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Marlon Brando dead at 80

Marlon Brando, whose portrayals of such characters as Stanley Kowalski and Vito Corleone transformed the art of acting, earning both them and himself a permanent place in 20th-century imagination, died Thursday at a Los Angeles hospital. He was 80.

Mr. Brando's attorney, David J. Seeley, who made the announcement, declined to name the cause or site of death, citing his client's longstanding distaste for publicity.

Mr. Brando twice won an Academy Award for Best Actor, for ``On the Waterfront'' (1954) and ``The Godfather'' (1972). Yet those honors barely indicate the impact and stature of the man Elia Kazan, his favorite director, called ``the only genius that I ever met in the field of acting.''

It was Mr. Brando who, more than any other performer, plumbed emotional depths new to acting and made it into an expression of the actor's inner self. Where acting had previously concentrated on the external, placing chief importance on the recitation of lines and impersonation of manner, he practiced something different: a raid on the inarticulate that sought a higher expressive truth born equally of intellect, emotion, and gesture. (It was as much the way Mr. Brando's Kowalski looked and moved, as how he spoke, that made his performance in ``A Streetcar Named Desire'' such a revelation on Broadway, in 1947, and then on film, in 1951.)

As spectacular as many of his performances were, it was the countless performances enabled by Mr. Brando's example that secured him his preeminent place in the acting pantheon.

He was not the first practitioner of Method acting, the performing style that originated in the theories of the Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky during the early years of the 20th century and were brought to the United States and refined by the Group Theatre in the 1930s. But it was Mr. Brando's combination of phenomenal ability and sheer star power that propeled the Method, with its emphasis on psychological realism, inner motivation, and intense naturalism, to the forefront of American acting.

There can be no objective measure of Mr. Brando's merits as against those of, say, a Laurence Olivier or a John Gielgud. Yet where the accomplishments of Olivier and Gielgud enriched a tradition, Mr. Brando created one. There had been Method actors before him, but they had been relatively few and peripheral. Within a few years of Mr. Brando's emergence, they were the norm. His artistic progeny make up a who's who of American acting of the past half a century: James Dean, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, among many others. As Nicholson once said, ``He gave us our freedom.''

Rivaling the scale of Mr. Brando's impact on acting was his effect on the culture as a whole. Indeed, when Life magazine named the most influential Americans of the 20th century, the sole actor on the list was Mr. Brando. As the critic Camille Paglia wrote, ``Brando brought American nature to American acting, and he brought the American personality to the world.''

That nature and personality were explicitly rebellious. In dress, attitude, even politics, he prefigured the '60s and helped define certain of its key elements. With his jeans and torn t-shirts in ``Streetcar'' and leather jacket and sideburns in his fifth film, ``The Wild One'' (1954), Mr. Brando represented the antithesis of that '50s archetype, ``The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.''

His rejection of propriety (a rejection that extended to behavior as well as dress) would prove immensely influential. Not everyone approved: Norman Mailer, who in some respects can be seen as Mr. Brando's literary counterpart, once called him ``our noblest actor and our national lout.''

The epitome of Mr. Brando's rejection of convention and authority comes in ``The Wild One.'' His character, Johnny, is asked what he's rebelling against. ``Whaddya got?'' he answers. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead remarked that all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. The same might be said of the '60s and Mr. Brando's not-so-rhetorical question.

A civil-rights activist, Mr. Brando participated in the 1963 March on Washington and briefly supported the Black Panthers. His best-known political involvement was with the American Indian Movement during the 1970s. Refusing to accept his Oscar for ``The Godfather,'' he sent in his place a woman in Native American dress to read a statement condemning Hollywood's treatment of Indians.

An important element in the Brando legend was his appearance. When young, Mr. Brando combined a weightlifter's physique with equally striking facial features. The writer Truman Capote described him during rehearsals for ``Streetcar'': ``It was as if a stranger's head had been attached to the brawny body.. . . For this face was so very untough, superimposing, as it did, an almost angelic refinement and gentleness upon hard-jawed good looks: taut skin, a broad, high forehead, wide-apart eyes, an aquiline nose, full lips with a relaxed, sensual expression.''

This seeming incongruity of dynamic build and sensitive face mirrored Mr. Brando's persona, which uniquely mixed vulnerability and force. Stanley Kowalski weeps as well as brawls. Terry Malloy, his character in ``Waterfront,'' is an ex-boxer, but it's his tenderness that wins over Eva Marie Saint. A beneficent family patriarch, Don Corleone blandly visits violence and murder on others in ``The Godfather.''

