Silver screen legend Brando dies of lung failure at age 80

Published July 5, 2004

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The words are pretty simple:
“Stella!” and “I coulda been a contender
…” or even “The horror … the horror
…”

Janna Hutz
Actor Marlon Brando answers questions during a news conference in Los Angeles. Brando died last Thursday of lung failure at the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center. (AP PHOTO)

But these lines, when spoken by Marlon Brando, revolutionized
the way actors behaved onscreen and ignited a generation of
performers to unleash their inner passion before the cameras.

Brando, who died Thursday at age 80, revolutionized
Hollywood’s image of a leading man playing street-tough,
emotionally raw characters in “A Streetcar Named
Desire” and “On the Waterfront” and then revived
his career a generation later as the definitive Mafia don in
“The Godfather.”

“I was shocked and deepy saddened at the loss of the
greatest acting genius of our time. What will we do without Marlon
in this world?” said his “Godfather” co-star Al
Pacino, one of the generation of stars influenced by his work.

Al Martino, who got shaken around by Brando as the singer Johnny
Fontane in “The Godfather,” said the actor was more
than kind to him, especially since Martino lacked acting
experience. But that didn’t mean he went easy on the
crooner.

“The Method actor in Brando almost brought me to my knees.
He slaps me and I tell you, my teeth shattered,” Martino
said.

Brando was the bridge between the heroic and upstanding screen
purity of earlier stars such as Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Henry
Fonda and a generation of conflicted anti-heroes played by the
likes of Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman.

“He influenced more young actors of my generation than any
actor,” longtime friend and “Godfather” co-star
James Caan said Friday. “Anyone who denies this never
understood what it was all about.”

The reclusive Brando died of lung failure at 6:30 p.m. Thursday
at UCLA Medical Center, according to hospital spokeswoman Roxanne
Moster.

“Marlon would hate the idea of people chiming in to give
their comments about his death. All I’ll say is that it makes
me sad he’s gone,” “The Godfather” director
Francis Ford Coppola said Friday.

Brando’s attorney, David J. Seeley, said funeral
arrangements would be private.

For generations of movie lovers, Brando was unforgettable
— the embodiment of brutish Stanley Kowalski in 1951’s
“A Streetcar Named Desire,” famously bellowing
“STELLA!” at his estranged love with a mix of anguish
and desire.

Then came his mixed-up, washed-up boxer Terry Malloy of
1954’s “On the Waterfront,” who laments throwing
fights for his gangster brother with the line, “I coulda been
a contender … I coulda been somebody.”

The key to Brando’s craft was Method acting, a practice he
learned by studying both with renowned teacher Stella Adler and at
the Actors Studio in New York. The technique eschewed grandiose
theatricality in favor of a deeper psychological approach, often
through near-continuous rehearsal that led many actors to behave
like their characters even when offstage.

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.

Even though the studios had written off the star in the early
1970s, he went on to create the iconic character of Don Vito
Corleone in “The Godfather,” which reinvigorated his
career and earned him his second best-actor Oscar.

His first came years earlier for 1954’s “On the
Waterfront,” and Brando showed up in a tuxedo and graciously
accepted it.

But his stunt at the 1973 Oscar ceremony cemented his status as
one of the movie industry’s most bizarre talents. Brando sent
a woman who identified herself as Sasheen Littlefeather to reject
his “Godfather” 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
good will his performance had earned among studio honchos.

Regardless of his personal peculiarities, nothing could diminish
Brando’s reputation as an actor of startling power and
invention.

Brando’s private life 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, never having
gotten over her depression and the killing.

The native of Omaha, Neb. moved around the country throughout
his youth. He was constantly being reprimanded for misbehavior at
school, and had a talent for playacting, both in elaborate pranks
and in plays and recitations.

He took up the study of acting at 19 and appeared in numerous
stage shows. His first film was director Stanley Kramer’s
“The Men” in 1950. To research the story of paraplegic
war veterans, he spent a month in a veterans hospital.

His impact on screen acting was demonstrated by 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). Besides his win for
“The Godfather,” he also had Oscar nominations for
“Sayonara” (1957), “Last Tango in Paris”
(1973) and “A Dry White Season” (1989).

Although he remained a leading star, Brando’s career waned
in the 1960s with a series of failures. Then came 1972’s
“The Godfather,” which became an overwhelming critical
and commercial success.

Brando’s jowly, raspy-voiced Corleone became a film icon,
down to the subtlest mannerisms: the Mafia chief stroking a cat
sweetly as he plotted violence, the contemplative brush of fingers
against his bulldog jaw.

He maintained a working relationship with Coppola, who chose him
for another memorable role, the insane Col. Kurtz in 1979’s
“Apocalypse Now,” who uttered the line “The
horror … the horror.”

Most of his later films were undistinguished. A hundred pounds
heavier, he hired himself out at huge salaries for such commercial
enterprises as “Superman” and “Christopher
Columbus: The Discovery.”

But the ceaseless spotlight never made him conform.

“I am myself,” he once declared, “and if I
have to hit my head against a brick wall to remain true to myself,
I will do it.”