The Never-Told Story of Marlon Brando's Secret A-List Acting School


Marlon Brando on the Michael Jackson "30th Anniversary Celebration, The Solo Years" concert at New York's Madison Square Garden, Friday, Sept. 7, 2001. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty)

By Benjamin Svetkey

Some memories of the event — like the exact address of the warehouse in North Hollywood where it took place — are a little hazy. It was, after all, 13 years ago. But nobody who was part of that extraordinary 10-day acting workshop ever will forget a single detail about Marlon Brando’s entrance.

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About 20 young acting students and a dozen established stars — including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Edward James Olmos, Whoopi Goldberg and Harry Dean Stanton — had gathered to learn at the feet of the greatest thespian of the 20th century. He didn’t disappoint. When the doors flung open, the 78-year-old Brando appeared wearing a blond wig, blue mascara, a black gown with an orange scarf and a bodice stuffed with gigantic falsies. Waving a single rose in one hand, he sashayed through the warehouse, plunked his 300-pound frame onto a thronelike chair on a makeshift stage and began fussily applying lipstick.

“I am furious! Furious!” Brando told the group in a matronly English accent, launching into an improvised monologue that ended, 10 minutes later, with the actor turning around, lifting his gown and mooning the crowd.

And that, it turned out, would be one of the more decorous moments of “Lying for a Living,” the wild 10-day symposium — as much a 1960s- style “happening” as it was an acting course — that Brando organized and led in November 2002, less than two years before his death. The event is little recalled today — and even back then it slipped mostly under the radar — but those daylong classes, where movie stars mingled with midgets, Madonna’s ex-boyfriend nearly caused a riot and an Osama bin Laden look­alike almost gave Jon Voight a coronary, was a never-to-be-repeated moment of Hollywood letting its freak flag fly.

It also featured some of the strangest, and some would say finest, performances of Brando’s later years.

During one of the sessions, a troupe of little people and a team of Samoan wrestlers — Brando somehow had wrangled all of them to the warehouse on the same day — did improvisation exercises together on the stage. Another time, Brando plucked a homeless man from a dumpster and brought him in for acting lessons. He had students strip naked in front of the entire class. (“The girls were shaking, like, ‘What the f— am I doing here?’ ” recalls Olmos. “But Brando had a reason for it. He always had a reason.”) While a jazz musician played Brando’s favorite tunes on a rented piano, Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker who had crossed the Twin Towers, did stunts on a high-wire. Michael Jackson popped in for a class. Robin Williams attended all 10 days, at one point doing a 30-minute improv rou­tine about haggling with a used-car salesman.

And all of it, every minute, was caught on camera. Everything Brando knew about acting, or at least everything he was willing to impart about his craft during those crazy sessions in the fall of 2002 — the one and only acting workshop Brando ever would teach — was captured on digital tape. Tapes that exist today. And tapes that the general public, in all likelihood, never will get to see.

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Back in early 2002, Brando was a mess — obese, unhealthy and in financial trouble. There were rumors that the man who had once revolution­ized stage acting with his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, who had astonished the film world with his Oscar-winning turns in On the Waterfront and The Godfather, was subsisting on Social Security. The situation wasn’t quite that dire — Brando left an estate worth $20 million when he died in 2004 — but cash flow evidently was a problem. Keeping up his $10 million home next door to Jack Nicholson on Mulholland Drive, as well as his private Tahitian atoll, Tetiaroa, was starting to pinch. So Brando began thinking about get-richer-quick schemes.

“He called me to discuss products he could sell on QVC,” recalls his longtime secretary, Alice Marchak. “He was looking to generate money, but the products he came up with weren’t viable. He had an idea for an earthquake-proof house. And a way to air-condition homes that involved drilling. Things that couldn’t be sold on QVC. I told him he could make money if his face or voice was part of a product — I suggested acting classes.”

Brando in 1996's 'The Island of Dr. Moreau,' one of his final film appearances.

Brando had studied with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg. But judging by his public comments about acting (“The principal benefit acting has afforded me is the money to pay for my psychoanalysis,” he famously said), he hardly seemed the type to teach the craft. Still, his secretary’s advice resonated. Brando had set aside $50,000 for a QVC startup fund and decided to use it to produce a series of DVDs about acting, starring himself, that he hoped would rake in millions. He rented a warehouse near Sunset Boulevard, had a wooden stage built, invited his famous friends to participate — an offer few could refuse — and hired a director and a nine-man camera crew to tape every bit of the seminar.

