The Religious Affiliation of
Marlon Brando great American actor
From the age of 11, lived with his grandmother, a Christian Scientist practitioner. She was a great influence on him, and he studied some, but he was not an official member. When he was a teenager Brando considered becoming a minister, but he became an actor instead. As an adult Brando was never active in any religious denomination, although he had a life-long interest in religion and spirituality, and he appears to have adopted some aspects of Native American spirituality. In describing the various influences on his life, Brando said, "Philosophically I've felt closest to the American Indians" (Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, page 455).
Throughout most of his life Brando also had a strong affinity for Judaism. He contributed time, money and talent to Jewish causes, discussed his admiration for Jews at length in his autobiography, and sent some his children to Jewish day school.
In his autobiography Brando recounts seeing a vision of his mother's spirit taking the form of a bird after she died. Later, after his father died, Brando had a vision of his deceased father joining his mother in the afterlife. In describing his religious sensibilities, Brando referred to his "inexaustible awe and reverence for nature."
Beginning in the 1980s Brando began meditating regularly. At the time he wrote his autobiography he said he tried to meditate twice every day. Brando expressed deep respect for Eastern religions and spiritual practices. Brando expressed disdain for what he called a "certain type of political correctness" that accepts only Western scientific reasoning and discourages examination into other realms of knowledge such as parapsychology and Eastern religious practices.
Brando closed his autobiography by expressing strong faith that behavioral genetics will lead to a dramatic revolution in human history, by giving people the ability to cure genetic causes of destructive, anti-social behavior.
From: Jason Kovar, "Marlon Brando" chapter in book Hollywood Unmasked (URL: http://www.goodfight.org/hwmbrando.html):
Much of the answer may be found in the fact that Brando comes from a line of Theosophists three generations deep that handed down the occult teachings of Madame Blavatsky. Brando's grandfather was an active member in sponsoring and laying the foundation for the Theosophists and his eccentric passions were passed on. Whether this set the stage for Brando's occultism or not, he soon became adept as an active contributor for the teachings of the East. Actor David Ge'lin, Brando's roommate, recalls:
"But most of all he was interested in philosophies, the spiritual life, and religions. He was most particularly interested in the German philosophers, particularly Nietzsche, and the Hindu religion. I didn't see it as a game, but a real need for knowledge and a quest for spiritual being."
These ideologies gave him the leverage he needed to accept the risque roles he was to soon portray. Deeply occultic, Brando was a philosophical connoisseur who believed these truths to the very core of his being. Mallory Jones Dallaher, a personal friend, remembers:
"He would call at ten at night, and sometimes we'd stay on till ten the next morning - talking, talking our brains out about metaphysics, men, women, love, all very autobiographical, but more about his psyche and his soul than anything informational about his life" (Brando: The Biography, Peter Manso, 1994, p. 679).
From: Marlon Brando (with Robert Lindsey), Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, New York: Random House (1994), page 21:
When I was eleven, my parents separated, and my mother, my sisters and I went to live with my grandmother--the matriarch of the family, whom we called Bess or Nana--in California.
She was buxom and sharp-featured, with white hair, an aristocratic bearing and the look of a Gibson girl. Like my mother, she was also very much an individual and a renegade who refused to accept unblinkingly Victorian standards of behavior. Being Irish, she was witty and amusing. Humor, I suppose, is probably the hallmark of my family; if anything kept us sane, it was humor. We never knew what would come out of my grandmother's mouth. She had an enormous laugh and a sense of absurdity about human behavior, but there was also a serious side to her. She was a Christian Scientist practitioner, and a good one, I was told.
Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 33-34:
My father's solution to my difficulties at Libertyville High was to send me to the same school he had attended, Shattuck Military Academy in Faribault, Minnesota. He thought the discipline would benefit me greatly... I was sixteen when I arrived at Shattuck. Since I had to repat my sophomore year, I was year behind other cadets my age. Shattuck had been producing soldiers for the United States Army since shortly after the Civil War. From the first day, we were indoctrinated with its traditions and the exploits of alumni who had demonstrated the values that our teacher said they were going to teach us: discipline, order, honor, obedience, courage, loyalty, patriotism.
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 230-233:
I thought about becoming a minister, not because I was a religious person, other than having an inexaustible awe and reverence for nature, but because I thought it might give me more of a purpose in life. I flirted with the idea for a while, but in the end it never developed sufficient force to make me want to do it... I became a roving ambassador for the agency, preaching a different kind of religion: that above all, the world owes its children a decent life.
Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 56-57:
Every Sunday we had to go to the chapel for a service, where most of the cadets fell asleep, and Duke, who was very religious, and the other headmasters peered down the pews trying to catch us snoozing. Like everyone else, I was bored by it all. There was always a lot of elbowing in the ribs to break the boredom...
One Sunday, after several cadets approached the alter to receive communion, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to find out what they were experiencing. I had been told they were being given something to eat and maybe even wine, so I went up and knelt. When it was my turn, th epriest put a wafer in my mouth, but instead of swallowing it, I stuck it in my cheek and rolled it around with my tongue to investigate it. When he offered wine, I gulped and held onto the cup so tightly that he had to put his foot on the railing to gain enough leverage to take it away from me. Back at my seat, I pulled the communion bread out of my mouth and studied it carefully. Peripherally I spotted Duke looking down at me darkly from the opposite end of the pew, and after the service he called me to his chambers and said, "My boy, you were toying with the most profound power in the universe. God help you. You must never insult the Lord again as you did today. Never again."
"What did I do?"
"I saw you playing with the Holy Sacrament. You have to treat it with the greatest respect because if you don't, you are tempting the Devil."
I felt awful for having offended Duke. This man who was so dear to me seemed frightened by what I'd done. I told him I was sorry, but that I had no idea what the ceremony meant.
"It's the body of Christ," he said, "and the blood of Christ."
My first thought was, "That sounds cannibalistic," but I didn't say it because I didn't want to hurt Duke.
In 1943, at the age of 19, Brando was living in New York City when he wrote about his reading of the Bible in a letter to his parents. In this letter he addresses a theological question specifically to his grandmother ("Nana"), who was the only devoutly religious parental figure in his family. Brando's grandmother was a Christian Science practitioner. From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, page 75:
I am learning that you just can't have a completely frank and sincere relationship with any girl. All most of them do is bore me, truly. . . . I have been reading the Bible. It is full of beautiful thoughts but they don't mean much to me. Nana, why do they tell you to fear God? I can't understand...
Excerpt from other letter written home, From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pg. 76:
I am studying the part of the Templar in "Nathan the Wise," which is a very good part for me. My philosophy class is real good and Dr. Kaplan in his lectures confirms all I have professed (not openly) about ecclesiastical power and aspects of religion. It is wonderful. I have much to say..."
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 97-98:
While I was in I Remember Mama, my mother returned to Libertyville and reconciled with my father. Not long after she left, I had a kind of nervous breakdown that came on gradually, then was severe for several months... Nothing I did made sense or made me feel better. I didn't know what to do. I wandered around the city or went into a Christian Science reading room, sat alone and read for hours. I had never had much religion in my life--neither of my parents were believers--though a few times my mother had encouraged me to look for solace in the faith of my grandmother and Mary Baker Eddy. So I did, searching for anything that could help me understand what was wrong with me and make me feel better. It was the beginning of a difficult period of my life.
From: Patricia Bosworth, Marlon Brando (A Penguin Life). Viking: New York, New York (2001), pages 1-2:
Brando [as a child] lived with his parents and his two older sisters... They were frequently visited by "Nana," their twice-married, independent-minded grandmother, who was known for her outspoken views on immigration and women's rights and as a master speed reader. Nana was also a devout Christian Scientist and a lay healer; in later years she would say she could speak with the dead. Often Nana spent hours with her daughter Dodie and her grandchildren, discussing history, religion, art, politics. "She inspired us," Jocelyn remembers, and Brando and his sisters needed inspiration.
Their father, Marlon Senior, was a moody, unpredictable man given to fierce rages, and they were terrified of him, although he was rarely with his family. He spent most of his time traveling all over Missouri and Iowa as a salesman. He was often seen in Chicago brothels and speakeasies; he had frequent affairs.
Bosworth, page 6:
He [young Marlon at about age 12] was repelled by what he felt was his father's hypocrisy. Although Senior was raising his kids by the "Good Book," he was a relentless womanizer, and by forcing the family to move from Omaha, he'd ruined Dodie's life by depriving her of her career on the stage; he had no compassion for her huge despair.
Bosworth, page 10:
1942... Back on the farm, he and his mother had a disjointed conversation about his going into the theater later on when he'd finished high school. But he was thinking he might become a minister, he writes in his autobiography, "Not because I was a religious person, other than having an inexhaustible awe and reverence for nature, but because I thought it might give me more of a purpose in life." Actually he had no idea what he wanted to do.
