Remembering Marlon Brando, by Jack Nicholson

With his talent, charisma and sexuality, Brando burned through Hollywood like no actor before or since. His neighbor reflects

Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire
John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'
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Marlon Brando is one of the great men of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and we lesser mortals are obligated to cut through the shit and proclaim it. This man has been my idol all of my professional life, and I don't think I'm alone in that. The impact of movies is enormous, and his impact in the movies was bigger than anybody else's – ever. Mr. Brando will be there forever – that's all there is to it. He might not like that, but he'll be there forever anyway.

I am part of the first generation that idolized Marlon Brando, but far from the last. I was in high school back in the Fifties when he came into the game, and I watched him change the rules. When I was growing up in New Jersey, one of my summer jobs was working as an assistant manager of a local movie theater. I must have seen every performance of On the Waterfront – twice a night. You just couldn't take your eyes off the guy. He was spellbinding.

With acting, it's ultimately all about who you are. Yes, Marlon had a complete craft, but you don't know about craft or Method when you're a kid sitting in the movie theater watching with your mouth wide open. You just know when you've seen something special, and nobody was ever more special than Brando. He had this extraordinary physical beauty and a power that was hard to define but completely undeniable. Perhaps he would tell you he saw the same thing in Paul Muni, but the truth is, Brando was always different. The movie audience just knew that he was it. And he remained it. For my money, nothing has ever gotten near him.

Even before I thought about acting, he influenced me strongly. Today it's hard for people who weren't there to realize the impact that Brando had on an audience – never mind on actors, because he's always been the patron saint of actors.

When I came West, I was working at MGM, in office personnel. I took that job because I wanted to see movie stars. I still remember the day Marlon came on the lot the first time. Now, the people working there were obviously used to seeing movie stars. But when Marlon came on the lot, you should have seen those Venetian blinds flying up in the air and those secretaries sticking their heads out the window. This man was a true sensation.

The first time I actually saw Brando at work was during the makeup tests on The Teahouse of the August Moon. Here he comes walking down the street, and I'm just looking at this guy thinking, "Who is this?" Brando was playing an Asian character. I didn't even recognize him. In any role, Brando was just astounding. On that picture, the crew had these smocks and kimonos to identify them, so it took me a little work to sneak in there and watch him. But nothing could have stopped me from watching Marlon Brando up close.

Much later, Brando became my neighbor in Los Angeles – for the last thirty years. I still don't feel comfortable calling the man my friend – hell, he's Brando – but we shared more than a driveway. As a neighbor, he was perfect, a great guy who was always there for you. He likes his space – and so do I – but as he put it many times, we'd always be watching each other's back. In thirty years' time, you go through many areas of life with someone, but I never had any arguments or disagreements with him over anything, the way neighbors do. Of course, Marlon does give new meaning to the phrase "Good fences make good neighbors." I could write a novel just about our gate. Suffice to say, we've had a lot of life pass through that gate.

I treasured the conversations I had with him. He's a brilliant man with a very eclectic mind. He was brutally honest, with very unusual insights into just about everything. He was very funny, too. Brando's favorite holiday was April Fools' Day, and, trust me, the guy pulled a couple of real crackerjacks at my expense.

Some of those pranks will have to remain private. I'm lifelong trained not to talk much about Mr. Brando – that's the way he liked it, and that's the way I always was about him. It's private stuff. I will say the best April Fools' Day prank he ever pulled on me was the time he sent me a very serious letter. By now we were very comfortable with each other. He wrote me saying he was going to have to sell his place to somebody. I can't remember exactly who it was, but it was someone perfectly selected, because he knew it would make me uneasy having this person suddenly become the new keeper of the gate. According to our mutual friend Helena, Marlon never stopped laughing about that time he got me to go completely crazy.

The only way I was sure that Marlon genuinely liked me was that I used to always call him "Bud" when we talked on the phone. That was kind of presumptuous on my behalf – and you didn't want to be presumptuous with Marlon – because that's what his family called him. Somehow he let me get away with it. I guess it was a gimme.

For me, the toughest experience I ever had with Brando came during making The Missouri Breaks together. We talked about doing many projects together over the years, but that's the only time it actually came together. I think Marlon probably had more fun shooting The Missouri Breaks than any movie he did. He liked all the guys in the movie. We were out in Montana. He lived out on the ranch where the movie was shot. He liked being close to nature. He was in his element.

I, on the other hand, was a mess. Somewhere deep in my subconscious was always this idea: "One day you're going to be working with Marlon Brando, and you better be ready, Jack."

It started off fine. In our first scene, he's a killer, and I'm hiding out from him. Whatever feelings I had of being intimidated seemed to fit this scene. Then one night after that I made a big mistake: I watched some of Brando's dailies. This was a scene where he's sitting there with John McLiam. I watched nine or ten takes of this same scene. Each take was an art film in itself. I sat there stunned by the variety, the depth, the amount of silent articulation of what a scene meant. It was all there. It was one of the wildest things I ever put my eyes on.

The next day I woke up completely destroyed. The full catastrophe of it hit me overnight: "Holy fuck, who do you think you are, Jack? You're in a movie with Marlon Brando!" I was totally annihilated by him. I thought, "What if they decide to hang me for being so crazy as to think I could be in the same country with this guy, much less in the same movie?" Our director, Arthur Penn, really had to nurse me back to health just to get me to continue on with the picture.

So I mean it when I say that if you can't appreciate Brando, I wouldn't know how to talk to you. If there's anything obvious in life, this is it. Other actors don't go around discussing who is the best actor in the world, because it's obvious – Marlon Brando is.

All you have to do is look at the movies – it's all there. On the Waterfront is probably the height of any age. And it's a shame he's not here to give the funeral oration from Julius Caesar. That performance adjusted how most American actors feel about what was possible with Shakespeare, which is a major feat in itself. He wasn't just great in the great movies – I often think of his performance in a less successful picture, A Countess From Hong Kong, the last movie Charlie Chaplin directed. Then there's Viva Zapatal or Reflections in a Golden Eye. And, of course, there's always The Godfather. The truth is, there just aren't enough roles that would challenge a man of his ability. I think that's why he had the great good instincts to really go after Godfather and make history.

But almost everything the guy ever did, in my opinion, was revolutionary. You almost felt stupid being naturalistic after he came along, because you felt, "Well, that's already been done." I remember thinking that I've got to find another way to approach this if I'm going to have my own little corner of the job market.

As an artist, I equate Brando with Picasso. I've seen Picasso's early drawings and so forth in the museums in Barcelona. I always thought if you took the first thing Picasso ever drew and continued to show everything he did until the day he died, you would see that some people are incapable of not being brilliant. When people are that way, it's very hard for them to gauge their own position. I think Marlon knew he was the greatest. I don't think he dwelled on it, nor did he ever say as much to me. But, come on, there was a reason people expected so much from him right to the end. That's why people always expected him to be working. And believe me, there were times when he told me he wanted to work and couldn't. It disturbs me that toward the end, all some people could speak about was his weight. As I've said, what Mr. Brando does for a living ain't done by the pound.

To me, Marlon Brando was the greatest ever. That's a truth I hold to be self-evident. But it's like what Bum Phillips said once: If he isn't in a class by himself, it sure takes a very short time to call the roll.

This story is from the August 19th, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 955: August 19, 2004
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