The Magazine

I Remember Marlon

George Englund's tale of a difficult friendship with Marlon Brando.

Mar 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 23 • By CYNTHIA GRENIER
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BRANDO'S SON, Christian, was the object of heavy media coverage when he shot and killed the fiancé of his half-sister Cheyenne after she told him that the man, by whom she was more than six months pregnant, was abusing her. Brando hired William Kunstler to defend his boy, stood by him, put up his house for a two-million-dollar bail, and testified for him in court. The young man's psychiatrist testified that: "Despite the material advantages conferred on him by the Brando name, neither parent provided a stable, safe, emotional environment for Christian to grow up in." The boy was sentenced to ten years in prison, and Cheyenne, a complicated, difficult young woman, committed suicide not that long afterwards.

Englund came also to know all too well what it was like to work with the actor. He directed Brando in The Ugly American, made on location in Thailand and released in 1963. After one particularly infuriating time arguing with Brando over contractual matters, he observes, "I've seen Marlon wreck so many deals, so many projects--everything is going the right way and suddenly he flings in some new condition. Then he won't budge from it." He also notes: "Marlon's will to have things his way is almost unopposable. His acting ability, his storytelling, his doggedness finally bend you. But in the unlikely event those techniques don't work, he goes to the major weapon, abandonment of the whole civilized code. His face can show such anger, such threat of anarchy if you don't accede to what he's demanding that you do. No one has ever matched him in this threat to bring the empire down."

A powerful sense of the nature of the friendship that existed between the two men reigns throughout The Way It's Never Been Done Before, without ever slipping into the maudlin or sentimental. Englund's perceptions and observations don't exactly explain what went into the makeup of this particular icon, but they cast more illumination than we are likely to encounter elsewhere.

Cynthia Grenier is a writer in Washington, D.C.