Bosworth, pages 24-25:
I Remember Mama was a big hit, and Brando remained with the show for the duration of its run. The demands of the part weren't that great, so he brought stacks of books back to his dressing room--philosophy, religion, the plays of Shakespeare and O'Neill--and he read them from cover to cover.
Bosworth, page 27:
[Brando] also played the drums. He'd started taking a dance class... which featured exotic Afro-Caribbean dance styles and music, and he developed a passion for playing the congas. The drums brought Brando into contact with Haitians, Harlem blacks, and Latinos. Sometimes he pounded on the congas for hours, until the skin on his hands split. His drum teacher was Henri ("Papa") Augustine, the company's hungan, or voodoo priest, who taught him that every rhythm had a purpose, such as healing or warding off evil spirits. Brando's passion for playing the congas has lasted his entire life.
Bosworth, pages 38-39:
After Candida closed, Brando had only a brief respite before starting rehearsals for A Flag Is Born, by Ben Hecht, about refugees trying to get into the Holy Land... The drama, which was really propaganda for establishing a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, was produced by the American League for a Free Palestine... In A Flag Is Born, Brando played a cynical young Jew who at the end of the play has a show-stopping speech in which he addressed the audience directly and shouts, "You let six million people die!" He vows he will fight to achieve the refugees' dream of emigrating to the Jewish homeland. Every night he brought down the house with his passion.
The success of A Flag Is Born was unexpected. The three-week run extended to three months. He left the show before it closed, but he went on raising money for the cause, making speeches at synagogues all over Manhattan and Long Island. He was totally caught up in the idea of a homeland for the Jews, and for a while he was a passionate Zionist. Years later he starting speaking out for the Palestinians.
Bosworth, page 80:
Brando had been dabbling in left-wing politics ever since he'd championed the Irgun (the Jewish underground) during the run of A Flag Is Born.
Bosworth, page 160:
Brando approached Burn! as he approached any project that intrigued him: He started to do research... In this instance he wanted to psyche out [i.e., understand the psychological underpinnings of] revolutionaries, and who better than the Black Panthers? They were a controversial militant political party in Oakland that, armed with lawbooks and guns, patrolled the ghetto, fighting police brutality and making sure that their constitutional rights were respected.
Several members of the usually secretive group agreed to meet Brando because "I had always admired Marlon from the time I was sixteen and saw The Wild One," Panther leader Bobby Seale told Peter Manso... On a foggy afternoon in February, Brando met with the Panthers at Eldridge Cleaver's Haight-Ashbury apartment in San Francisco. Also present were Kathleen Cleaver, Bobby Seale, and... Bobby Hutton...
Brando writes of this meeting, "We talked till almost four A.M., and I learned a greta deal about a variety of subjects, but especially about the day-to-day experiences of being a black man in Oakland..."
Kathleen Cleaver recalls that "Brando couldn't take his eyes of Eldridge. It was as if he was just glued to him, trying to absorb everything about him all at once." Cleaver, whose best-selling book Soul on Ice had made him something of a celebrity, was acting president of the Panthers, since their elected president, Huey Newton, was in jail on a murder charge... Before he was driven back to the airport, Brando asked Cleaver to be a consultant on the Burn! film, but Cleaver ended up saying no. Even so, they kept in touch with each other from then on, and Brando gave the Panthers money. When more Panthers were "busted," he paid for bail, Seale told Manso."
[Pages 162 to 164 describe more of Marlon Brando's involvement with and support for the Black Banthers, and Brando's significant and very helpful activism in the deep South in support of the Civil Rights movement. There is more about Eldridge Cleaver as well. These events in 1968 took place about fifteen years before Eldridge Cleaver joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.]
Bosworth, page 207:
[Brando] always stressed the importance of education to his kids: "Learn to write so you can express yourselves. Study logic. Memorize the planets." He had tried to master all sorts of subjects: Buddhism, ecology, the history of ancient Egypt..."
Bosworth, page 216:
"A movie star is nothing important," [Brando] told Time magazine. "Freud, Gandhi, Marx--those people are important. Movie acting is just dull, boring, childish work. Everybody acts--when we want something, when we want someone to do something; we all act all the time."
From: Richard Schickel, Brando: A Life in Our Times, Atheneum: New York City (1991), page 38:
...Ben Hecht... one of Hollywood's most brilliantly facile screenwriters... had abandoned his lightsome ways for a passionate commitment to Zionism. In aide of a cause that would eventually cost him his movie career -- he supported the Irgun terrorists and denounced the British protectorate in the Holy Land, leading to a boycott of his work in Britain -- Hecht wrote A Flag Is Born... There was no question about Brando's participation when he was asked. These were certainly more his kind of people... the establishment of a Jewish state, welcoming the homeless survivors of the holocaust, was a cause that naturally enlisted Brando's sympathies. This would be the first time, but hardly the last, that he insisted upon placing the demands of his conscience ahead of professional calculation.
Schnickel, pages 141-142:
Brando now embraced political activism, becoming more than ever a restless wanderer on behalf of causes that stirred him. This was not entirely uncharacteristic behavior, to put it mildly, among artists of all sorts, performers in particular, during this period. And, of course, there was nothing especially compelling going on in Brando's career, nothing to make him want to keep his nose pressed against the grindstone.
He travelled widely in support of the civil rights movement, abandoning his reclusive ways for extensive public appearances. Among them, prominently, were the Selma, Alabama and Washington, DC civil rights marches of 1965. After Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968, he walked through Harlem with New York mayor John V. Lindsay, in a successful attempt to calm riotous unrest. A month later he was in Berkeley on a more controversial mission -- an appearance at a memorial service for a member of the Black Panthers, slain by police. In this tragic year, he went everywhere, even into the jungle of the talk shows... on behalf of the movement. He seemed to want to take on himself all the guilt of the white race for all the inequities visited on the blacks. At the ceremony for the black radical he said: 'The preacher said that the white man can't cool it because he has never dug it. I am trying to dig it. That's why I'm here.' Significantly, he added: 'You've been listening four hundred years to white people and they haven't done a thing . . . I'm going to begin right now informing white people what they don't know.' This, for a time, he earnestly tried to do. He even tithed a percentage of his income [one percent] to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
At the same time, he worked for UNICEF, even attempting to make a documentary about starvation in India. Later, in the mid Seventies, his concern for the fate of American Indians brought him to Wounded Knee, to the Menominee Uprising in Wisconsin, to many a fund-raiser for the cause, and, at the height of his involvement, to stage-managing his famous non-appearance at the 1973 Academy Award broadcast at which a surrogate rejected his Godfather Oscar as a frivolity not to be countenanced when most native Americans were discriminated against, kept in dire poverty and, as well, grievously misrepresented in film and television.
Numerous websites promoting Atheism have circulated and re-posted an unconfirmed anecdote from the trail of Brando's son, Christian Brando. The "Celebrity Atheists" website (CelebrityAtheists.com) (http://www.celebatheists.com/wiki/index.php?title=Marlon_Brando; viewed 13 August 2005) is typical of these, although it's not clear if this was the original source of this rumor: "At his son Christian's murder trial a few years ago, Brando refused to take a religious oath, stating that he is an atheist."
Some years after this anecdote first emerged, the "Celebrity Atheists" website noted that a reader had disputed the accuracy of this account, and provided other evidence suggesting that Brando was not an atheist:
A reader disputes the cite above, providing this account [about Brando claiming to be an atheist at his son's trial]:
I believe this is in error. During a news broadcast several years ago, I remember seeing him being sworn in at a trial. I don't know if it was his son's trial or another, but in the clip, he refused to swear on the bible, saying something along the lines of: "while I do believe in god, I do not believe in the same way as others, so I would prefer not to swear on the bible".
In his autobiography, Brando describes seeing his parents together in the afterlife in a dream after his father died. He also claims to share beliefs with Native Americans on spirituality.
It is certainly possible that Brando was an atheist, although it is clear that he never or nearly never publically identified himself as such. Needless to say, it is ironic that the sole source for this evaluation comes from a story about the trail of his son Christian, whose name is a peculiar choice for an allegedly "atheist" parent. Certainly Brando's widely chronicled philandering and sexual adventurism were not the mark of a devout adherent of any sort of traditionally conservative/ethical religious group. Brando was not a member of any denomination. Yet, aside from this quote from his son's trial, there seems to be no other evidence that Brando was an atheist. The many available Brando biographies and interviews seen to contradict the contention that he was an atheist.
