Lion in Winter

updated 05/10/1999 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/10/1999 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Casual in a jogging suit and untied sneakers a few weeks ago, Marlon Brando polished off an omelette in Mort's Palisades Deli in Pacific Palisades, Calif. As he, his sister Jocelyn, 79, a former actress, and another couple lingered over coffee, deli owner Mort Farberow, 63, approached. He told the actor "that I grew up with him, and that I was excited to see him," says Farberow. "He laughed and then pointed across the room to a girl at another table and said, 'Go over and ask that young lady if she knows who I am.' "

Could there be anyone of any age who doesn't know Marlon Brando, who turned 75 on April 3? He is, like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, an American icon. His peerless screen lineage includes such classic roles as On the Waterfront's Terry Malloy ("I coulda been a contenda"), A Streetcar Named Desire's Stanley Kowalski ("Stellaaaa!") and Godfather of the unrefusable offer Vito Corleone.

With his smoldering sexuality, mumbling rebelliousness and T-shirted angst, Brando redefined the very idea of a male movie star. Without him could there have been a Pacino or De Niro, a DiCaprio or even a Johnny Depp? "He had what you might call the perfect combination," says Rod Steiger, Brando's costar in 1954's Waterfront. "He had this wonderful talent, he had sexual appeal—and you don't become a big star without sexual appeal—and he refused to compromise. He became the leader of a kind of truth and realism in acting that would never have happened without him."

Now, with his greatest roles seemingly behind him and family tragedies—a killing and a suicide—never far from his mind, Brando remains by turns serious and scatological, charming and insufferable. Carrying considerably less on his 5'10" frame than the 350 pounds of a few years ago, he appears remarkably hale. "He looks at least 10 years younger than 75," says producer Stanley M. Brooks. "He's full of life and extremely funny."

Which is no mean feat following the bloody events that nearly crushed him earlier this decade. In 1990 his oldest son, Christian, then 32, shot and killed Dag Drollett—half sister Cheyenne Brando's lover—at Brando's L.A. home. Following a high-profile investigation, Christian was sentenced to 10 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter and gun charges. (Released on parole in 1996, he has been living quietly in Kalama, Wash.) Recalls Tom Papke, a former Brando employee who worked on the actor's home electronics projects: "I just felt so bad for 'Pops'—that's what we called Marlon. They were all nice people. A little eccentric perhaps but not weird or unusual."

Then, in 1995, 25-year-old Cheyenne, who had a history of drug use and mental problems, hanged herself in her mother's house in Tahiti, Brando's second home for many years. The distraught actor cut off relationships with many close friends after the tragedy, including onetime lover Pat Quinn, 61, an L.A. screenwriter and former actress. "He lost his daughter, whom he loved dearly," says Quinn. "He didn't know how to be with her. He didn't seem to have the gift." As for Christian's trouble, she says, it "just doomed them both."

Christian, now 40, is Brando's son with first wife, actress Anna Kashfi, 64, whom he divorced in 1959 after two stormy years of marriage and with whom he waged a 14-year seesaw custody battle. His second marriage, to Mexican actress Movita Castenada, now 78, in 1960, lasted eight years and produced Miko, 38, a bodyguard who once worked for Michael Jackson, and Rebecca, 32. In 1960, Brando fell for Tahitian actress Tarita Teriipaia, now in her mid-50s, whom he met on the set of 1962's Mutiny on the Bounty. In addition to Cheyenne, the union produced Teihotu, 35, a Tahitian hotel worker. Then there is the family that Brando has with his former housekeeper Christina Ruiz. They reportedly have two children, who live with their mother just down the hill from the actor's Mulholland Drive home. The children often visit their father.

Brando's tangled relationships with women can be traced to his youth in Omaha, where Marlon (known as Bud) was born April 3, 1924. In his disarming and quirky 1994 memoir, Songs My Mother Taught Me, Brando rhapsodizes about Ermi, his childhood governess with whom he slept naked in a moonlit bed. Brando's mother, amateur actress Dorothy (she died in 1954), was a binge drinker who would vanish for days at a time. "She preferred getting drunk instead of caring for us," Brando wrote. His sisters Jocelyn and Frances, who died earlier in this decade, would search neighborhood bars for her. Brando's father, Marlon Sr., an agricultural products salesman who died in 1965, was hardly more sympathetic. "His blood consisted of compounds of alcohol, testosterone, adrenaline and anger," Brando wrote. "He enjoyed telling me I couldn't do anything right." Brando's childhood, he added, left him wanting "several women in my life at once, as an emotional insurance policy."

