Marlon Brando Remembered
By Harold Stephens. Originally published in the Bangkok Post.
My big break. Random House would publish my book, and offered a hefty advance. I took the train from Washington, D.C. to New York. "I'll need time to go over the manuscript," I said. "You know--name changes, cut some of the stuff about Brando."
There was silence. Finally the editor spoke up. He wanted the manuscript exactly as it was, with no changes.
That was not possible. What I had written was confidential, not intended for publication. When I received the offer from Random House, I was writing travel articles for the Washington Post, after having returned from several years in the islands. Through the years I had kept a detailed journal, with information on people I met, and our conversations. It was raw and honest. I considered the journal as a kind of training exercise. I wrote in it each day, about all the people I had met, and Marlon Brando was one. The Travel Editor of the Washington Post had read my journal, and without asking sent it to New York.
Now forty years later, Marlon Brando is dead. And again he's in the news--one of the greatest actors of our times, rebellious prodigy, an actor who forever transformed the art of screen acting, an erratic career, noted for his eccentricities, plagued with recurring tragedies, never fully realizing his early genius, now dead at 80.
Random House never published my book. If they had, would it have made any difference?
The first time I met Brando was in 1961. I had gone to Tahiti to find seclusion to write the Great American Novel. It was, of course, a bad choice. I had rented a house on Matavia Bay, where the original HMS Bounty dropped anchor 200 years before, and where MGM decided to re-shoot their 1935 version of "Mutiny on the Bounty." Brando was to play Fletcher Christian, the mutineer, and Trevor Howard, Captain Bligh.
I was at home one evening and had fallen asleep reading, when I heard someone approaching. It was a yachting friend, with another person. They had been drinking. I wasn't too hospitable and my friend sensed it. "I guess we better get going," he said after a few minutes. "Brando here has got a heavy schedule tomorrow."
Another joke! Ever since we heard MGM was coming, people went around making jokes about Hollywood and Brando. I didn't want to be rude, and as they were leaving, I sat up and turned up my oil lamp. It was no joke. Marlon Brando was standing there. With the light a bit brighter, he noticed my books on a shelf and picked up a Dylan Thomas. He scanned it and put it back.
A few days later I was in my hammock on the lawn when Brando came up the beach. He lived a short distance away, he said. He wanted to look at my books again. We went into the house where it was cool and sat in the front room. So this is Marlon Brando, I thought. Affable, friendly, and talkative. In fact, he did all he talking. He had some sarcastic words about his Mexican wife. It seems they were just going through a divorce. After half an hour he left, taking the copy of Dylan Thomas with him. Before he was out of sight I was making an entry into my journal. I was fascinated with Marlon Brando, and I thought I had made a friend.
Brando at that time had ten years of success. His role as Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1951 made him an overnight success. In 1955, he became involved with a pretty Anglo-Indian, Anna Kashfi. She became pregnant and they married. But, according to Brando, they argued ceaselessly. They had a son they named Christian.
Brando's affairs with other actresses caused Kashfi to sue for divorce. The custody battle over Christian was brutal and long. After the divorce Brando went to Mexico and met and married Movita, with whom he had a son Miko and a daughter Rebecca.
And now he was in Tahiti to remake what everyone hoped would become another classic. I was there to escape for a few years and write that novel. We both failed.
With Bounty anchored off shore, my seclusion had ended. I wasn't about to give in to Hollywood and refused to take down my hammock. But being broke, and without even postage for my stories to editors, I give in to money. MGM hired me. I had nothing to do except keep away from my house during the day. Out of boredom I went aboard the Bounty and became a bit actor. I was now to see Brando at his best, and his worst.
MGM had made a mistake. Shooting outdoors in the tropics was unfortunate. Clouds, the colour of the sea, all had to be the same as it was the day before before they could shoot. Oftentimes we waited days for conditions to be right, and then Brando would come zooming out to the Bounty in a speedboat. The filming took 18 months.
When the filming began, extras had to stand aloft in the rigging. Naturally I was most anxious to see Brando in action. I had been doing homework on him and remembered reading an interview he gave. He stated he hated acting and he hated the movies. "They are just rehearsals," he said. "You haven't the slightest idea of what you are doing. You just walk in and do the scene, based on what you thought up in the bathtub. The only reason I'm in Hollywood is that I don't have the moral courage to refuse the money."
At first when I saw him slouching around the deck, mumbling his lines, I was disappointed. But when the cameras began rolling I found myself mesmerized by his action. In fact, I actually felt I was living in another era, that what I was witnessing was not a movie but reality. Brando could do that to you.