Brando was wildly eccentric during most of his life. He told the media a great many things about himself, including saying that he was born in outer Mongolia where he ate gazelle eyes for breakfast. Given Brando's religious background as a child, his earlier interest in becoming a minister, his support of various religious groups, his documented superstitious nature, and his lifelong interest in religion, "atheist" is probably an inaccurate - or at least overly simplistic - label to apply to Brando.
Below is an example of an article citing Brando's alleged claim of atheism at his son's trial, along with a reference to his Christian Science upbringing. From: Ronald Bruce Meyer (http://www.ronaldbrucemeyer.com/rants/0403almanac.htm) wrote (6 July 2004):
It was on this date, April 3, 1924 that the American actor some consider one of the greatest of the 20th century, Marlon Brando (Jr.), was born in Omaha, Nebraska, the offspring of alcoholic parents. He was reared by his grandmother, a Christian Scientist, from the age of 11, but was never very religious himself.
Brando's son, Christian, was indicted for murdering his sister's boyfriend, though he claimed it was an accident. He got 10 years and was released in five. At his trial in 1991, Brando refused to take an oath to tell the truth before God, claiming he is an atheist. He was sworn in under an alternate oath...
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, page vii:
[Marlon Brando] is an unconventional and reclusive actor who, after nearly fifty years of public life, despises the press, has had hundreds of women in his life and told me [co-author Robert Lindsey] that he hadn't "spent more than two minutes" with any one of them.
...At our first meeting, I discovered... that he felt uncomfortable, possibly even embarrassed, to be thought of as a movie star. The movies, he said, were the least important aspect of his life, a thought that he would repeat over and over... He was inquisitive about everything and informed about many topics--physics, Shakespeare, philosophy, chess, religion, music, chemistry, genetics, scatology, psychology, shoe makeing, or whatever else he might suggest we discuss.
Brando recounted meeting young Jewish writer Norman Mailer, from: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, page 63:
One afternoon I went to a cafeteria on Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue and sat down beside two men. When we started talking, one man spoke with a thick Texas accent, so I asked him where he was from.
"New York," he said.
"How did you get that Texas accent?" I asked.
"I was in the army."
"But why would you get a Texas accent in the army?" I'm sure I had a look of puzzlement on my face.
"It was the protective coloration," he said, "because if you were a Jew in the army, they called you all kinds of names, teased you and made it hard on you. So I pretended to be a Texan." He said he had been out of the army for about eight months, but still hadn't broken the habit. Then we introduced ourselves. He told me his name was Norman Mailer and the other man said he was Jimmy Baldwin.
Although Mailer, who was as yet unpublished, and I never became good friends, Jimmy Baldwin and I became close after that meeting in Hector's Cafeteria.
Although Marlon Brando would become one of the most famously promiscuous stars in Hollywood history, he had what was in many ways an ethically conservative and sexually chaste upbringing. He did not lose his virginity until the age of 19, when he was working as a struggling stage actor in New York City. Beginning with this first sexual encounter, Brando made it a point to never be concerned about the marital status of the women he slept with, nor his own marital status during the three times that he was married. From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, page 65:
In the apartment next to my sister's lived a woman named Estrelita Rosa Maria Consuelo Cruz. I called her Luke. She was Columbian and ten or fifteen years older than me; she was olive skinned, fetching, extremely artistic and a great cook. Her husband was overseas with the marines, and one night she invited me for dinner; there was a fireplace, candlelight and wine, and I lost my virginity.
Luke was extremly passionate and sexually unconventional... we'd often walk down a street in New York, duck into an alley and have at it... After her husband came back from overseas, he learned about our affair and divorced her. Our friendship lasted for many years. She was very important to me then, but after her there were many other women in my life.
Brando refers to himself as a Gentile, who was astounded by the Jewish culture he encountered in New York. Below is an excerpt from a passage from Brando's autobiography in which he discusses Jews over pages. From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, by Marlon Brando with Robert Lindsey, New York: Random House (1994), pages 72-74:
I attended the New School for Social Research for only a year, but what a year it was. The school and New York itself had become a sanctuary for hundreds of extraordinary European Jews who had fled Germany and other countries before and during World War II, and they were enriching the city's intellectual life with an intensity that has probably never been equalled anywhere during a comparable period of time. I was raised largely by these Jews. I lived in a world of Jews. They were my teachers; they were my employers. They were my friends. They introduced me to a world of books and ideas that I didn't know existed. I stayed up all night with them--asking questions, arguing, probing, discovering how little I knew, learning how inarticulate I was and how abysmal my education was. I hadn't even finished high school, and many of them had advanced degrees from the finest institutions in Europe. I felt dumb and ashamed, but they gave me an appetite to learn everything. They made me hungry for information. I believed that if I had more knowledge I'd be smarter, which I now realize isn't true. I read Kant, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Locke, Melville, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky and books by dozens of other authors, many of which I never understood.
The New School was a way station for some of the finest Jewish intellectuals from Europe, a temporary haven before they left to join the faculties at universities like Princeton, Yale and Harvard. They were the cream of Europe's academicians, and as teachers they were extraordinary.
One of the great mysteries that has always puzzled me is how Jews, who account for such a tiny fraction of the world's population [pg. 73], have been able to achieve so much and excel in so many different fields--science, music, medicine, literature, arts, business and more. If you listed the most influential people of the last three hundred years, three at the top of the list would be Einstein, Freud and Marx; all were Jews. Many more belong on the list, yet Jews comprise at most less than 3 percent of the United States population. They are an amazing people. Imagine the persecution they endured over the centuries: pogroms, temple burnings, Cossack raids, uprootings of families, their dispersal to the winds and the Holocaust. After the Diaspora, they could not own land or worship in much of the world; they were prohibited from voting and were told where to live. Yet their culture survived and Jews became by far the most accomplished people per capita that the world has ever produced.
For a while I thought that the brilliance and success of Jews was the cumulative yield of an extraordinary rich pool of genes in the Middle East produced over eons by evolution. But then I realized that my theory didn't hold up because following the Diaspora, Ashkenazic Jews evolved into a group physically much different from Sephardic Jews. Spanish Jews had nothing in common with Russian Jews; in fact they could not even speak to them. Russian Jews were isolated from German Jews, who thought of themselves as separate and superior, an Eastern European Jews had nothing to do with the Sephardic Jews. Besides, there had been so much intermarriage over the centuries that genetics alone couldn't explain the phenomenon.
After talking to many Jews and reading about Jewish history and culture, I finally came to the conclusion that in the end being Jewish was a cultural phenomenon rather than a genetic one. It is a state of mind. There is a Yiddish word, seychel, that provides a key to explaining the most profound aspects of Jewish culture. It means to pursue knowledge and to leave the world a better place than when you entered it. Jews revere education and hard work, and they pass these values on from one generation to the next. As far as I am aware, this dynamic and emphasis on excellence is paralleled only in certain Asian cultures. It must be this cultural tradition that accounts for their amazing success, along with Judaism, the one constant that survived while the Jews were dispersed around the world.
Traditions passed on via the Torah and Talmud have somehow helped Jews to fulfill the destiny they have claimed, a kind of "chosen people," if spectacular success in so many, many fields is proof of that. Whatever the reasons for their brilliance and success, I was never educated until I was exposed to them. They introduced me to a sense of culture that has lasted me a lifetime.
As well as academics and scholars from Eastern Europe, Jewish girls, most of whom were more educated, sophisticated and experienced in the ways of the world than I was, were my teachers during those early days in New York. It was common in those days for girls from wealthy New York Jewish families to rent an apartment in the city and have a little fling before striking out on a career or marriage after they graduated from college. With my inept, simple ways, I must have seemed to them like an alien from a galaxy beyond the Milky Way. I was a gentile in a Jewish world who had hardly been to school; I rode a motorcycle; I was young, reasonably attractive, full of vim, vigor and sexuality, an exotic specimen if for no other reason than I was different from the boys these girls had grown up with. I didn't follow any of their rules and they didn't follow any of mine. They were fascinated by me and I by them. Many were more experienced sexually than I was, and I was a willing and happy pupil. I remember especially Caroline Burke, a beautiful woman who was about ten years older than I was, in whom I always regretted not making a more permanent investment. She was not only physically attractive and well educated, but bursting with elegance, charm, taste and appreciation for beautiful things. she lived in an apartment filled with antiques and always wore delicious perfume. To her, I suppose I was a kind of bumpkin--a nineteen-year-old farm boy who still worried secretly that he had manure on his shoes, but she taught me a great deal.