An even more disconcerting incongruity was what happened to Mr. Brando's appearance as he grew older. He didn't so much age as swell. His weight had always fluctuated, but by the time he appeared in ``Apocalypse Now'' (1979), his bulk had assumed the grotesque proportions it retained for the rest of his life.

His disregard for his appearance paralleled the view Mr. Brando took of his profession. When he conducted a series of informal acting seminars in 2001 - it's a measure of the esteem other actors held him in that attendees included Penn, Nick Nolte, Robin Williams, Jon Voight, and Leonardo DiCaprio - he called the sessions Lying for a Living. ``Acting is just hustling,'' he said in 1978.

As Mr. Brando acted less, he came to be paid more. It's been estimated he earned $8 million for not even an hour's worth of screen time for ``Superman'' (1978), ``Roots: The Next Generation'' (1979), ``Apocalypse Now,'' and ``The Formula'' (1980). ``Acting has always been only a means to an end,'' he wrote in his memoir, ``Songs My Mother Taught Me'' (1994), ``a source of money for which I didn't have to work very hard.''

However paradoxically, Mr. Brando's scorn for his profession served to augment his reputation: Such a squandering of gifts simply underscored their magnitude. ``Even when he mocks himself,'' the critic Pauline Kael wrote in 1966 with what now seems sad prescience, ``the self he mocks is more prodigious than anybody else around.''

Gielgud, who played Cassius to Mr. Brando's Mark Antony in ``Julius Caesar'' (1953), was impressed enough to urge their joining in a season of repertory on the London stage. Mr. Brando declined, saying he no longer wanted to act in the theater. It wasn't as if he needed to test his range. He had preceded Antony with a Mexican revolutionary (``Viva Zapata!,'' 1952) and followed it with the motorcycle-gang leader of ``The Wild One.'' Two years later, he was singing and dancing, quite creditably, as Sky Masterson, in ``Guys and Dolls'' (1955).

The son of Marlon Brando Sr. and Dorothy (Pennebaker) Brando, Mr. Brando was born on April 3, 1924, in Omaha. His father was a salesman, his mother a housewife who performed in amateur theatricals (``I'm the greatest actress not on the American stage,'' she liked to say). The couple also had two older daughters. The unhappiness of the household - both parents were alcoholic, and the father a philanderer - made the siblings very close. It was to join his sisters, then living in New York, that Mr. Brando later decided to move there and try his hand at acting.

''I've often thought I would have been much better off if I had grown up in an orphanage,'' Mr. Brando later said. The family's history of domestic unhappiness continued with his own children. In 1990, Christian Brando, his son by his first marriage, to Anna Kashfi, shot and killed the boyfriend of Cheyenne Brando, Mr. Brando's daughter by his longtime companion, Tahita Teriipia. Christian was sentenced to 10 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter. In 1995, Cheyenne hanged herself.

Mr. Brando's second wife was Mexican actress Movita Castenada. According to a 1995 People magazine article, Mr. Brando was the father of 11 children. Other reports list him as having fathered anywhere from six to nine offspring.

The emotional turbulence of Mr. Brando's upbringing provoked an intense rebelliousness. He once described his formative years as ``largely a series of acts of hostility designed to subvert authority.'' To discipline Mr. Brando, his father sent him to Shattuck Military Academy, in Minnesota. ``I did my best to tear the school apart and not get caught at it,'' Mr. Brando later recalled. He was expelled shortly before graduation, in 1943. More important, he acted in several plays there, winning acclaim for his performances.

It was also at Shattuck that Mr. Brando got his first glimpse of Tahiti, from a copy of National Geographic in the school library. ``I was entranced by the beauty of the beaches and the customs of the Tahitians, but most of all by the expressions on their faces,'' he recalled half a century later. ``They were happy, unmanaged ital faces.'' While filming ``Mutiny on the Bounty'' (1962), he visited a nearby atoll, Tetiaroa, and later purchased it. He then divided his time between there and Los Angeles.

A trick knee earned him a 4-F classification during World War II. Arriving in New York, ``I was just a kid from Nebraska with a red hat and no idea of how the world was run,'' he said in a 1978 interview. He enrolled in acting classes at the New School for Social Research with the famed German stage director Erwin Piscator. Classmates included Shelley Winters, Harry Belafonte, and Rod Steiger, who would play Mr. Brando's brother in ``On the Waterfront.'' (Their scene in the back of a taxi, where Mr. Brando says, ``I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody,'' is among the most celebrated in American film.)