He could have opened an agency. After being dismissed from military school at age 19 in 1943 for bad grades and insubordination, Brando headed to acting classes in New York City. At the Actors Studio he absorbed the Method—the technique of calling on one's own emotions to inhabit a character. Offstage, Brando took lovers in droves in New York and later in Hollywood. "My God, he was beautiful," recalls Pat Quinn. "Even when we started our relationship—he was 41 and I was 28—he was still quite a specimen. He had that Greek-god countenance."

His phenomenal 1947 Broadway success as a brawling lowlife in Streetcar had given him license to play. "Marlon's a great put-on artist," says Quinn. "That's his MO. He gives you back what he sees, or what he thinks you need, or what he figures you are looking for."

In his some three dozen films, Brando usually knew what audiences were looking for. In the '50s he strung together explosive performances in the film version of Streetcar (1951), The Wild One (1953) and Waterfront (1954), for which he won his first Oscar. Later he redefined himself, with varying degrees of success, as a singing gambler in Guys and Dolls (1955) and as a comedic Japanese interpreter in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956). The '60s were uneven, marked by 1961's One-Eyed Jacks, the stark western Brando directed himself, and such art-house ruminations on sexual betrayal as 1967's Reflections in a Golden Eye.

He has often disparaged his craft, once comparing acting to "walking around with scrambled egg on your face." Even colleagues feel his psyche may be a bit scrambled as well. Says Yves Simoneau, who directed Brando in the 1998 independent black comedy Free Money, which premiered last March on the Starz! cable network: "What's funny about this guy is that he's a club of one. He said to me, 'I didn't ask to be put on this pedestal when I was 22.' It put him in a very different place. He's not on the same planet in a sense."

Wherever he resides, Brando's second act was a doozy. He won kudos as a hedonistic widower in 1972's erotic Last Tango in Paris, a rogue Vietnam War commander in Apocalypse Now (1979) and as The Godfather, which earned him his second Oscar, in 1973. At the ceremony, the fringe-and-deerskin-clad Sacheen Littlefeather arrived in his place to protest the treatment of Native Americans in film and on TV.

Another Brando cause was the preservation of marine life, which he advanced in 1966 by buying Teti' aroa, an atoll of tiny islands near Tahiti, with which he had fallen in love two years before while making Mutiny on the Bounty. He later built a rustic hotel there, which is run by Teriipaia. Brando reportedly has not been to the South Pacific since before his daughter's suicide.

He has lately put more time—and passion—into political issues, such as helping to clear the name of former Black Panther leader Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt. With Sean Penn, a Brando favorite, the actor is set to produce a film of Pratt's life story. Some of Brando's views have gotten him into hot water. Appearing on his friend Larry King's CNN talk show in 1996, Brando delivered what sounded to some viewers like an anti-Semitic rant, during which he said, "Hollywood is run by Jews, it is owned by Jews, and they should have a greater sensitivity about the issue of people who are suffering because they've been exploited." Brando later apologized to the L.A. Jewish community, and King, who is Jewish, defended him. "The remark was taken completely out of context," says King, to whom Brando gave an acre in Tahiti as a wedding present. "He's very Jewish, Marlon Brando."

But detractors persist. "Basically he stays in bed or walks around in a muumuu," says author Peter Manso, who penned the 1994 tome Brando: the Biography. "You have to stop thinking of this man as a normal person." He's normal enough to surf the Internet. "He loves being online," says Don Juan DeMarco (1995) director Jeremy Leven. "He has his own setup that he brought to the set."

And Brando, who commands up to $1 million per week for acting, still brings his considerable talents to sets. He charmed as a psychiatrist in Don Juan, mumbled through 1996's The Island of Dr. Moreau and portrayed a psychotic warden in Free Money. He has also done voice-over work for United Airlines overseas, and his raspy tones can be heard in a Pepsi Cola commercial that made its debut during the Oscar telecast.

And, with typical Brando insouciance, he seems to have anointed a successor: Johnny Depp, with whom he costarred in Don Juan. "He worked very closely with Johnny, and it was clear he was passing on the torch," says director Leven. "They both have a skepticism about a lot of stuff and a certain aggressiveness toward the world, and woe betide anybody who tries to shortchange them."

Perhaps the character Brando played in The Wild One summed it all up four decades ago. "What are you rebelling against?" somebody asked him.

"Whaddaya got?"

J.D. Reed
Champ Clark and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles

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