I was walking down Fifty-seventh Street with Caroline one day and innocently asked, 'Isn't it funny how you see so many women with blond hair and a mink coat?" There was a woman in front of us with blond hair wearing a mink coat and we were talking about her, when Caroline said, "She's Jewish." I asked, "How do you know?" She answered, "Well, it's because . . . I don't know, she's just Jewish." I said, "You mean to say, just because she has blond hair and a mink--" She interrupted, "Look, I'm a Jew and I know what Jews are like from the front, back, side or top." "Well, how can you tell a Jew from a non-Jew?" She replied, "Well, you have to be Jewish to know that." I was stunned, and I thought Caroline had remarkable powers of perception.
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 78-81:
When I met her, Stella [Adler] was about forty-one, quite tall and very beautiful, with blue eyes, stunning blond hair and a leonine presence, but a woman much disappointed by what life had dealt her. She was a marvelous actress who unfortunately never got a chance to become a great star, and I think this embittered her. A member of one of the great theatrical families of America, she appeared in almost two hundred plays over a span of thirty years, and wanted very much to be a famous peformer. But like many Jewish actors of her era, she faced a cruel and insidious form of anti-Semitism; producers in New York and especially in Hollywood wouldn't hire actors if they "looked Jewish," no matter how good they were.
Hollywood was always a Jewish community; it was started by Jews and to this day is run largely by Jews. But for a long time it was venomously anti-Semitic in a perverse way, especially before the war, when Jewish performers had to disguise their Jewishness if they wanted a job. These actors were frightened, and understandably so. When I was breaking into acting, I constantly heard about agents submitting an actor or actress for a part, taking them to the theater for a reading and afterward hearing the producer say, "Terrific. Thank you very much. We'll call you."
After the actor was gone, the agent would ask, "Well, Al, what did you think?"
"Great," the producer would say, "He was terrific, but he's too Jewish."
If you "looked Jewish," you didn't get a part and couldn't make a living. You had to look like Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Paul Muni or Paulette Goddard and change your name. They were Jews, but didn't "look Jewish" and employed the camouflage of non-Jewish names. Hence Julius Garfinkle became John Garfield, Marion Levy became Paulette Goddard, Emmanuel Goldenberg became Edward G. Robinson and Muni Weisenfreund became Paul Muni. Later this changed when people like Barbra Streisand said, "I'll be damned if I'm going to change my name. I'm a Jew and I'm proud of it." Now Jews don't have to get their noses operated on to get a job, but Stella was part of a different era. She went to Hollywood, made three movies and changed her last name to "Ardler," [later: Stella Adler] hoping it would help, but she had a sharp, aquiline nose that gave her the "Jewish look." She had it operated on and the result made her look more like a shiksa; but producers still said she looked too Jewish to offer her the kind of jobs her talent deserved and that would have made her a star.
But while Stella never fulfilled her dream, she left an astounding legacy. Virtually all acting in motion pictures today stems from her, and she had an extraordinary effect on the culture of [pg. 81] her time. I don't think audiences realize how much we are in debt to her, to other Jews and to the Russian theater for most performances we see now. The techniques she brought back, to this country and taught others changed acting enormously. First she passed them on to the other members of the Group Theatre, and then to actors like me who became her students. We plied our trade according to the manner and style she taught us, and since American movies dominate the world market, Stella's teachings have influenced actors throughout the world.
Stella always said no one could teach acting, but she could. She had a knack for teaching people about themselves, enabling them to use their emotions and bring out their hidden sensitivity. She also had a gift for communicating her knowledge; she could tell you not only when you were wrong, but why. Her instincts were unerring and extraordinary. If I hit a sour note in a scene, she knew it immediately and said, "No, wait, wait, wait . . . that's wrong!" and then dug into her large reserve of intuitive intelligence to explain why my character would behave in a certain way based on the author's vision.
"Method acting" was a term popularized, bastardized and misused by Lee Strasberg, a man for whom I have little respect, and therefore I hesitate to use it. What Stella taught her students was how to discover the nature of their own emotional mechanics and therefore those of others. She taught me to be real and not to try to act out an emotion I didn't personally experience during a performance.
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, page 98:
I spent more and more time with Stella Adler's family, who virtually adopted me after my mother left, and they may have saved my sanity. Stella was the daughter of Sarah and Jacob P. Adler, a great star of the Yiddish stage, and her husband, Harold Clurman, was a prominent and respected writer, producer and critic. Having dinner with them was like spending an evening with the Marx Brothers. In Libertyville I'd only met one or two Jews and never experienced Jewish humor, which is subtle, powerful and hilarious. The Adlers were so funny that I was convulsed every time I was there; jokes flew around the dinner table like bullets, half in Yiddish and half in English, and I laughed so hard that I nearly got a hernia.
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 99-100:
While I was being given a home and an education by the Jews who befriended me in New York, World War II was ending. The war had been remote from my vantage point of the Adlers' dinner table and the stage of the Music Box Theatre. No one had any real sense yet of what was happening to the Jews of Europe, and my knowledge of the war came mostly from the Translux Theatre on Forty-seventh Street and Broadway, where I went between shows to watch the pyrotechnics of mortal combat. While others were suffering and dying, to me the war had only meant not always getting the kind of cigarettes or candy I liked, crowded trains, a lot of people in New York wearing uniforma and the USO shows in which we performed. I had a sense that though the world had gone through a cataclysm, little had changed: in Harlem black people were still being treated as less than human, there was still rampant poverty and anti-Semitism and there seemed to be as much injustice as before. I wa beginning to hear a voice in my head that said I had a responsibility to do something about it and that acting was not an important vocation in life when the world was still facing so many problems.
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 107-109:
Instead of The Iceman Cometh, I acted in a play directed by Stella's brother Luther, A Flag Is Born. It was a powerful, well-written pageant by Ben Hecht with music by Kurt Weill, although it was essentially a piece of political propaganda advocating the creation of the state of Israel and indirectly condemning the British for stopping the Jewish refugees en route from Europe to colonize Palestine. At that time, September 1946, the New York Jewish community and Jews throughout the world were fixated on the future of Palestine and Zionism. I wanted to act in the play because of what we were beginning to learn about the true nature of the killing of the Jews and because of the empathy I felt for the Adlers and the other Jews who had become my friends and teachers and who told me of their dreams for a Jewish state. In hindsight, I think it was also because I wa starting what would become a journey to try to understand the human impulse that maks it not only possible but easy for one group of people to single out another and try to destroy it. It was the beginning of a lifelong interest in the dark side off human behavior.
Everyone in A Flag Is Born was Jewish except me. Paul Muni, the star, gave an astonishing performance, the best acting I have ever seen. I was onstage with him and he gave me goosebumps. His performance was magical and affected me deeply. He was the only actor who ever moved me to leave my dressing room to watch him from the wings. He never failed to chill me with one particular speech. I played a young Jewish firebrand named David struggling to find his way to Palestine; in a graveyard he meets the wounded and dying Tevya, a prophetlike man, played by Muni, who tries to help him but dies. David covers him with a Jewish flag, then exist, presumably to carry on the fight to make a homeland in Palestine. At the beginning of the second act I had a speech during which a sharp light came down from above and two other lights hit me from the side. It was a fiery, accusatory speech that began with a pause. I waited a long time after the curtain went up, then quietly said, "Where were you?" I paused again and said, "Where were you, Jews?" Another long pause, and then I started to yell at the top of my lungs, "Where were you Jews when six million Jews were being burned to death in the ovens? Where were you?" It sent chills through the audience, which was almost always all-Jewish, because at the time there was a great deal of soul-searching within the Jewish community over whether they had done enough to stop the slaughter of their people--some argued that they should have applied pressure on President Roosevelt to bomb Auschwitz, for example--so the speech touched a sensitive nerve. At some performances, Jewish girls got out of their seats and screamed and cried from the aisles in sadness, and in one, when I asked, "Where were you when six million Jews were being burned to death in the ovens of Auschwitz?" a woman was so overcome with anger and guilt that she rose and shouted back at me, "Where were you?"
At the time, I was outraged along with most people, Jews and gentiles alike, that the British were stopping ships from carrying the half-starved survivors of Hitler's death camps to a new life--people with little food, nothing to go on except a few dried-up handfuls of hope, including children still suffering from typhus and bleeding internally. That people fresh out of Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Auschwitz should be stopped on the open sea by British warships and interned again behind barbed wire on Cyprus was enraging. I did not know then that Jewish terrorists were indiscriminately killing Arabs and making refugees out of them in order to take their land; nor did I understand that the British had taken it upon themselves to authorize the forced removal of millions of Arabs who had lived on that land as long as the biblical Jews had.
The play, as well as my friendship with the Adlers, helped make me a zealous advocate for Israel and later a kind of traveling salesman for it.