Brando was nominated for an Oscar for playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.

If Brando had a particular vision for the workshop, he kept it to himself. He didn’t type up a syllabus or choose scenes for his students. “The whole class was improv, from beginning to end,” says Olmos. “Nothing was scripted.” Brando’s only rule was that everyone had to participate, even the stars, whom Brando sometimes summoned to the stage alongside him. “When Brando says, 'OK, you teach a class,’ what the hell are you going to do?” says Olmos. “I just talked about how I work and the feelings that I get from acting.”

From day one, however, there were problems. For starters, the director Brando hired to shoot the DVD was his pal Tony Kaye, the British enfant terrible who four years earlier had made a spectacle of his differences with Edward Norton over the making of the neo-Nazi drama American History X. (After brawling with Norton over the final edit, Kaye tried to replace his name under the director’s credit with “Humpty Dumpty.”)

If Brando caused a stir showing up in drag, Kaye’s opening-day outfit was even crazier: Only 13 months after 9/11, he came dressed as bin Laden, complete with turban and tunic. “[President] Bush had said, 'Don’t let [9/11] stop you from being yourself; if [the terrorists] stop you from being yourself, they’ve won,’” Kaye tells THR, explaining his thinking at the time. “So I thought, 'I’ll dress like Osama bin Laden.’ Because doing something that ridiculously stupid — that’s me being myself.” Kaye always has been a grenade-thrower — he once “exhibited” a homeless man in front of the Tate art gallery in London — but the bin Laden costume went too far. Voight particularly was offended and threatened to leave the seminar. Brando made Kaye change clothes.

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The real trouble, though, started two days later, while Kaye and the other cameramen were shooting three young actresses as they improvised onstage. Nobody recalls the substance of the improv, but Kaye found their performances disappointing and couldn’t control his director impulses. “This is boring! Cut! Cut!” he shouted in the middle of their scene. Brando was stunned at Kaye’s impertinence. “This look came over his face, a look I’d never seen before,” recalls Marty Schwartz, who was Kaye’s assistant director on the shoot. “Brando goes: 'I’m the director! I’m the person who yells cut!’” Olmos also was an eyewitness. “It was like a firebomb went off,” he says. “Brando looked at Kaye like he had just killed his firstborn. The whole place was stunned. And the cameras were rolling the whole time!”

Kaye tried to turn the confrontation into a “filmable moment,” circling his camera around on the class and asking them to weigh in on what was transpiring onstage. Because most of the young students either were part of Kaye’s own acting troupe or had been selected through a Kaye-organized casting call, he wasn’t without allies. Kaye invitee Tony Ward — a male model best known for having dated Madonna — rose to the director’s defense, calling the seminar “a circus,” infuriating Brando even further. Brando told Ward to leave, which he did (“I have no career anyway,” he is said to have sputtered as he left). Kaye, in solidarity, walked out with him, and a dozen of his loyal acting students followed. Brando never spoke to Kaye again. “I was stupid,” says the director, who still describes Brando as a father figure. “I should have gone back in and carried on, but I didn’t.” Instead, Kaye and his troupe retreated to his studio and held a mock trial of Brando, charging him with “repression in the theater.”

The incident could have scuttled the rest of the seminar. But Schwartz, the assistant director, stayed on, along with the other cameramen. Olmos made calls and corralled a group of young students from a Sanford Meisner studio to replace Kaye’s dropouts. And the next seven days proceeded more calmly, if no less weirdly. Brando, now wearing a comfortable muumuu, would sit on his throne and call students to the stage, have them improvise for a few minutes, then rip their work to shreds (“Lies! Lies!” he would bellow when he didn’t like what he was seeing). “You’re performing in front of one of the greatest actors who ever lived, who distinguished himself by the acuity of his bullshit detector,” says actor Peter Coyote, who attended one of the later sessions. “If he looked at your performance and sensed bullshit, that’s something you’d want to know. It’s something I’d want to know.”

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Not everyone, though, enjoyed the process. Many of the bigger stars stopped coming after the first week. Leonardo DiCaprio, then 27 and about to star in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, showed up one day, but when he asked if he could run the video release form by his lawyer, Brando kicked him out (DiCaprio declined to comment). Only a handful of die-hards, including Olmos, Penn (who also declined comment) and Williams, stayed to the end.

