Wild One

updated 07/19/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/19/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At the end of his life, Marlon Brando was a broken-down colossus, his body giving out after a life of enormous, abusive appetites. But the acting giant who had so often spoken of his contempt for his craft still had the itch. Intrigued—and no doubt flattered—by a proposal for a movie called Brando and Brando, he summoned writer-director Ridha Behi from Paris to his home on L.A.'s Mulholland Drive in March for a series of meetings to develop the film, about an Arab boy in search of the star. Behi listened as Brando, tended to by his assistants, sipped tea and Perrier and talked about...whatever interested Brando. He reminisced about his life, sometimes welling up with tears. He said he wished he had been a scientist—an astronomer, a geneticist, an ecologist. He proclaimed that "Cinema is [a French word for excrement]—man is what is most important." It was classic Brando—a crazy, winding stream of thought—but to Behi it was also clear that the actor's health was frail. Tiring in the middle of their interviews, Brando would politely tell Behi he needed to lie down. Behi accompanied Brando to his bedroom, where the actor would recline with an oxygen mask over his face. Behi finally asked Brando, who hadn't made a movie in three years, if his health even permitted acting: "He looked at me," says Behi, "and pulled the mask off and said, 'I am ready. You just say 'action.'"

It proved to be too late for the two-time Oscar winner, regarded by many as both the greatest actor of the film era—and as one of Hollywood's saddest examples of talent waylaid and wasted. According to family, he entered UCLA Medical Center on June 30 not feeling well, only to pass away the next day of lung failure at age 80. Several people close to the actor say his death came as a surprise, though one source says he suffered from liver problems. Actor Karl Maiden, his friend since the 1940s, says Brando recently "called me to tell me that he didn't know what was wrong with him, but that he'd fallen five times." Just days before his death, the world press had been distracted with rumors that the actor, despite owning his own Tahitian island, was so broke that he was living in a one-room bungalow and trying to pawn his two Oscars. "Marlon would not allow himself to get into debt," says his friend and former business manager Joanne Corrales. Such rumors are "not even close to the truth."

On the other hand, the actor's world tipped over into an unstable realm, Mondo Brando, years ago. In the last two decades, he recoiled under staggering blows—the manslaughter conviction of his son Christian in 1991; the suicide of daughter Cheyenne in 1995—and let himself balloon into an unsettlingly eccentric, supersized version of the handsome, muscle-bound star who first electrified Hollywood in l951's A Streetcar Named Desire. Fame, Brando concluded regretfully in his 1994 autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, "has been the bane of my life, and I would gladly have given it up...I have been forced to live a false life." Says his sister, actress Jocelyn Brando, 84, the only family member with him at the end: "I'm glad he's free now."

Brando could be said to have freed Hollywood, paving the way for at least two generations of actors and counting. "Marlon opened the door," says Robert Duvall, his costar in The Godfather. "He showed that you could be realistic as an actor, you could be natural, you could be alive. You didn't have to rely on convention. Marlon had a great, healthy sense of irreverence to knock away preconceptions." Without Brando, there would most likely be no Al Pacino, no Robert De Niro, no Jack Nicholson, no Sean Penn or Johnny Depp—the last two Brando's friends and favorite disciples. "The future of American cinema lies in [their] hands," Brando told Behi.

None of these heirs were present at the actor's quick, quiet, humble send-off. Two days after his death, a small knot of family and friends in L.A. gathered at a local mortuary. Brando had at least 11 children with and without his three wives, but the service was attended by only a handful of people, including his former agent Jay Kanter; his third wife, former actress Tarita Teriipaia, 63, and their son Teihotu, 41; and Miko Brando, 43, Brando's son with his second wife, Mexican actress Movita Castaneda, 82. (Jocelyn was not at the service, nor was Christian Brando, 46, who served half of a 10-year prison sentence for the shooting death of half-sister Cheyenne's lover in 1990.) Brando's body, says his sister, was cremated on July 5, and the ashes were to be scattered in the desert—not, as many assumed, in Tetiaroa, the sanctuary of 13 Tahitian islets Brando bought after shooting the 1962 film Mutiny on the Bounty and falling in love with Teriipaia.

What memorial could ever sum up this rebellious Hollywood titan, anyway? "Marlon was so powerful," says Maiden. "He could do what he could do, and nobody else could do it as well." Brando commanded the camera with that handsome face, of course, even with the crooked bridge of his nose (he broke it during his 20s, liked the way it looked, and refused to have it reset). Then there was the technique, which ran so deep you couldn't detect it: Brando fused his own bruised, inarticulate genius—fueled in part by unhappy memories of an alcoholic, often absent mother, Dorothy, and a brutal father, Marlon Brando Sr., a traveling salesman—with the 1940s Method school of acting, which emphasized rawness and spontaneity. Young Brando spoke in a mumble—a weird, curdled voice that would horrify any elocution master in the land—and moved with the natural sensuousness of a panther. It wasn't Method. It was Brando.