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 110-111:
After volunteering to raise money, I realized that the American Jewish community was divided over the issue of just how militant Jews should be in pursuing their aspirations for a homeland. Some supported David Ben-Gurion, who while publicly seeming to acquiesce to Britain's insistence that Jewish refugees be interned on Cyprus and other places, was secretly smuggling boatloads of them into Palestine. Others were more impatient and supported Jewish underground groups such as the Stern Gang and the Irgun Zvai Leumi, whose leaders believed that terrorism and military action were necessary to wear down British resistance and lead to the early creation of Israel. I sided with the militants, as did a lot of my Jewish friends. Seeing the films made during the liberation of the Nazi death camps had been a searing experience for me, and I thought that Jews, who had suffered so much, had to do whatever was necessary to acquire a safe place where they could not be punishe dfurther by the world. I contributed money to buy food for the internment camps, then became a member of one of about twenty two-man teams that traveled around the country soliciting support for the League for a Free Palestine, which in fact was a front for the Irgun. In Jewish schools, synagogues and other places, we described how European Jews who had been lucky enough to survive Hitler's death camps were being imprisoned in displaced-person camps nearly as inhumane as those the Nazis operated. And we argued that the British had to be pushed out of Palestine. There was always a lot of yelling at the temples we visited between the Jews who favored Ben-Gurion's approach and those favoring the terrorists whom I supported and who at the time were called "Freedom Fighters." No I understand much more about the complexity of the situation than I did then.
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 146-147:
I never planned or aspired or had any ambition to become a movie star. It just happened. I never felt a passion to act for any other reason than to supply myself with the needs of life. When it happened, I was grateful to find something at which I could make a living. I didn't have anything better to do, acting didn't grate on me, and after a while I could do it without expending a lot effort. Later, when it became less enjoyable, it was still the best way I knew to make a lot of money in a short time. To me, acting has always been only a means to an end, a source of money for which I didn't have to work very hard. The hours are short, the pay good, and when you're done, you're as free as a bird. I don't look down on it, but I have always been much more interested in other aspects of life. Sometimes the themes of plays and movies I have been in have been interesting, the acting itself doesn't really absorb me. It has advantages over some jobs. I wouldn't have wanted to spend my life as a real estate salesman or lawyer. Any nine-to-five job I don't think I could bear. I don't do well under circumstances in which I have to be highly disciplined and responsible to other people. But if a studio offered to pay me as much to sweep the floor as it did to act, I'd sweep the floor. Better yet, I would just as soon someone drove up to my house once a week, handed me some money and said, "Good morning, Marlon, how you doing?"
"Just fine, thank you. See you next week when you bring more money."
Brando prepared for his role in The Men (about a group of paraplegic and quadriplegic soldiers in a California Veterans Hospital after World War II) by spending time in just such a hospital, disguised as a patient. From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, page 149:
...we went out for dinner to an Italian restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, all of us in our wheelchairs, and a woman came over and said to us, "I'm so proud of you, boys. I know what you've done for your country."
She kept repeating herself, going on and on while the guys became increasingly uncomfortable. They didn't want her pity. They weren't interested in what she had to say; the only thing they wanted to do was enjoy their night out.
"I know you boys will be able to walk someday. You just have to work hard and you'll do it. I have faith in God that he will help you and you'll be all right. You've got to believe because you are with the Lord and the Lord is with you and will help you.
They were really getting sick of her, so I said, "You know, ma'am, I believe you. I believe in the Lord."
"Well," she said, "I want you to believe. You should believe it, soldiers, because I know that with the Lord's work you can recover."
I said, "I do believe! I do believe! I feel the ord has come right into this room and into my body. The Lord is in my body! I feel it . . ."
I got up and started tap dancing, then ran around the restaurant and sprinted out the door shouting, "Hallelujah!"
The guys in their wheelchairs cracked up. Unfortunately they didn't get many laughs.
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 152-154:
Making the movie [A Streetcar Named Desire] reinforced my decision not to take on another Broadway play. I've heard it said that I sold out to Hollywood. In a way it's true, but I knew exactly what I was doing. I've never had any respect for Hollywood. It stands for avarice, phoniness, greed, crassness and bad taste, but when you act in a movie, you only have to work three months a year, ehen you can do as you please for the rest.
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, page 176:
In [The Wild One] we were accused of glamorizing motorcycle gangs, whose members were considered inherently evil, with no redeeming qualities. Judeo-Christian values categorize people as good or evil, and society then punishes the evil. But this is absurd. Most people who commit crimes do so because they have been deprived socially, emotionally, or economically. To cure this problem, society in its wisdom punishes them, and when they commit other crimes, it is inspired with the brilliant idea of putting three-times losers away forever. All we need to ddo is build more prisons and the problem is solved!
As I've grown older I've realized that no people are inherently bad, including the bullies portrayed in The Wild One. In this regard I agree with the words Tennessee Williams wrote to Elia Kazan... about the characters in A Streetcar Named Desire: "There are no 'good' or 'bad' people," Tennesee wrote. "Some are a little better or a little worse, but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice. A blindness to what is going on in each other's hearts . . . nobody sees anybody truly but all through the falws of their own egos. That is the way we all see each other in life. Vanity, fear, desire, competition--all such distortions within our own egos--condition our vision of those in relation to us..."
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 218-219:
I've always been amazed by the qualities in human nature that can turn crowds into mobs. Those people with hungry, glazed eyes looking at us through those car windows were in a trance. They were like helpless robots swaiying to a magic flute. Much the same sort of thing happened when Frank Sinatra betwitched bobby-soxers at the same theater a few years ealier, and ten years later the Beatles would similarly mesmerize a different generation. For some reason celebrities of a certain kind are treated as messiahs whether they like it or not; people encapsulate them in myths that touch their deepest yearnings and needs. It seems to me hilarious that our government put the face of Elvis Presley on a postage stamp after he died from an overdose of drugs. His fans don't mention that because they don't want to give up the myths. They ignore the fact that he was a drug addict and claim he invented rock 'n' roll when in fact he took it from black culture; they had been singing that way for years before he came along, copied them and became a star.
Of course mythologizing isn't limited to celebrities or political leaders. We all create myths about our friends as well as our enemies. We can't help it. Whether it's Michael Jackson or Richard Nixon, we run instinctively to their defense because we don't want our myths demolished... We make up any excuse to preserve myths about people we love, but the reverse is also true; if we dislike an individual we adamantly resist changing our opinion, even when somebody offers proof of his decency, because it's vital to have myths about both the gods and the devils in our lives.
Brando recalls the death of his mother, from: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, page 229:
...in 1953, she [Marlon Brando's mother] was brought to California, and I was beside her hospital bed with her hand in mine when she died. She was only fifty-five years old. After hearing her death rattle, I took a lock of her hair, the pillow she died on, and a beautiful aquamarine ring from her finger and walked outside. It was about five A.M. on a spring morning in Pasadena, and it seemed as if everything in nature had been imbued with her spirit: the birds, the leaves, the flowers and especially the wind, all seemed to reflect it. She had given me a love of nature and animals, and the night sky, and a sense of closeness to the earth. I felt she was with me there, outside the hospital, and it helped get me through the loss. She was gone, but I felt she had been transformed into everything that was reflective of nature and was going to be all right. Suddenly I had a vision of a great bird climbing into the sky higher and higher and I heard Ferde Grofe's Mississippi Suite. Now I often hear the music and see her in the same way, a majestic bird floating on thermals of warm ar, gliding higher and higher past a great stone cliff.
I keep my mother's ring close to me. For a long while after she died, the stone was vibrant and full of color, pigmented with deeper and deper shades of blue, but recently I've noticed that the colors have begun to fade. With each year it fades more; now it's not blue anymore, but a misty, foggy gray. I don't know why.
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 230-233:
In the middle years of my life, I spent a lot of time searching to dedicate my life to and give it more meaning. Elia Kazan claimed I once told him, "Here I am, a balding middle-aged failure, and I feel like a fraud when I act. I've tried everything --[fornication], drining, work--and none of it means anything." I don't remember saying that, but I may have. With so much prejudice, racial discrimination, injustice, hatred, poverty, starvation and suffering in the world, making movies seemed increasingly silly and irrelevant, and I felt I had to do what I could to make things better.
I spent these years of my life in a philosophical quandary, thinking, If I am not my brother's keeper, who am I? What are the lines between that which is mine, and that which is Caesar's? Where does my life end and my responsibility to others begin?