And yet, for all the wackiness, there was a Method to Brando’s mad­ness. “Was he serious about the class? As serious as a heart attack,” says Olmos. “Brando had never taught an acting class before — this was the only time in his whole life. This was going to be his legacy to the acting community.” According to Olmos, everything Brando did in that warehouse, no matter how seemingly bizarre, served a greater purpose or elucidated a greater truth. Even showing up in drag and mooning his students was an acting lesson. Strip away the mascara and “he was stressing a basic fundamental of acting,” says Olmos. “Which is that you must be willing to show your ass and fail. If you’re not willing to do that, you might as well get the f— out of here.”

During his seminar, Brando crossed the streams of performance and real life in ways that reality TV hadn’t yet dreamed of. Along with the homeless person, he enlisted a real L.A. policeman to do scenes with his students. For Williams’ improv, Brando brought in a real used-car salesman whom he had imported from a Ford dealership in North Hills. The salesman left the improv master speechless.

Director Tony Kaye.

“We didn’t know he was a real car salesman,” says Olmos. “We didn’t know who he was or where he was from. We just thought it was going to be another improv. But Brando brought this guy onstage, and he tells him to try to sell a car to Robin Williams. And then he tells Robin, 'But you don’t want to buy the car.’ And all of a sudden, this car salesman kicks in, and he’s incredible. He was so fast he wouldn’t let Robin get a word in. But that was the point of the exercise. Even Robin Williams, who was an expert at improv, who was so quick he could annihilate you, had to listen and react when dealing with the truth. Even Robin Williams gets slapped in the face by reality. That was the lesson Marlon was teaching.”

Coyote agrees: “There was nothing wacky about what Brando was doing at all. It was just common sense. If you’re going to do an improv about a used-car salesman, you ought to know something about selling cars. That’s Acting 101.”

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DVDs of the seminar didn’t end up on QVC or anywhere else. After it ended, Brando made a few stabs at editing the footage but grew frustrated and got distracted by other projects. He never built an earthquake-proof house, but around that time, he did file for a patent on a new method of manufacturing congas and several other drum-related innovations. As his health deteriorated — he’d been battling diabetes for years — he took long retreats at his friend Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. If his health had rebounded, it’s possible he one day might have returned to the tapes and made the lessons public, as he always intended. But on July 1, 2004, at age 80, he died of respiratory failure at UCLA Medical Center.

In his will, Brando named producer Mike Medavoy, a longtime friend, as executor of his estate. Part of that estate, of course, was Brando’s “Lying for a Living” seminar. Hundreds and hundreds of hours of digital film — in essence, Marlon Brando’s brain preserved on magnetic tape — were placed in Medavoy’s hands. And Medavoy has no plans to ever let them go. “They’re under lock and key,” he says. “Nobody is going to look at them.”

Small pieces of the seminar footage have hiding places elsewhere in Hollywood, but Medavoy is the only one who has the complete set, the full brain scan. Part of the reason he won’t show them to THR or anyone else, he says, is clearances. “Not all of the actors signed the release.” But in truth, there must be more holding him back than the simple matter of getting signatures from a handful of celebrities (even DiCaprio might sign at this point). “What would be the point of releasing the tapes now?” he responds when pressed on the subject. “We’re not going to sell them. We’re not going to rent them. There’s no reason to do it."

Indeed, Medavoy, who takes his role as protector of Brando’s posthumous reputation as a sacred responsibility, would prefer it if people forgot the tapes existed, or even that the seminar ever happened. "It was a later period in Brando’s life,” he says, suggesting the actor would be better remembered for his more youthful body of work. “If Marlon were around today, he’d tell you not to write about the seminar. He’d tell you to write about something more important. He’d tell you to write about war or about the environment …”

Of course, a lot of people think Brando’s acting was important in its own right — including the actors who spent so much time with him in that North Hollywood warehouse back in 2002, baring their souls in those marathon improv sessions. “Those tapes should be public,” says Coyote. “It’s not about selling Marlon Brando. It’s about sharing Marlon Brando’s knowledge of acting with other actors and people who care about acting. That knowledge is what’s priceless about the tapes. They’d be priceless even if Marlon were drunk in them. It’s Brando, after all. We’ll never see anyone like him ever again.”