Arriving on the New York stage from the Midwest in the 1940s, Brando revolutionized theater acting at age 23, when he played the sexual, dangerous blue-collar devil named Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire—a performance so real, legend has it, that one celebrity in the audience thought a T-shirted stagehand had wandered into the play. Then he revolutionized Hollywood. Just citing a line can evoke an entire performance: "I coulda been a contender"—the dockworker and failed boxer Terry Malloy in 1954's On the Waterfront, for which Brando won his first Oscar; Kowalski, sobbing and bellowing "Stella! Hey—Stellaaaaaaaa!" in the classic 1951 film of Streetcar; The Godfather's Don Corleone, the 1972 comeback role that won him a second Oscar out of ultimately eight nominations, running his mob with seignorial gravitas: "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."

Brando possessed greatness in such abundance, he shared it, exploited it and ultimately let it slip away. In the '60s and '70s, he was one of the most politically courageous of Hollywood celebrities. When he marched with Martin Luther King in Washington, D.C., in 1963, "he waved around a cattle prod he had taken from some local law officer [at an earlier protest in Gadsden, Ala.] to demonstrate the horrors of what was happening in the South," recalls Rep. John Lewis, 64, a Democrat from Georgia. "Other celebrities would show up suddenly at other marches, but Marlon was the first, and they were following his lead." In one of the most controversial moments in Oscar history, he deputized a 26-year-old part-Apache, part-Yaqui named Sacheen Cruz Littlefeather to attend the ceremony and refuse his Best Actor Award for The Godfather in protest of Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans. "I remember the faces in the crowd," says the former actress, now 57 and a holistic health educator in San Francisco. "John Wayne, backstage, had to be restrained by six men from coming to get me and pull me off the stage." Immersing himself in cause after cause, says actor Ossie Davis, "Marlon was impatient with the smallness and the crassness of the world of entertainers into which he was pushed."

Beginning with The Godfather, Brando enjoyed a second artistic peak in the 1970s, heights he would never climb again. In his autobiography, he wrote that director Bernardo Bertolucci urged him to use details from his own personal memories for his wrenching, Oscar-nominated performance as a suicidal architect embarking on a sadomasochistic affair in 1973's Last Tango in Paris. "When it was finished," Brando wrote, "I decided I wasn't ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie."

He turned to earning huge paychecks from tiny amounts of work, looming disproportionately over his films like a Gulliver who might accidentally stomp on lesser talents. (To play Jor-El, the Krypton superfather in 1978's Superman, he got $4 million—and reportedly suggested that, since the character was an alien, his performance could be reduced to a voice projected from a piece of luggage or a green bagel.) Sometimes the magic was there: He parodied his Godfather performance to good reviews in the popular 1990 comedy The Freshman, costarring Matthew Broderick, who found him oddly charming. One day, he says, "Brando was late, and he entered crawling on his hands and knees because he was embarrassed. In a velour sweat suit, as I recall, and sunglasses." Many times, it was not charming: He wore a muumuu and white makeup in the 1996 horror flop Island of Dr. Moreau.

"For some reason, Marlon lost the joy of acting," says Eva Marie Saint, his costar in On the Waterfront. "He was such a sensitive instrument. I used to play the violin, and I liken Marlon to one of those strings that when you're playing just vibrates."

And then snaps. Brando "had an inability to find any kind of peace or happiness," says biographer Peter Manso. He all but collapsed with guilt over the tragedy that swamped his sprawling family (which included three children by his former maid Cristina Ruiz) when Christian shot and killed Cheyenne's boyfriend Dag Drollet, the son of a schoolteacher, during an argument at Brando's L.A. home. (Christian claimed the shooting was an accident.) After Cheyenne hanged herself, "Marlon never got over her death," says a friend. "And Marlon never wanted Christian to have any more guilt than he had. He wanted Christian to be free and to have a good life—to have peace of mind, which Marlon never had. In recent years Christian and his father were doing quite well in terms of communication."

And yet, as recently as just before Easter, Brando didn't have a phone number for his son, who now works as a welder. He called Christian's friend, L.A. TV and radio personality Skippy Lowe, trying to track down his son. "He sounded lonely," Lowe recalls. "He sounded like he was destitute of friends. Just a lost soul."

Except, perhaps, when reminded of just how important his gifts had been to the world: "He was a king," says Ridha Behi, still in awe from their meetings. "I was face to face with a king."

Tom Gliatto. Lyndon Stambler, Frank Swertlow and Champ Clark in Los Angeles, Dietlind Lerner in Paris, Colleen O'Connor in Washington, D.C., and Mark Dagostino in New York City

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