For a long time I was driven to involve myself in a war against what I perceived as social injustice and political hypocrisy. As I've grown older, I am less sure of many of the things I felt then, but it was another time. For most of my life, a black-and-white world was attractive and convenient for me; it was easier to take sides. As when I sided with Jewish terrorists without acknowledging that they were killing innocent Palestinians in their effort to create the state of Israel, I believed there was right and wrong about everything, with nothing in between, and I wanted to be sure I was always on the right side. There were good people and bad people, and the bad people were my enemies. The human mind finds it difficult to deal with gray areas. It's much more convenient to say, "These people are evil," "This is bad," or "This is good." With age, I've come to realize that nothing is wholly right or wholly wrong, and that everything human beings do is a product of their heritage, perspective, genes and experience. I think a principal fault of our concept of justice is that it is based on the Judeo-Christian beliefs that separate the world into the guilty and the innocent. No child is born evil. People may be born with a genetic disposition toward one characteristic or another--they have a certain level of intelligence, a special talent, a personality feature, a physical ability--but otherwise they are naked when they enter the world. Using the word "evil" is aconvenient way to label an enemy. I sued to say that Roy Cohn, who spearheaded Joe McCarthy's bloodletting, personified evil more than any other person I knew. No I realize I don't know what forced made him do what he did. I'm more forgiving now, but it took many years to become that way. Sometimes I still have an impulse to hate and exact vengeance on an enemy, but then I realize that it is a wasted emotion and that I have better things to do with the rest of my life.
However, earlier in my life I often affixed myself to what the press called "causes." What affected me most was the suffering of children. I couldn't understand how the world could let so many children starve to death. Nor could I remain silent when I saw the strong exploid the weak. People pigeonholed me as a knee-jerk liberal and mouthed cliches like, "Brando is a defender of the underdog." I bridled at words like "militant," "radical" and "liberal" because they were so glibly used to confuse and mislabel complex attitudes. Still, to be fair, I can understand given the natural human proclivity to see things in black and white, how some of the things I did during the middle of my life produced this image in some minds.
I thought about becoming a minister, not because I was a religious person, other than having an inexaustible awe and reverence for nature, but because I thought it might give me more of a purpose in life. I flirted with the idea for a while, but in the end it never developed sufficient force to make me want to do it. Or maybe it was because I became interested in the United Natinos, which for a while I saw as perhaps our last hope for peace, social justice and a more equitable sharing of the earth's resources. For the first time in history, people from different nations with diverse natures, colors, religions and philosophies were working together for the common good. It was impressed by what I read about the UN's technical-assistance program, which promised to give poor people the know-how and tools to feed themselves, and to create jobs and develop industry. I volunteered to help the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund... I became a roving ambassador for the agency, preaching a different kind of religion: that above all, the world owes its children a decent life. I made television spots for UNICEF and traveled to dozens of countries, holding press conferences to spread the word about the importance of its work and putting on shows to raise money for it, believing with foolish vanity that I could make a difference by using my movie experience to focus attention on the despair and anguish so many children were enduring. In the spring of 1955, I organized my own movie production company--named Pennebaker Productions after my mother's maiden name--with three objectives: to make films that would be a force for good in the world, to create a job for my father that would give him something to do after my mother died and to cut taxes. He complained constantly that taxes were taking 80 percent of what I earned, and that by forming a corporation we would be able to cut them substantially to put some away for my retirement.
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 265-266:
In the spring of 1965 I visited the Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona and met an old medicine woman. She was charming, with intelligent dark eyes, and I asked her if she could tell anything about me simply by looking at me. Through an interpreter she said yes, she could, and she dipped her hand into a box of flowers beside her and sprinkled yellow cornflowers over my head and shoulders, letting them fall around me. She said alcohol had played a very important part in my life, and that I was about to be struck by lightning. As she said it, I felt a strange sensation streak through my nervous system.
"Both your parents are dead," she went on.
"No," I said, "one of them is dead--my mother--but not my father."
Within minutes, I was informed that there was a telephone call for me at the tribal office. It was one of my sisters calling, to tell me my father had just died. We both laughed, and I said, "And not a moment too soon."
I got in my car and drove all the way home. It took almost twelve hours. I was with a woman named Honey, who was from Holland, and when we got home and were in bed I told her about my father and how I felt about him. Then, as I began to drift off to sleep, I had a vision of him walking down a sidewalk away from me, then turning around to look at me, a slump-shouldered Willy Loman with a faint smile on his face. When he got to the edge of eternity, he stopped and looked back again, turned halfway toward me and, with his eyes downcast, said, I did the best I could, kid. He turned away again, and I knew he was looking for my mother.
Then, like her, he became a bird and started rising in the sky, soaring higher and higher until he found her beside a cliff, where she had been waiting for him.
Brando did some filming in India. He describes in his autobiography how he felt about the Indian caste system. From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, page 294:
India's caste system is the most insidious social system man has ever devised, though in principle it is no different from caste systems in all societies. Similar hierarchies exist in all anthropoidal systems, among humans, baboons, chimpanzees and gorillas. In India the system is simply more complex and stratified, with some nineteen thousand subcastes in Hindu society. People born into inferior castes are presumed to have done evil in a previous life; at the top of the hierarchy, the Brahmans claim to be descendants of the holiest priestly class. Yet even some Brahmans won't marry other Brahmans because they are not in the same subcaste. Because of Gandhi, it has been illegal since 1941 to treat untouchables as inferior, but laws can't change how people think. Even with all his force and power, Gandhi barely made a dent. This appalling system, with variations, is common in all societies, including ours, as a result of the fundamental human drive to organize into groups and identify others as inferior. It is ironic that when the British, whose class system is as rigid, if not as complex, as the Indians', ruled the country, they treated the Brahmans as if they were a lowly caste.
In the United States we've always had our own untouchables--American Indians, blacks, homosexuals. Who knows who will be next?
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 297-298:
When the civil rights movement took shape in the late fifties and early sixties, I did whatever I could to support it and went down South with Paul Newman, Virgil Freye, Tony Franciosa and other friends to join the freedom marches and be with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At the March on Washington, I stood a few steps behind Dr. King when he gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, and it still still reverberates in my mind. He was a man I deeply admired. I've always thought that while a part of him regretted having to become so deeply involved in the cause of racial equality, another part of him drove him to it, though I'm convinced he knew he would have to sacrifice himself.
I have never been so deeply moved by anything as the words King spoke the night before he was murdered in Memphis: "I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you . . ." but his people would reach the promised land. "I'm not fearing any man." He said he would like to live a long life, for longevity had its place, but, "Mine yees have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. . . ." It was almost as if he were announcing his death; somehow he knew it was near and inevitable. I believe he was ready to die. He had accomplished much, but I think he felt such anguish and pain that he was near the end of his tether. His mission in Memphis had simply been to get a small wage increase for the city's garbage collectors, a job that was among the best a black man could hope for. His bravery and courage in the fact of imminent disaster still move me.
Brando's lifestyle included predatory promiscuity throughout most of his adult life. In Brando's autobiography, in one of many lurid accounts of his own selfishness, Brando recalled how he met a young woman who was clearly mentally deranged. He deflowered her while preying upon her fantasy that he was Jesus and she was Mary Magdalene. After he had sex with this once-virgin woman, he persuaded her to see a psychiatrist, but his actions had pushed her over the edge into psychosis. Not long afterwards she tried to killer herself by slashing her wrists (Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 158-162). One of the many passages from Brando's autobiography in which he relates anecdotes about his promiscuous nature, from: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, page 331:
I have always been lucky with women. There have been many of them in my life, though I hardly ever spent more than a couple of minutes with any of them. I've had far too many affairs to think of myself as a normal, rational man. But somehow I always thought there must be something--someone--out there. There was something: huge alimony payments, and if not that, enough trouble for fifty men.
With women, I've had what you might call a Rolodex life. I enjoy identifying and pushing the right emotional buttons of women--whcih usually means making them feel that they are of value to me and offering them security for themselves and their children. The less likely I was to seduce a woman, the more I wanted to succeed. Doing rude things to nuns was always a fantasy. In a hospital once, I tried; her name was Sister Raphael and she was quite beautiful. She often came to my room to see how I was feeling, and because there was something unusually extroverted about her, I thought, Somehwere in her there's got to be a touch of the tart. So I tried--and failed. Whatever human responses may have been stirring beneath her habit, she was committed to God, and no force on earth is more powerful than a strong belief system, religious or otherwise.
One of the relatively few women with whom Marlon Brando had a more-than-fleeting relationship was named Weonna, whose penchant for promiscuity rivaled Brando's own. From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, page 361:
At the funeral I looked down at Weonna in her coffin, put a bouquet of flowers in her hand, whispered to her that I loved her and then kissed her. I've missed her every day since. She gave me the gift of laughter.
Weonna had told me that when she died she wanted to be buried near her father in a Catholic cemetary in South Dakota. I told her mother about it, but she said that Weonna's uncle, a priest, said that she didn't deserve to be buried in a Catholic cemetery because she had left the Church. I wanted to strangle him, but her mother followed his wishes and Weonna was buried in a nondenominational cemetery in the san Fernando Valley, where she lies today. Sometimes I drive down the hill from my home and put flowers on her grave. Her mother is also dead now, and I've often thought of having Weonna's casket moved so that she can be with her father. I know that one day I'll do it.
