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The man. The myth. The mountain. Marlon Brando has had so many stories written about him over the years, they can’t all possibly true. But everyone who worked with the mercurial genius throughout his amazing career agrees: Brando could be unpredictable, uncooperative and quite possibly unhinged. As his madcap masterpiece ‘The Island Of Dr Moreau’ turns 20 years old, we reminisce about the best – and worst – Brando behaviour…
The madness of Dr Moreau
By all accounts, making the movie ‘The Island Of Dr Moreau’ was a disaster; according to actor David Thewlis, he arrived on set to be greeted by Brando, who told him “Go home David, this is not a good film to work on. It’s cursed.” Brando, playing the eponymous crazed scientist, went method with his madness: outlandish requests, including his costume – a mumu dress, white makeup with lipstick and an ice bucket for a hat – were all granted, and he angered cast and crew by staying in his air-conditioned trailer while everyone else sweltered in the tropical heat. According to set reports, Brando became obsessed with co-star Nelson de la Rosa, the world’s smallest man, and made replacement director John Frankenheimer take lines from other characters to give to him. Thewlis also recalls that Brando would receive his lines via earpiece, which was prone to picking up police frequencies; at one point, he’s alleged to have recited the line: “There’s been a robbery at Woolworths”.
Brando vs Sinatra
For once, here’s a story about Marlon Brando and overeating where it’s not him doing the scoffing. In 1955, Brando was shooting ‘Guys & Dolls’ with Frank Sinatra, but the two actors’ methods clashed: Brando was all about the ‘method’, finding out new and interesting angles with each new take, while one-take wonder Sinatra refused to rehearse. Both men got on each other’s wick – Sinatra called Brando “Mumbles”, and Brando said of Sinatra: “Frank’s the kind of guy, when he dies, he’s going to go to heaven and give God a bad time for making him bald.” Brando would get his moment to take out his frustration on Frank; during a scene where Sinatra’s character had to eat a cheesecake, Brando kept intentionally fluffing the last line, forcing Sinatra to eat more and more cake. After the ninth aborted take, Sinatra exploded: “These f***ing New York actors! How much cheesecake do you think I can eat?”
Hired to play Superman’s father Jor-El for 1978’s seminal ‘Superman: The Movie’, Brando had some typically ‘out there’ suggestions for his character’s appearance. Richard Donner told how Brando’s agent called him up and said Marlon wanted the character to look like a green suitcase. Later, when Donner and friends went to meet with Brando, he told the director he thought Jor-El should look like a glowing green bagel, who spoke only in electronic sounds. Rather than the ravings of a madman, Donner realised this was Brando’s way of trying to get out making of appearing in the movie. Co-star Terrence Stamp says Brando admitted he hadn’t read the script on his first day on set; when asked why not, he said: “Well… It might be real crap”. Thankfully, he eventually read the script, loved it, and agreed that Jor-El would take human form. And an entire genre was saved from ridicule.
The stars are just like us – they like toilet humour too! Brando was a big fan of the fart gags: he tortured Robert De Niro on ‘The Score’ by continually hiding a remote control whoopee cushion on set. (Brando was introduced to the electronic fart machine by none other than Johnny Depp, who claims his idol yelled “I’ve found God!” when Depp showed one to him). One of Brando’s big business ideas was a phone company called Dial-A-Fart, where members of the public would phone a premium rate number to listen to fart sounds. They would then have to guess which celebrity provided the guff. Honestly, it’s not the worst idea we’ve ever heard. When Depp asked him why he enjoyed fart gags so much, Brando replied: “Because they are blatantly anti-social.”
Wacko with Jacko
Brando enjoyed a bizarre friendship with Michael Jackson, after being hired by the pop star to give him acting lessons. The actor was in attendance at one of Jackson’s concerts on September 11th 2001 along with fellow guest of honour, Elizabeth Taylor. When the Twin Towers were struck, Jacko insisted that the stars flee New York for California as they could potentially be considered terrorist targets. Unbelievably, the only way they were able to do this was to take a car out of the city, which they drove themselves, without any PRs or publicists, managing to get as far as Ohio. Allegedly, Taylor and Jackson were annoyed at Brando’s constant requests to stop at every KFC and fast food joint they passed along the way. The wacko road trip is now being made into a movie, starring Brian Cox as Brando, Stockard Channing as Taylor and, um, Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson.