Barely a year later, he had a supporting role in a Broadway hit, ``I Remember Mama.'' Other parts followed_in Maxwell Anderson's ``Truckline Cafe,'' George Bernard Shaw's ``Candida,'' Ben Hecht's ``A Flag Is Born,'' Jean Cocteau's ``The Eagle Has Two Heads''_before the one that mattered most, not just to Mr. Brando's career but to the history of American theater, ``Streetcar.''

When he went to audition for the play's author, Tennessee Williams, Mr. Brando won immediate approval (nor did it hurt that while at Williams' house Mr. Brando unclogged the toilet and fixed the fuses). ``Ride out boy and send it solid,'' the playwright urged in an opening-night telegram. ``You have something that makes the theatre a world of great possibilities.''

Those possibilities also extended to film, of course, as Mr. Brando soon demonstrated. Yet among the more remarkable aspects of so remarkable a career is the peculiar trajectory it took. Two explosions of brilliance effectively define his creative life. The first, lasting from ``Streetcar'' until ``Waterfront,'' saw him earn a quartet of Academy Award nominations - for ``Streetcar,'' ``Zapata,'' ``Julius Caesar,'' and ``Waterfront'' - and enjoy either acclaim, notoriety, or both for his work in `The Men'' (1950), his film debut, and ``The Wild One.'' The second took place in the early '70s, with ``The Godfather'' and ``Last Tango in Paris'' (1973).

Mr. Brando enjoyed several commercial successes after that first blaze of films - ``Desiree'' (1954), ``Guys and Dolls,'' ``The Teahouse of the August Moon'' (1956), ``Sayonara'' (1957), ``The Young Lions'' (1958) - and then came 14 straight box-office failures. It was ``the longest dry spell any major movie star has ever endured,'' notes his biographer Richard Schickel.

The streak ran from ``The Fugitive Kind'' (1959) through ``The Nightcomers'' (1971) and included Mr. Brando's one directorial effort, ``One-Eyed Jacks'' (1961). Nearly all were also critical failures, although his repressed homosexual Army officer in ``Reflections in a Golden Eye'' (1967) remains one of his most daring performances, and Mr. Brando considered his work in ``Burn!'' (1970) ``the best acting I've ever done.''

``The Godfather'' marked a triumphant return: an enormous success both artistically and at the box office. No matter that, in terms of screen time and narrative importance, Pacino is the film's true lead; or that Hollywood has never produced a better ensemble piece. It was Mr. Brando who drew the most attention.

``Last Tango'' added an exclamation point to the news of Mr. Brando's revival. For all the publicity generated by the film's sexual explicitness, what endures is Mr. Brando's performance. Playing an American in Paris who turns to anonymous sex to deaden the grief occasioned by his wife's suicide, he demonstrated an astonishing emotional frankness that very clearly drew on his own life.

The film may not have ``changed the face of an art form,'' as Kael wrote at the time, but it changed the face of Mr. Brando's art. ``When it was finished, I decided that I wasn't ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie,'' he later wrote.

He had always been a gifted mimic and delighted in disguising himself in elaborate costume and make-up, as had the actor he professed to admire most, Paul Muni. Mr. Brando had said that, as Napoleon Bonaparte, in ``Desiree,'' he had ``let the make-up play it.'' After ``Last Tango,'' that became the norm. Indeed, it was almost as if obesity became the ultimate way to mask his identity.

In Mr. Brando's next film, ``The Missouri Breaks'' (1976) he spoke with an Irish brogue and, in one scene, dressed in a Mother Hubbard. If ``Last Tango'' had taken Mr. Brando's Method side as far as it could go, ``Breaks'' marked the beginning of his full-blown embrace of the grotesque.

Yet even as he burlesqued past glories, Mr. Brando remained a compelling figure: inventive, magnetic, wholly unpredictable. In ``The Freshman'' (1990), he even put Don Corleone on ice_literally. Playing a broadly comic version of the Mafia chief, he is seen at one point skating, and the sight of Mr. Brando as a portly padrone daintily aglide is among the most striking in a career full of unforgettable images.

``He didn't love acting,'' said the actress Julie Harris, ``he didn't respect his own talent, but his gift was so great he couldn't defile it.''

According to Seeley, Mr. Brando's attorney, a private funeral will be held.

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Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in the 1951 film, "A Streetcar Named Desire" (right) and at a news conference in 1998. (AP Photos)   Photo Gallery More photos
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