Marlon Brando is widely known for his interest in Native Americans. A widely known expression of this interest was when he stayed away from Academy Award ceremony at which he was presented an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in The Godfather. Instead of going himself, Brando sent an actress dressed as a Native American woman to accept the award on his behalf. The woman was to deliver a political speech written by Brando about the plight of Native Americans, but Howard Koch, the producer of the show, intercepted her and confiscated the printed speech, leaving the woman to ad lib a few words conveying Brando's ideas on the subject. It was a rather scandalous and embarrassing event at the time, but Brando could care less, and today Brando's bizarre method for accepting that Oscar is one of Hollywood's favorite anecdotes about the iconoclastic actors. In his autobiography, Brando spends two chapters (pages 373-402) discussing his thoughts about Native Americans and recounting some of his experiences with them. Other material on the subject is scattered throughout the book, although for the most part he restricts the topic to this section. From his autobiography and from other sources it seems clear that not only did Brando have great concern for Native American causes, but he also adopted and identified with Native American religion and spirituality to some degree. From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 375-377:
...my experiences with the Native Americans had given me a sense of brotherhood with them that has lasted to this day. I was introduced to Indian food, Indian humor, Indian religion and the Sun Dance, an intense spiritual experience that the federal government had banned as part of its campaign to break the spirit and cohesiveness of Native Americans until they demanded and won the right to perform it again in the 1960s. One reason I liked being with the Indians was that they didn't give anyone movie-star treatment. They didn't give a damn about my movies. Everyone's the same; everyone shares and shares alike.
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 403-404:
The Academy Awards and the hoopla surrounding them elevate acting to a level that I don't think it deserves... The ceremony has its roots in Hollywood's obsession with self-promotion; people in the business have a passion for paying tribute to one another. I suspect it stems from the fact that so many of them are Jewish. It is part of their faith to recognize and reward good works and be honored for them. This reassure them that they are worthy people, especially after having grown up in a culture where there is a great deal of guilt and pressure to excel. Jews who are recognized for good words even get a better seat in the synagogue, meaning that they are closer to God. Even the name of the organization, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is an exaggeration. I laugh at people who call moviemaking an art and actors "artistts." Rembrandt, Beethoven, Shakespeare and Rodin were artists; actors are worker ants in a business and they toil for money. That's why it's always been called "the movie business."
Brando began seriously practicing meditation during the 1980s. From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 443-448:
During the ten years between The Formula in 1979 and The Freshman in 1989... I spent a lot of time on Teti'aroa, read a lot and became interested in many things, including meditation, one of many interests the luxury of time and money allowed me to examine during the eighties and early nineties.
Meditation was something I slipped into easily. I suppose it came out of acting...
[page 444] With practice, I discovered that it was a very effective way to relax and reduce stress. I consulted a Hindu swami and others versed in the practice, read more about it and eventually began meditating daily...
[page 445] During one of my first sessions with [a] biofeedback expert, I put on some headphones and he played a tape with sound waves recorded at the same frequency as my brain waves... I lay back and relaxed, but before long I felt myself being pulled apart like a was of chewing gum stretched until it was an invisible filament. That's what was happening to my mind: I was splitting in two, and it scared me...
The next time I put on the headphones, I didn't resist and allowed myself to glide past the feelings that had made me so fearful the first time, and to travel along with them. After a few moments, I suddenly felt like a supersonic plane hurtling through the sound barrier. But once I was past the initial turbulence of that panic, everything became smooth and I was in a state of mind that can only be described as ecstasy. It lasted forty-five minutes, persisting even after the doctor returned and turned off the tape machine. I was in a dream talking to God. I felt peaceful, serene, utterly in repose, and I told the doctor, who seemed a thousand miles away, "I've never had such a sense of quietness or of beaty, tranquillity and peace in my entire life. I feel as if I had died and gone to nirvana."
The doctor said I had experienced satori, a state of consciousness that Zen masters consider one of sudden enlightenment. In diminishing intensity, the experience continued for three days before I was again in a normal state of mind.
Now I try to meditate twice a day for an hour or more. On only three occasions have I ever again achieved the sensation of satori, but it is always a pleasant, comforting experience. During the past few years, meditation has helped me enormously in dealing with a number of problems in my life. Through repetition, old emotional habits are replaced, and instead of getting excited, angry or anxious, I become calm. Repetition is as important to meditation as it is to many religious rituals. Catholic priests may order their parishioners to say ten Hail Mary's after confession; in Africa, Haiti and other places, religious masters put their followers into trances by exposing them to the repeated rhythms of drums so intense that the sounds go right through their bodies to become a part of them, and people surrender to the rhythm as they do during meditation. The mental processes are too subtle for me to understand or even to identify, and scientists haven't been very successful at deciphering them either. But in the theater I've seen how susceptible the human mind is to suggestion, and have wondered if there are related forces at play... As an actor, you try to use the power of suggestion to manipulate people's moods, and that's not a lot different from happens during a religious ritual.
It took the Vatican more than three hundred years to admit that Galileo was right, and some things about the world haven't changed. I am constantly amazed at the depth of intellectual prejucie in Western culture. [page 447] Nothing is a fact unless it comes out of a petri dish. A certain type of political correctness discourages inquiry beyond certain limits; prejudice against responsible scientific reseearch in certain fields--parasychology, for example--is appalling. But nothing beats the apathy and skepticism regarding the mental disciplines of the Eastern religions. For at least two thousand years, yogis and swamis have been certain of the power of the mind over the body, as demonstrated by their ability to put their bodies in a kind of suspended animation that enables them to survive being buried underground for hours or even days. Their accomplishments cry out for more research, but to many Western scientists these powers and the insight that the swamis, yogis and other students of the mind have attained are merely tricks or scientific oddities.
This hasn't changed since the first British colonials landed in India and observed the extraordinary yogic disciplines; they all but ignored them because they considered Western culture the font of all wisdom and knowledge. Even now, if a scientist such as Linus Pauling acknowledges that Eastern religions have developed extraordinary mind-body relationships in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, he is considered a flake. This isn't surprising because that's what usually happens when bright people with achievements in one field challenge the status quo accepted by specialists in another. Even Einstein, when he expressed opinions in fields other than his own, was thought of as an eccentric; Arnold Toynbee was told to stick tohistory and not venture into areas of science he knew nothing about because his ideas didn't conform to concepts that were in vogue at the time. Still, during the next century, as science shifts from its twentieth-century preoccupation with exploring the physical world to the far more interesting world of the mind and nerogenetics, this attitude will change. As Francis Crick has pointed out, brain chemistry is responsible for human thought, behavior and character--everything about us. I believe that we can control the mind, and that man will demonstrate a capacity to do things beyond his wildest imagination. I don't know yet what the limitations of my own mind are. I haven't reached them yet, but I won't stop searching for them until I die. It is territory different from anything I've ever explored before--uncharted waters--and I feel like an explorer. In many ways it is the most exciting expedition I've ever undertaken.
Brando controlled such a level of control over his body and mental state through meditation that when he decided to be circumcised, he asked to do so without anesthesia, although doctors were reluctant to let him do so. (Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, page 448).
Brando recounted a time when a particularly fierce storm hit his Tahitian island. From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, page 453:
I called for a plane from Papeete to evacuate the island, but when it arrived, four or five of the Tahitians refused to leave; they said they trusted in God and if they left, it would insult him and risk his wrath...
The second storm was less severe than the first, but powerful nevertheless, and after it passed, I sat down in the lagoon in shallow water up to my waist... Then suddenly it was sunset. Tahitian sunsets defy any ability to describe them, but if you have never believed in God, you are tempted to think otherwise when you see one there. They are celestial symphonies, a concerto of colors that shift in mood, tempo and color by the second...
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, page 455:
There have been several important influences on my life. Philosophically I've felt closest to the American Indians; I sympathize with them, admire their culture, and have learned a great deal from them. Jews opened my mind and taught me to value knowledge and learning, and blacks also taught me a lot. But I think Polynesians have had the greatest influence because of how they live.
In Tahiti I learned how to live, though I discovered that I could never be a Tahitian. When I first wen there, I had illusions of becoming Polynesian. I wanted to fuse myself with the culture. However, eventually I realized that not only were my genes different, but the emotional algebra of my life was unsuited to becoming anything but who I am, so I gave up trying and instead simply learned to appreciate what they have. I suppose I was learning the same lessons that I did from Jews, blacks and American Indians: you can admire and love a culture, you can even attach yourself to the edges of it, but you can't ever become part of it. You have to be who you are.
