Born on 3 April 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska, Brando first attempted to pursue a military career when he enrolled in Shattuck Military Academy in Minnesota but was soon expelled.
His calling would be live stage performance, where his acting skills would bedazzle a number of Hollywood directors clamouring for raw energy and passion to replace the now-mundane Tinsletown hero of the Western or detective flicks.
In 1943, he moved to New York to study under the legendary star-makers Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler; it would be there that Brando would adopt – indeed, perfect – the acting paradigm known as the Stanislavsky Method where inner and outer awareness was stressed, thereby allowing the actor to render the text and, more importantly, the subtext alive with emotion.
In 1947, Brando was cast as the troubled husband Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, his third play on Broadway. By the time the curtain had come down on opening night, Brando had already become a star.
The 23-year-old would capture the imagination of controversial director Elia Kazan who would eventually help Brando reprise Kowalski in a screen version of the play.
Of angst and rebellion
Hollywood had never seen – nor imagined – something as impulsive, as wonderfully brutish and gifted as Brando. He was on a quest and directors, in their attempts to captivate his sheer creative implosion, never really quite understood the man. Perhaps, in retrospect, Brando never really understood what he was searching for.
Brando (L) and James Garner in
His angst, his inner turmoil both on and off the screen, and his later distaste for Hollywood could perhaps best be compared in modern times to the troubled, yet inspired figure of Kurt Cobain of 1990’s Nirvana.
In love with acting and yet dismissive of the very vehicle that churned the Hollywood movie-making machine, Brando and Cobain were both engines for popularity and, unfortunately, victims of its excesses.
In 1954, Brando won a much-deserved Academy Award for his brilliant and intoxicating role as Terry Malloy, the rebel fighting the system in On the Waterfront. Film historians would later argue that Brando was actually fighting the system that Hollywood inflicted on creative powers.
After a series of less than financially impressive films in the 1960s, Brando’s resentment towards the Hollywood system only grew.
Godfather and Superman
But his rebirth would come thanks to Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic Godfather in 1972, with Brando cast as the title character. Another Oscar came swiftly.
But in typical Brando fashion, he declined to attend the awards ceremony and rejected the Oscar in protest of how Hollywood used and portrayed the Native American.
Never the less, the film and Brando’s performance are considered among the greatest moments of cinema history of the 20th century.
Despite a 10-minute performance in 1978’s Superman, for which he earned a record $3.75 million, Brando’s career slumped and his surprising obesity and family problems became tabloid fodder.
His son was imprisoned for 10 years for killing his sister’s lover – she later hanged herself. Numerous paternity suits also haunted the reclusive actor.
Steeped in controversy
In the mid-90s, Brando stirred unparalleled controversy when he accused Jews of controlling the media and particularly Hollywood.
“Hollywood is run by Jews; it is owned by Jews, and they should have a greater sensitivity about the issue of – of people who are suffering,” he said.
“Because they’ve exploited – we have seen the – we have seen the Nigger and Greaseball, we’ve seen the Chink, we’ve seen the slit-eyed dangerous Jap, we have seen the wily Filipino, we’ve seen everything but we never saw the Kike.
Brando had a run-in with the press
“Because they knew perfectly well, that that is where you draw the wagons around,” Brando told Larry King on CNN’s Larry King Live, which aired on 5 April 1996.
The press labelled Brando an anti-Semite and he was forced to apologise a few days later. In response to his Larry King interview, the American Moment Magazine – an admittedly Jewish magazine – led its August 1996 issue with the cover story Jews Run Hollywood – So What?
Brando’s association with Hollywood was never quite the same and his roles became fewer and far between.
His last major picture was 2001’s The Score with Robert de Niro and Edward Norton. His performance in the film received mixed reviews.
As Hollywood grieves for one of its last great American icons, Brando is perhaps best eulogised by one of his lines: “You know what luck is? Luck is believing you’re lucky, that’s all. To hold a front position in this rat-race, you’ve got to believe you are lucky“.