Actress Elaine Stritch called from her house on the Upper East Side to tell The Transom about her friend and one-time crush, Marlon Brando, who died of lung failure on July 1. She attended the Dramatic Workshop at the New School with Brando in the 40′s, after she declined an invitation to study under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. Brando had done the same.
As a result, they both worked with Stella Adler. The relationship between teacher and student was not typical.
“That’s what they talk about when they talk about having a craft,” Ms. Stritch said. “Being able to do it and then go to dinner between shows and come back and do it again. You have to train yourself-great discipline. And Marlon was not disciplined. Nor was his talent disciplined. It was wild and free, and that’s what made it so sensational.
“Stella knew how to handle Marlon,” Ms. Stritch continued. “She was a wise woman. And he loved her because she was honest with him. Try lying to Marlon, he would be way ahead of you.”
But it was on the stage that Brando was most himself, and so it was there that their relationship-and his with Ms. Stritch-developed into something big.
“I knew Marlon long before the movies,” said fellow actor Eli Wallach. “We all used to hang out together. Maureen Stapleton had a little … what they call a salon. Where the actors would go on West 52nd Street in Manhattan and gather and talk. Marlon didn’t talk very much, but he was watching everyone.”
“He only told the truth onstage,” Ms. Stritch said, apologizing for taking refuge in someone else’s observation of the actor. “I think it’s true. I don’t mean that he was a liar. But he couldn’t talk about himself honestly offstage. He got his emotions out as an actor. And as a human being, he kept them all in. That’s my take on it.
“He was so much fun. And I was madly in love with him. I just thought he was the best thing since-I mean, who wouldn’t? Even girls were faking faints in dramatic classes so that Marlon would pick them up. What’s the similar expression for men-you talk about a femme fatale?”
The Transom didn’t know. Casanova? Don Juan? Lothario? Skirt-chaser? Roué? Lady-killer? Playboy?
The trick is, the trait is feminine, and the man himself was a paragon of masculinity. But those categories always threaten to touch at their extremities.
In fact, Brando’s famed affinity for comic drag also has an early provenance in Ms. Stritch’s memory. In 1944, Stella Adler had her students prepare a cabaret act.
“He lip-synched Judy Garland singing ‘The Trolley Song.’ And I’ve never laughed like that since. One of the funniest things I have ever seen in my life-Marlon Brando in drag singing, ‘Clang clang clang went the trolley!’” She sang that last part to The Transom. “It was sensational,” she said.
“Let me tell you something about Marlon Brando: He was funny. He had humor up the wazoo. And he was laughing at the world a lot of the time. And he was a crafty sonofabitch. He knew just how to get successful quick. He was nobody’s fool but his own. That’s a pretty good line-why don’t you use it?”
Actor Red Buttons met Marlon Brando backstage when he was doing A Streetcar Named Desire. Mr. Buttons had gone to see Karl Malden, who was in the same outfit with him in World War II.
“They were dressing together,” he said. “I just met him for two seconds. And of course, I was absolutely flabbergasted by what I saw on the stage.”
In 1957 they would work together on the film Sayonara, about American servicemen stationed in Japan during the Korean War who fall in love with and marry Japanese women.
“He was the most gracious, wonderful guy,” Mr. Buttons said. “Because he knew it was my first shot out of the box doing anything dramatic-I was in the comedy world-and he was just so wonderful to myself and the two Japanese girls, who were also neophytes. And he was just so gracious and wonderful. I loved the guy all my life.”
Filmmaker Albert Maysles remembers filming with his brother the 1965 press junket for the release of Morituri, in which Brando played a German blackmailed by the British to impersonate an SS officer.
In the footage, Brando appears relaxed. He has fun with the interviewers. He speaks with the French press in French, the Germans in German. He tells his French interviewer that all of France, not just Mr. De Gaulle, must decide the state of that country. When asked whether government has a responsibility to African-Americans to improve their lives, instead of answering he bids an attractive, nicely made-up black woman from the street he’s standing on to come over. He translates the question from French into English for her, and she answers after asking softly, “Are you Marlon Brando?” A young woman from Boston asks him about Morituri. “How old are you?” Brando asks her. She smiles. She’s almost 21. Suddenly, Brando is asking the questions. And it looks like a pickup.
The interviews are collected in a film the Maysles made in 1966 called Meet Marlon Brando. In them, there’s some idea that one is getting a sense of Marlon Brando the man. But, of course, the cameras are rolling.
Friends were surprised to hear of Brando’s passing.
“As a matter of fact, two weeks ago I talked to him on the phone,” Mr. Wallach said. “He said, ‘Why are you calling me after 20 years?’ I said, ‘Do you want me to hang up?’ He said, ‘No. Let’s talk.’ And we talked. Today, I talked to Karl Malden for about 20 minutes, a half an hour. Karl and I are very close. But Marlon settled in on Mulholland Drive. I once visited him. There were signs all over the place. It said, ‘Beware Nuclear Experiment,’ ‘Wild, Wild Dogs.’ And it was fenced in and everything. But we had a lovely lunch. And we talked. He always pooh-poohed acting. But when you look at it, you think he might have seen the answers in the back of the book on what makes an actor. Because he galvanized you when you watched him. When he rips the tablecloth off and breaks the dishes in Streetcar, you almost jump out of your seat with the immediacy with which it was done. And he played it for quite some time.
“There was no sign when I talked to him two weeks ago that he was ill at all. So, I was very surprised.”
Sir Harold Evans had been planning a trip this week to go to Los Angeles to visit his friend Marlon Brando when he found out that the actor had died. Just back in New York from getting his “K” at Buckingham Palace, Mr. Evans remembered how he met Brando. It was just 10 years ago, when he published Brando’s autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, which doubled as a sustained self-assessment of Brando’s career (and for which he was reportedly paid $5 million in 1994).
“I went out to see him to acquire the book with a lot of publishers going to see him,” the former Random House publisher said. “Everybody was interested in Marlon Brando, and everybody tried for years to get his life story by him.”
Mr. Evans said he thought Brando was short on money at the time.
“Every publisher in New York, or at least a handful I know of, went to see him in Los Angeles. It was kind of a paradox. He would audition for a part, but we were the ones auditioning for the part of publisher. Which meant being interrogated by him. Which, in retrospect, though not at the time, was an enjoyable and agreeable experience.”
He said that on the way back from a “fantastically funny dinner” not far from Brando’s house, Jack Nicholson, who lived down Mulholland Drive, suddenly popped out in the moonlight and said, “Hi, Marlon.”
“It was an ambush,” Mr. Evans recalled.
“We debated everything from anthropomorphism to drilling in Alaska to the native rights of the Sioux Indians,” he said. “His range was absolutely vast. I’ve always been interested in Indians. I lived with the Navajo Indians when I came to America in the 1950′s …. Looking back on it, I think the fact that I’d had a lifelong interest in the American Indian sort of struck a chord with him. A real Indian Indian, Sonny Mehta, went out, and I don’t know whether that struck a chord with him.”
Mr. Evans set him up with Falcon and the Snowman writer Robert Lindsey (who also helped Ronald Reagan with his memoirs).
“He came into New York under an assumed name and stayed somewhere on the West Side,” Mr. Evans said. “I was just about to go out to Los Angeles to see him. This Thursday. I really mourn his passing. He was very stout and did order lots of ice cream when I was with him. Love is too strong a word, but I really did enjoy him.”
“A person like that,” Ms. Stritch said, “you never forget.”
-Jake Brooks and Anna Schneider-Mayerson