Brando discusses Polynesian culture and Tahitian culture specifically, and his fondness for it, in detail, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 449-459.
From: Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, pages 462-465:
I've also changed some of my views bout the nature of human behavior. When I was young, I embraced the Judeo-Christian concept of good and evil, and its corollary, that all of us were responsible for our deeds because of the choices we made. I don't believe this anymore. Philosophers like Plato, Socrates, Kant and Spinoza have argued for millennia over the nature of free will, and of good and evil. Epicurus said that God was either uncaring and chose to ignore evil, or he was unable to prevent it and therefore not omnipotent. But Saint Augustine, trying to resolve the paradox that Christians face about how a supposedly benevolent God could allow evil to exist, rationalized it by arguing that evil was not a product of God but was the absence of good, and that what at first appeared to be evil might turn out to be good in the context of eternity. This is how events like the Holocaust and the slaughter of the Native Americans are explained. But I believe that the roots of the behavior we call "evil" are genetic. I've never found any system--religious, social, philosophical, ethical, political or economic--that was able to suppress man's innate animus and prediliction to gether into groups dedicated to exterminating other groups for their beliefs, profit, hatred or frolic. I believe our genetic impulses are so strong that we cannot overcome them. No matter how well equipped we are to celebrate, our minds are in direct service to our emotions, and yet we cling to the outmoded myths of goodness and evil in the Bible and the Talmud. Neither money, religious zeal, political revolution or even knowledge can alter the basic nature of the human animal. Nothing has ever made people good. I have given away millions of dollars, but I realize now that most of it didn't do any good for the people I intended it for...
[page 464] Whatever gains of optimism in me about the evolution of mankind are centered in the belief that genetic alteration, however fraught with danger, is the only possible solution to what Hannah Arendt referred to as the banality of evil. I don't think anything in the range of human existence since Neanderthal man--not fire or the invention of weapons or the wheel--equals in importance Francis Crick and James Watson's discovery of the structure of DNA. It will have an incalculable effect on society, religion and our concept of ourselves. Within a few years, scientists will finish mapping the human genome based on Crick and Watson's discovery, and with it will come an opportunity to alter the nature of man. Already scientists are beginning to unravel the sources of the neural disorders that produce anger and frustration, the will to kill and the hostility that produces war. They have already linked some genetic defects to certain kinds of aggressive and violent behavior; they are starting to make extraordinary advances in biogenetics and neurogenetics, opening doors that will lead to a clearer understanidng not only of how genes affect our behavior, but how to alter that behavior. In the science of behavioral genetics, we're on the cusp of enormous change. The time is approaching when the genes of a chimpanzee can be altered to give him the gift of speech. Genetic engineering of human behavior will advance on a parallel track. If the human race has a genetic fault that causes errant behavior or self-destruction, it will simply be removed.
A fantasy, you say? I think it is inevitable--and necessarily so if our species is ever to stop killing its own kind.
[page 465] Of course there will be an uproar in the churches when scientists have the power to engineer human beings. It will be argued that the design of human beings is God's province alone. There may even be enough resistance to advancing the science of behavioral genetics to halt temporarily what is doable, but whenever something is possible, sooner or later it will be done. The world has always been in a state of revolution between the old and the new, and new discoveries are unstoppable. The twenty-first century will produce a far bigger revolution in the biological sciences than the twentieth century did in the physical sciences. It has taken me seventy years to refrain from doing certain things that were destructive to me and to other people, and to resolve emotional conflicts that produced errant social behavior. With genetic implants I probably would not have been burdened with the emotional disorders that caused me to spend most of my life in emotional disarray. In the future, specialists will recognize the kind of trouble I had as a child and be able to do something about it.
From: Louie Kemp, "Passover with Marlon Brando: My Seder With Brando" in Jewish Magazine, Issue Number 89 (http://www.jewishmag.com/89mag/brandoseder/brandoseder.htm; viewed 26 August 2005):
You might remember him as Don Vito Corleone, Stanley Kowalski or the eerie Col. Walter E. Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now," but I remember Marlon Brando as a mensch and a personal friend of the Jewish people when they needed it most.
I got to know Marlon about 30 years ago through a mutual friend. His son, Christian, came to work for me in fisheries I owned in Alaska and Minnesota. Marlon impressed me as a dedicated parent. He would often call me up to check up on his boy with all the tenacity and loving concern of a Jewish mother: Was he eating enough? Did he get to work on time? Was he hanging out with the right people?
...In the mid-1970s, when I would visit Los Angeles from my home in Minnesota, Marlon and I would get together. I was starting to become increasingly involved in my religion and he would tell me with great pride and satisfaction about his support for Israel even before it became a state. Marlon explained that in 1946, two years before Israel achieved statehood, he desperately believed that the survivors of the Holocaust deserved to have their own land where they could live free from oppression and the anti-Semitic tyranny of the outside world.
True to form, Marlon put his money where his mouth was and donated all of his proceeds from the play, "A Flag Is Born," to the Irgun, a Zionist political group dedicated to rescuing European Jewry and the establishment of Israel as an independent sovereign nation. He continued his donations and charitable work over the entire two-year run of the play as it went from Broadway to touring destinations around the United States.
"A people that have fought so hard to survive need and deserve their own land," he told me. "I did all that I could and actively supported Israel's statehood anyway I was able."
Marlon also told me with great emotion that his success in theater and movies was largely due to the Jewish people in New York who befriended and taught him. He warmly mentioned Stella Adler, the legendary acting coach who both taught Marlon his craft and housed him with her family while he was getting on his feet as an actor. He was also especially proud of the fact that he could converse in Yiddish, having learned it while living with her family.
One of my visits to Los Angeles coincided with Passover. I was not yet Orthodox and made plans to attend a seder at a local synagogue with my sister. Marlon called me that very day and invited me out to dinner. I graciously declined, explaining that it was Passover and I was going to a seder. Marlon became audibly excited over the phone and said, "Passover -- I've always wanted to attend a seder. Can I come with?" He had made me an offer I couldn't refuse. I told him it could be arranged and called the synagogue adding one more to our list.
A short time later, Marlon called me back and asked if he could bring a friend. I said, yes, by all means, never thinking to ask his friend's name. I called the shul again. They were a little less patient this time and begrudgingly told me that they could squeeze one more person in, but this was absolutely the last one as they were now officially sold out.
Still later that day, I received a phone call from a childhood friend of mine who had become a well-known singer/songwriter. Being Jewish himself, and hearing I was going to a seder, he asked if he and his wife could go along. The shul was unhappy to receive my most recent request, but somehow I softened the heart of the receptionist and she agreed to let my people go -- to the seder.
I will never forget the sight of our table in the synagogue, Marlon Brando was to my left and sitting next to him was his guest. This was during the height of Marlon's involvement with Native American causes and he had brought with him noted Indian activist Dennis Banks of Wounded Knee fame. Banks was dressed in full Indian regalia: buckskin tassles on his clothes and long braids hanging down from a headband, which sported a feather. My childhood friend Bob Dylan sat to my right joined by his wife, my sister Sharon and other friends.
At first the seder progressed normally without anyone in the temple noticing anything out of the ordinary. After about 45 minutes, the rabbi figured out that ours was not your average seder table. "Mr. Brando, would you please do us the honor of reading the next passage from the haggadah," he said. Marlon said, "It would be my pleasure."
He smiled broadly, stood up and delivered the passage from the haggadah as if he were reading Shakespeare on Broadway. Mouths fell open and eyes focused on the speaker with an intensity any rabbi would covet. When he was done I think people actually paused, wondering if they should applaud...
The incongruity of a seder, with Marlon Brando reading the haggadah followed by a Bob Dylan serenade, would have made for a good Fellini movie. Needless to say, everyone was both shocked and thrilled by this unusual Hollywood-style Passover miracle. The entire shul came by to shake both Marlon and Bob's hands and they actually paused and spent time with everyone.
Just a couple of years ago, Marlon called me up in Minnesota, out of the blue. We had kept in touch through the trials and tribulations he was going through with his family. "Louie Kemp," he said, "I've been thinking about you. Twenty years ago you took me to a seder. I want you to know that I still think about it to this very day. In fact, I was thinking about it today and that's why I called you."
He continued to thank me and tell me of the special spiritual impact it had on him and how much he identified with a people freeing themselves from bondage and uniting to celebrate and remember that freedom.
He told me he was sending his three youngest children to a Jewish day school in Los Angeles. When I asked him why, he said, "Louie, don't you know that the Jewish schools are the best?" I could almost hear him smiling over the phone.
Louie Kemp is a businessman and founder of the Louis Kemp Seafood Co.
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