He was a tough guy with a stunningly beautiful face. He got kicked out of high school for riding a motorcycle through the hallways. He once came to the rescue of a skinny kid being taunted and beaten by schoolyard thugs, helped him up, threw his arm around him and said, “I’m your new best friend.”
Thus began a bizarre, intimate relationship with fellow actor Wally Cox that would last a lifetime. After Cox died in 1973, Brando kept the ashes for safekeeping, because he wanted his own ashes to be commingled with Wally’s when the time came. Sure enough, in 2004, Brando’s family honored his request. The Associated Press reported, “The ashes of Brando’s late friend Wally Cox, who died in 1973, were also poured onto the desert landscape of Death Valley as part of the ceremony of scattering Brando’s ashes.” Brando not only kept his friend’s ashes for more than 30 years, but, when lonely, would sometimes dine with the urn, holding conversations in which he would perfectly imitate Cox’s distinctive voice.
Unlike many bisexuals (like Cary Grant), who denied their homosexual activity all their lives, Marlon Brando brazenly admitted it. In a 1976 interview, Brando said, “Homosexuality is now so much in fashion it no longer makes news. Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences, and I am not ashamed. I have never paid much attention to what people think about me.”
By the age of 23 Brando had achieved stardom as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams's stage play, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). When he reprised this role in the 1951 film version, Brando received an Oscar nomination for best actor. By the time of his death, the American Film Institute had named Brando the fourth greatest male film star, and Time Magazine included him in its list of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century.
He was a generous and tireless advocate for social justice, particularly for the rights of African-Americans and Native Americans. He supported statehood for Israel, and in 1946 he performed in Ben Hecht's Zionist play, A Flag is Born. When Brando read in a newspaper that actress Veronica Lake had fallen on hard times and was working as a cocktail waitress in Manhattan, he had his accountant mail her a check for $1,000; she never cashed it, out of pride, but framed it and hung it on a wall to show to her gay friends.
The world knew of his predilection for “dark-skinned women”, particularly those of Tahitian and American Indian descent. That Brando had a skinny, bespectacled male lover called Wally didn’t fit the image. Yet he once admitted that he had never been happy with a woman, adding: “If Wally had been a woman, I would have married him, and we would have lived happily ever after.” Wally Cox was the only person Brando allowed to berate him – many was the time that Cox would put Brando in his place.
Born 1924, Omaha, Nebraska
Died 2004, Los Angeles, California
Brilliant, stubborn, eccentric actor
A performance on the night of December 3, 1947, made theatrical history. A Streetcar Named Desire opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in NYC, and no one could remember an actor or actress so electrifying an audience. For days people had lined up around the block to buy tickets. Theater doyenne Jean Dalrymple said, “From the moment Brando walked out on stage, all eyes were riveted on him. He was like an animal in heat, with those tight jeans and sweaty T-shirt. His Stanley was violent and crude, totally mesmerizing. I don’t recall having seen such utter rapture in a drama. It was more than a new star being born – we were devastated by the performance, as if a quart of our blood had been drained from us. I knew that I had witnessed Broadway history – in this performance acting, and theater itself, had changed for all time.”
Marlon Brando, at the tender age of 23, gave a performance that caused people to leap to their feet in a 30-minute ovation after the curtain went down. Jessica Tandy (portraying Blanche) was furious, because she knew the applause was not for her. In the audience were Cary Grant, David Selznick, Montgomery Clift, Edward G. Robinson, Geraldine Page, George Cukor and Paul Muni – all gasping for air. Tandy, whom younger readers might know from her Oscar-winning performance in Driving Miss Daisy, somehow coped with Brando's wildly erratic performances, each varying from night to night.
Note: Elia Kazan also directed the 1951 film version. This time Blanche was portrayed by Vivien Leigh, an actress with whom Brando had greater chemistry than Tandy. For younger readers who might know Brando only from his role in The Godfather, this clip will be a revelation. But don’t take my word for it, watch Brando in action:
Marlon Brando & Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire: