Marlon Brando, a two-time Oscar winner whose riveting performances transformed acting from a remote craft to a naturalistic art form, has died, the Associated Press announced today. He was 80.
An actor's actor whose skill was envied by generations of performers who followed him, Brando died from lung failure at UCLA Medical Center at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, according a hospital spokesman.
He received his first Academy Award nomination for best actor for his role in "A Streetcar Named Desire." His other nominations were for "Viva Zapata!" (1952), "Julius Caesar" (1953), "Sayonara" (1957) and "Last Tango in Paris" (1973).
His eighth and last Oscar nomination was for best supporting actor in the 1989 anti-apartheid film "A Dry White Season."
Under the guidance of director Elia Kazan, Brando first became a star on stage -- as Stanley Kowalski in the 1947 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" -- and then on screen, again as Stanley in "Streetcar," released in 1951. In the 1940s and '50s, Brando so astonished other actors that even those who had taken acting to its highest level were taken aback.
The late Laurence Olivier, considered among the greatest actors of all time, thought Brando was the best American actor. He once said that Brando's secret to greatness was that he acted "with an empathy and an instinctual understanding that not even the greatest technical performers could possibly match."
Film critic Pauline Kael called Brando "our greatest living actor," and the curators at the American Museum of the Moving Image described him this way: "With animal intensity and insolent charm, he embodied a new and distinctly American on-screen style. Most significantly, he expressed the inner poetry of inarticulate working-class characters, paving the way for James Dean, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro, among others."
Indeed, Brando's acolytes number among the greatest actors of the last half-century.
Dean so badly wanted to be like Brando that Brando had to tell him to knock it off. Pacino, who played Brando's son in "The Godfather," said in an interview not long ago: "It was incomprehensible how good Brando was. He was just a phenomenon. I was acting before I ever saw a Brando picture -- I'm very proud to be able to say that -- but I'll be imitating him until the day I die."
Paul Newman once confessed he was angry at Brando "because he does everything so easily -- I have to break my [butt] to do what he can do with his eyes closed."
And Jack Nicholson has said he believes, as do many actors, that when Brando's gone, everyone moves up a place.
"With my generation," Nicholson said, "it was always Marlon Brando and always will be Brando."
Brando was born April 3, 1924, in Omaha, Neb., the son of a traveling salesman and homemaker. Both were alcoholics: "One whom I loved but who ignored me, the other who tortured me emotionally and made my mother's life a misery," he wrote in his autobiography.
Still, his mother, an amateur actress, was able to give him "a love of nature and animals, and the night sky, and a sense of closeness to the earth."
After a series of unhappy school experiences, Brando was kicked out of military school, where he had been sent to by his father because, Brando admitted, he was "a bad student, chronic truant and all-round incorrigible." He was rejected by the military because of a trick knee and ended up in New York City, where his sister, Jocelyn, was beginning an acting career.
By then, Brando himself was interested in acting, having won praise for a few roles he had played in military school, where he had come under the wing of an English teacher who also introduced him to Shakespeare.
Brando wrote of his arrival in New York City: "As I got out of the cab delivering me from Pennsylvania Station to my sister's apartment in Greenwich Village in the spring of 1943, I was sporting a bright red fedora that I thought was going to knock everybody dead." He would, but it would take a few years.
He worked as an elevator operator and at other odd jobs, tried to be a dancer and finally took an acting class at the New School for Social Research's dramatic workshop, where he met Stella Adler, then one of the major proponents of Method acting. From this encounter, Brando would become the foremost Method actor of his day.