Below the belt
By 2001, Brando was almost completely uninterested in acting and only accepted jobs to fund his extravagant lifestyle. Heist thriller ‘The Score’ was his last completed film, but director Frank Oz can attest that Brando had completely checked out by that point and refused to take direction; Oz claims that he had to relay instructions to Brando through co-star Robert De Niro via a headset. Brando would mock Oz by calling him “Fozzie” and “Miss Piggy” (Oz was the voice of both Muppets) and, in his own inimitable style, would improv scenes far away from their intended course – he even refused to smile for his character’s last scene, forcing Oz to tweak his smile with CG in post-production. One infamous rumour claims that on one occasion Brando arrived on set naked from the waist down because all of his shots were above the belt, but friends of the actor claim this was exaggerated after Brando simply removed his robe on a hot day. You be the judge.
Mutiny on ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’
Marlon liked nothing better than goofing off on set, but according to biographers, his bad behaviour on this 1962 ocean adventure descended into hitherto unexplored territory. His ego operating at maximum level, Brando would frequently use the film’s cast and crew for his own devices – at one point, he ordered the film’s crew to down tools and pool their efforts into designing a friend’s wedding in Tahiti. There are several stories of Brando filling planes with champagne, hams and baked goods to fly to Tahiti for parties. The actor’s over-eating had also begun in earnest: Brando allegedly split his trousers 52 times during the course of filming, causing the film’s costume department to accommodate for his ever-expanding girth. Brando’s showboating didn’t hurt the film – it was nominated for seven Oscars – but he did recognise the ill will he generated and later wrote a letter to co-star Trevor Howard to apologise for his behaviour. Still, it was on this film that Brando fell in love with a Tahitian island paradise named Tetiaroa – he’d later go back and buy it.
Arse of darkness
When Francis Ford Coppola fired Marlon Brando to play Colonel Kurtz in ‘Apocalypse Now’, he had no idea that the actor would end up becoming the villain in his own personal war movie. Brando turned up on set weighing approximately 300 pounds and hadn’t read ‘Heart Of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad, thus had no clue who his character was – he insisted on lengthy conferences with Coppola and crew to discuss Kurtz and his ideologies. The director and star were constantly at odds with one another; Coppola had to shoot Kurtz’s scenes in near darkness due to his ballooning waistline (a look which hardly says ‘jungle recluse’), while Brando would improvise his lines to the anger of all and sundry. The end result was movie magic, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. “My film is not about Vietnam,” quipped Coppola. “It is Vietnam.”
A meal he can’t refuse
There are many stories surrounding Marlon Brando’s eating habits – like how his wife used to chain up their fridge and how he used to have friends throw bags of burgers over his house’s fence when he was supposed to be dieting – but none as strange as this one. During filming on western ‘The Missouri Breaks’ in 1976, a point at which Brando had long given up on his ‘leading man’ physique, the increasingly rotund actor is said to have reached into a pond, grasped a frog, took a bite out of it and then threw it back in the water. Could it possibly be true? Could Brando really not wait until craft services could cook him up another cheeseburger? Either way, it’s one hell of a story – but not half as good a story as the one the frog tells.
It is impossible to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Marlon Brando – but the man himself was never interested in clearing up the stories. Biographer Patricia Bosworth tried desperately to get hold of him to comment on her book celebrating his life’s work, but found herself stonewalled in the most unusual manner. One of Brando’s friends told her to send a fax to his house but to address it to ‘Doctor Tim’, which was the name of his favourite mastiff dog. Having been told this was the only way to get an audience with Marlon, Bosworth duly sent the fax, and half an hour later received a reply, effectively saying that Brando wasn’t interested. It was signed ‘Doctor Tim’.