top of page

The Godfather

Here is another notable relative who was an actor and one who should be familiar to all.

Marlon Brando, Jr. was born on 3 April 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, Marlon Brando, Sr., was the head of Pennebaker Productions, owner of mining, cattle, and oil interests. His mother, Dorothy Julia "Dodie" Brando (nee Pennebaker) engaged in activities that were considered unconventional for her times, such as smoking, wearing pants and driving cars. She worked as an actress and theater administrator and helped Henry Fonda start his acting career. He had two older sisters, Jocelyn and Frances.

He had a difficult childhood. Around 1930 his parents moved to Evanston, Illinois when his father's work took him to Chicago. His parents separated in 1935 and his mother moved him and his sisters to Santa Ana, California where they lived with Dodie's mother. By 1937, his parents were reconciled and moved to a farm in Libertyville, IL, a small town north of Chicago.

His mother was an alcoholic and frequently had to brought home from bars in Chicago by his father. Marlon wrote in his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, that "The anguish that her drinking produced was that she preferred getting drunk to caring for us." Both of his parents would join Alcoholics Anonymous but it was with his father that he had the more difficult relationship, stating "I was his namesake, but nothing I did ever pleased or even interested him. He enjoyed telling me I couldn't do anything right. He had a habit of telling me I would never amount to anything." His father would beat him and his mother, but the psychological bruises from the incessant criticism would instill in him a crippling fear of inferiority. Marlon's early experiences with a tyrannical father and a negligent mother would also lead to issues with authority and Hollywood.

In his Shattuck Military Academy uniform

Marlon was held back a year at Libertyville High School and then expelled when he rode his motorcycle through the hallways. As a result, his father sent him to Shattuck Military Academy in Minnesota. He did not fare any better there. After being put on probation and confined to his room for insubordination during a visit by an Army colonel, he sneaked out to town and was eventually caught. He was almost expelled for the violation, but was invited back the following year. He decided to drop out of high school and worked as a ditch digger. It was 1943 and World War II was underway. He tried to enlist in the Army, but during his physical he was listed as 4-F due to a bad knee that resulted from a football injury he received while at Shattuck.

He then moved to New York City where his sisters had relocated. Jocelyn was the first one to pursue an acting career and appeared on Broadway and television and in movies. Frances studied art. Marlon studied acting in New York and had roles in summer stock productions. His pattern of insubordinate and erratic behavior was established and he was kicked out of one play. He appeared on Broadway in 1944 and 1946 and made his film debut in 1950 in The Men as a bitter paraplegic veteran.

Marlon used acting as an escape from his childhood, his unhappy home life and especially an escape from his tyrannical father. He once said "When what you are as a child is unwanted, you look for an identity that will be acceptable."

Marlon in 1950

His big break came in 1951 when he was cast in the role of Stanley Kowalski in the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. This role was considered by many to be his greatest and he would receive his first Academy Award nomination. One interesting point about this is that the protagonist's name is Blanche DuBois and Marlon shares a familial link to that surname, thus appearing in this post. However, in the movie, the last name is used with the French pronunciation and not the American one that my family uses.

Marlon's career would take off from there and he became one of the most respected actors of the post-war era and regarded as one of the greatest film actors of the 20th century.

He won an Academy Award for Best Actor in On the Waterfront in 1954. It was the fourth consecutive year that he was nominated (A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar). In 1973 when was nominated again for The Godfather, he sent an unknown Native American woman, Sacheen Littlefeather, to represent him and refuse the award, calling worldwide attention to his belief that people ignored the problems of Native Americans. He defended his decision by stating: “It was important for an American Indian to address the people who sit by and do nothing while they’re expunged from the earth,” Brando later explained, “It was the first time in history that an American Indian ever spoke to 60 million people.  It was a tremendous opportunity and I certainly didn’t want to usurp that time.”

Marlon was committed to alleviating injustice. In addition to championing Native American rights, he was one of the first white actors to be part of the Civil Rights movement and a well-know supporter of Israel. As a result of his principles and activism, he became the subject of F.B.I. surveillance, phone tapping and visits by agents.

He was prone to boredom and that eventually led to self-doubt, a sensitivity not so much about his ability but more his reasons for being in the profession. “Lying for a living is what acting is. All I’ve done is be aware of the process. All of you are actors. And good actors because you are liars. When you are saying something you don’t mean, or refrain from saying something you really do mean, that is acting.”

Throughout his career he became disillusioned about his celebrity. Fame seemed to rot inside him; he found it gross and unpalatable. He once said: "Most actors like getting their name in the papers. They like getting all the attention. I very often am struck with the illusion of success. Quite often it’s hard meeting people because you can see they have prejudged you not to be treated -normally. To have people starring at you like an animal in a zoo, a creature from a distant land.” He took a dim view of actors as well making such comments as: "An actor's a guy who, if you ain't talking about him, ain't listening" and "Most of the successful people in Hollywood are failures as human beings." He also cautioned "Never confuse the size of your paycheck with the size of your talent".

He was a noted cat love and once said "I live in my cat's house." When a stray was found on the set of The Godfather, he worked it into the iconic opening scene. On a revealingly personal note, he confessed: "Our family always had animals, but they became more important to me as the years passed because they helped me deal with the absence of love."

Privacy was very important to him and he tried to keep his life and his family's out of the media. He once commented on it by saying: "Privacy is not something that I'm merely entitled to, it's an absolute prerequisite".

His adult personal life was not without its troubles. His doomed romances were a direct consequence of an abandonment complex relating to his mother. Rather than wait for the inevitable departure of his girlfriends, Marlon would run a sledgehammer through the relationships himself. "I would probe and test women to find their breaking point, at which they would tell a lie and show weakness."

He also suffered the tragedy of his eldest son, Christian, murdering his sister Cheyenne's boyfriend in Marlon's home. Christian was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but was released after serving 5. Struggling with grief and depression, Cheyenne would later commit suicide (Christian would die in 2008 at the age of 49).

Marlon died on 1 July 2004 from respiratory and heart difficulties. He also suffered from diabetes and liver cancer. He left behind 14 children and at least 30 grandchildren.

One final quote from Marlon: "Regret is useless in life. It's in the past. All we have is now".

Recent Posts

See All

"Little Short of Madness"

DeWitt Clinton and the Erie Canal In the early years of the United States, transportation of goods between the coastal ports and the interior was slow and difficult. Water transport was the most cost


bottom of page