Unfortunately the Brando we saw both on the set and off camera was not a very likeable person. The film had been in production nearly a year, and it was still months from completion, when Brando stirred up his own mutiny. He decided he'd rather play Captain Bligh than Fletcher Christian. He was obstinate to say the least. Nor did he seem to care. He was more interested in imbibing in the charms of Tahiti and the island women than in acting. He had also ballooned from 170 to 210 pounds, making certain scenes difficult to shoot. He got along with no one, nor did he show respect for anyone. Brando's co-stars concurred. "The man is unprofessional and absolutely ridiculous," Trevor Howard said. Nor did Richard Harris (who played one of the mutineers) have kind words for him.
I recall one incident that portrays Brando's erratic character. I watched a young man come aboard at the dockside one evening after a day's shooting and give Brando a letter of introduction, perhaps from an old friend, and when the young man walked away, Brando made like he was blowing his nose into the letter, and then tossed it over board. In his love scenes, his leading lady complained bitterly that he ate raw onions and garlic to annoy her.
I had other dealings with Brando's changeable character. Not long after he came to my house I saw him in Papeete. The National Day Fete had begun and all along the waterfront eating and gambling stalls went up; some had small groups of musicians. In one Brando was playing the bongos. I waved to him. He looked at me, sneered and turned away. He must not have recognised me. Some days later I was at Lafayette's, an out-of-town club where everyone went when Quinn's Bar closed. I often stopped there for that last Hinano beer on my way home. One night it was jam-packed and I had a small table to myself. Brando came in, saw me at the table and said, "Mind if I sit down?" Maybe he still didn't recognize me, I thought, until he asked if I still lived in the house down the beach. That was Brando; he could turn off and on as he pleased.
Leonie was one of the leading ladies on the set. She was lovely, long hair that fell to the back of her knees, a great figure and a beguiling smile. She turned Brando on. All would have gone well except Brando couldn't stop playing the field. At Lafayette's he could be seen leaving the place at closing time with any one of the girls he picked up.
Brando and Leonie were having an affair that ended abruptly. All we knew was that Brando was reported by the press to have a liver infection and flew back to America for treatment. A doctor went to see Leonie and the next thing we knew she was furious. She went for treatment, learned she was pregnant, and right after that walked out on MGM.
In the mean time, Leonie had found a new boyfriend, Nick, an Australian surfer. I had met Nick and often on Sundays he and his surfer buddies came to my house at Pont Venus for afternoon parties. But Leonie's quitting the movie didn't set well with MGM. MGM had filmed many scenes with her, but without her they would have to do some re-shooting, another costly and time-consuming expense. She didn't care. It reached a crisis one afternoon at Nick's house. Leonie had moved in with Nick.
I was on my way into town and stopped to pay them a visit. Nick, Leonie and a couple other Aussie surfers were sitting on the verandah. I had just sat down when Brando came up the drive in a small French Deau Chevaux. He stepped out of the car carrying a briefcase. He called Leonie to come talk to him. She did. The Aussies were not pleased. From the distance it looked like Brando was pleading with her, at which point he opened the briefcase. It was filled with French francs. Leonie smiled. She was bought, we all thought. Then in the next instant she took the briefcase and turned it upside down. The money fell to the ground, was picked up by the wind and scattered over the drive. Neighbor kids began running after the money, screaming and shouting with joy. Nick and his Aussie pals began their harangue and Brando took off in his tiny French car as fast as he could go.
Leonie had her baby, a daughter, and moved to Australia with Nick. Over the next half a dozen years Leonie had three more children with Nick. They seemed very happy, but then Nick unexpectedly died. She returned to Tahiti with her four children. Years later I returned to Tahiti aboard my own schooner and there on the waterfront waiting for a cruise ship to come in was Leonie. She was stringing frangipani flowers into leis to sell to tourists. She invited me home to meet the kids that night. At a lull in the dinner the oldest girl got me aside, and asked, "Uncle, Stephan, is Marlon Brando my father?" I couldn't answer her, except to tell her to ask her mother. Nor could I have let Random House print my book at the time. That was many years ago, and since then Leonie has passed away. In 1995 People Magazine claimed that Brando had at least 11 children, five by his three wives, three by his Guatemalan housekeeper, and three from other affairs. Other reports hinted at other children from other affairs. Brando refused to talk about it. I often asked Leonie about Brando, and she never had a bad word to say about him
After "Mutiny" Brando had a series of failures on scene and his career was rapidly going down hill, and his private life faired no better. When they found Kashfi almost dead in her house from a drug overdose, and 6-year old Christian crying, hungry and terrified in his room, Brando got temporary legal custody of his son, however, the battle continued.
Then came "The Godfather" in 1972 and fame returned. But Brando showed no gratitude to the industry nor the public. He shunned the 1973 Academy Awards, and infuriated the movie industry, by sending an Native America on his behalf to decline the award as best actor. Brando is a hard person to like. How can we like anyone who treats his fans with contempt?
