it worked. (Brando’s) mumbling made you listen. He could say something with a whisper that someone else couldn’t have the same effect with yelling."
Brando earned Academy Award nominations as best actor in four successive years: As Kowalski in ‘‘A Streetcar Named Desire’’ (1951); as the Mexican revolutionary in ‘‘Viva Zapata!’’ (1952); as Marc Anthony in ‘‘Julius Caesar’’ (1953); and as Terry Malloy in ‘‘On the Waterfront’’ (1954), which won him his first Oscar.
His films after ‘‘Waterfront’’ failed to challenge his unique talent. Most were commercial enterprises: ‘‘Desiree,’’ ‘‘Guys and Dolls,’’ ‘‘The Teahouse of the August Moon,’’ ‘‘Sayonara,’’ ‘‘The Young Lions.’’ He tried directing himself in a Western, ‘‘One-Eyed Jacks,’’ going wildly over budget.
His box office power seemed finished until Francis Ford Coppola chose him to play Mafia leader Corleone in ‘‘The Godfather.’’ The film was an overwhelming critical and commercial success and Brando’s jowly, raspy-voiced Don became one of the screen’s most unforgettable characters.
The actor followed with ‘‘Last Tango in Paris.’’ One of his greatest performances was overshadowed by an uproar over the erotic nature of the Bernardo Bertolucci film.
While his early roles were marked by an overt, almost predatory, sexuality that made him a rebellious film icon, Brando let his good looks fade as he gained weight and became increasingly reclusive in later years. He was pushy, difficult, temperamental and demanding — and his preference for repeated takes came to be regarded as excessive and costly.
One of his more wellknown eccentric stunts came at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony, when instead of accepting an Oscar for his work in "The Godfather," he sent a woman who identified herself as Sasheen Littlefeather to reject his trophy on his behalf and read a diatribe about Hollywood’s poor treatment of American Indians. It was roundly booed — and torpedoed much of the comeback goodwill his performance had earned among studio honchos.
Brando’s private life also was tumultuous. His three wives were all pregnant when they married him. He fathered at least nine children.
His family life turned tragic with his son’s conviction for killing the boyfriend of his half-sister, Cheyenne Brando, in 1990. Five years later, Cheyenne committed suicide.
After a heavily publicized trial, Christian was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and the use of a gun. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Before the sentencing, Marlon Brando delivered an hour of rambling testimony in which he said he and his ex-wife had failed Christian.
According to the Internet Movie Database and the Arizona Film Office, Brando did not shoot any films in Arizona — the closest was his sister, Jocelyn Brando, shooting 1995’s "Ten Wanted Men" in Tucson — but Arizona residents recounted a few unusual encounters with the actor here.
Carl Matthusen, general manager for Valley public radio station KJZZ (91.5 FM) and classical station KBAQ (89.5 FM), met Brando at the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa several years ago, after the actor had phoned in a $5,000 pledge to KBAQ’s fund-raising drive. Brando was in the Valley to discuss business with another charitable organization, Matthusen said, and had been listening to the classical station while at the resort. Matthusen went to the resort to verify that it was indeed Brando.
"He was dressed extremely casually. If he had worked for the Biltmore, they would have tossed him,’’ Matthusen recalled, laughing. ‘‘But he had the voice and the eyes, and despite the way he looked, he really had a boatload of charisma."
Selected movies during Marlon Brando’s career: The Score (2001) Free Money (1998) The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) Don Juan DeMarco (1995) Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992) The Freshman (1990) A Dry White Season (1989) The Formula (1980) Apocalypse Now (1979) Superman (1978) Last Tango in Paris (1972) The Godfather (1972) The Appaloosa (1966) The Chase (1966) The Ugly American (1963) Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) One-Eyed Jacks (1961) Guys and Dolls (1955) Desiree (1954) On the Waterfront (1954) The Wild One (1953) Julius Caesar (1953) Viva Zapata! (1952) A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) The Men (a.k.a. Battle Stripe) (1950)