While filming "Last Tango in Paris," Kashfi kidnapped Christian and took him to live in a hippie commune in Mexico; at the same time, Movita, whom he had recently divorced, charged him with failing to pay child support for Miko and Rebecca.
Brando loved Tahiti, so much so that he bought an island some 35 miles to the north. It became his private domain. He took up living on the island with his leading lady from "Mutiny," Tarita Teripaia. Tarita gave birth to a son, Teihotu, and a daughter, Cheyenne.
But Islands, even if you make a couple million dollars from a movie, don't come cheap to maintain. Brando needed money to support his island. I was witness to his doing one of his finest acting roles he had ever preformed, but there would be no Academy Award. It was off camera.
By chance I was visiting friends in Washington, D.C., an advisor for the Fish and Wildlife Department. When he heard my voice, he said, "You are just in time. Come over." I did and there at the house was Marlon Brando. I soon learned that Brando was seeking support for creating a bird sanctuary on his island. "Can't think of a better cause," my friend said. Brando got his reward, through some very clever acting.
I retuned to Tahiti a number of times, aboard my schooner, and on occasion would see Brando, either going to or coming from his island. He had become grossly overweight and was very elusive. One season I kept my schooner anchored at Moorea, across from Tahiti, while I was in Asia. I returned to find a couple kids aboard who had swum out from shore. One was a pretty little girl, part Tahitian, about eight or nine. "You speak English very well," I said to her.
"My father's American," she replied. I asked if her father lived on the island. "Sometimes," she said. By her tone I gathered she was the product of one of those island romances, romances that have gone on since the first whaling ships arrived. The girl watched as I checked the guest book.
"I signed the book too," she said and pointed to her name. "There, Cheyenne Brando. My father is Marlon Brando."
I couldn't forget that little girl. I was around to watch her grow into womanhood; she was considered by some to be the most beautiful woman in Tahiti, and the richest. For certain, she was no longer the little girl who swam out to the schooner.
But Cheyenne Brando was destined for trouble. She began running around with Dag Drollet, the scion of a prominent Tahitian family. At 20 she became pregnant with Dag's child. She fought terribly with him, and in May 1990, when she was eight months pregnant, she went to live with her father in California. Also living there was her half brother, Christian.
Dag flew up from Tahiti to visit her, unannounced. Cheyenne told Christian she was worried. Dag had beaten her before and might do it again. Christian confronted him with a .45-cal. handgun in his hand. In the ensuing struggle, Dag Drollet was killed.
A sensational murder trail followed. Brando spared no costs and hired the best lawyers money could buy. Robert Shapiro, a name associated with the O.J. Simson trial, was among them. He managed to get Christian's sentence reduced to ten years for manslaughter, with time off for good behavior.
Then came more tragic news. One Easter Sunday morning not long ago, the world learned that a deeply troubled, 25-year old Cheyenne had hanged herself at Brando's other estate in Tahiti. News reports stated she had tired to commit suicide three times before. She had lost a court decision to her mother denying her custody of her four-year old son Tuki.
Marlon Brando claimed to detest all publicity, and he shunned the media; he refused to be interviewed. "Interviews are a lot of crap. I never know what to say. I'm not clever. It's all so artificial," he said in one interview. He shunned publicity in one breath, and in another he reveled in it. He sent shockwaves across America when he went public a dozen years ago after seeing the videotaped beatings of two Mexican immigrants by California police. Immediately Mexican-Americans took to the streets demanding justice. President Clinton issued a statement of deep regret, the Mexican government sent a diplomatic note to the State Department expressing outrage--and Marlon Brando went on Cable New Network's "Larry King Live" denouncing the act as an atrocity. How timely!
I was glued to the TV when Brando did the interview with Larry King. When he appeared on the screen, I thought I might be watching a man who had changed, a man whose years had mellowed him. I was pleased when King tried to draw him out about his personal life, and Brando retorted, "Jesus Christ, Larry, not that." But King led him into his trap. Brando began putting the blame on Hollywood.
Brando had made a statement that the movie business was a Jewish-run movie establishment that has exploited other racial and ethnic stereotypes. The American Jewish Congress branded Brando "blatantly anti-Semitic." But the movie business was paying his meal tickets and publicly he recanted.
Brando admitted he doesn't like people, and that any time he put faith in love and friendship he came through with deep wounds. He lost his dreams a long time ago. Still, he was a master at deceiving people into believing what he wanted them to believe. But, unfortunately, all life is not a stage. Nevertheless, Marlon Brando left his mark. I always hoped I could meet and talk with him again one day, but that chance is gone