©2024 By Legs McNeil

On the 100th Anniversary of Marlon Brando’s Birth (April 3rd, 2024), Burt Kearns Honors Our Greatest Actor with “Marlon Brando: Hollywood Rebel,” the Tale of an Artist in a Search of Meaning.


The police murder of Lil’ Bobby Hutton on April 6th, 1968, made the Black Panthers famous. Maybe because Marlon Brandon spoke at Hutton’s funeral. More likely because the Panthers were an idea whose time had come, as Tom Wolfe declared in Radical Chic, “These were no Civil Rights Negroes!”

Something new had emerged from the contemporary Black Power Movement, and as author Burt Kearns documents in his new book, Marlon Brando: Hollywood Rebel (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books), Brando had seen it coming years before Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia argued about the skin color of the servants who were going to serve the hors d’oeuvres to their militant guests.

“What’s incredible about what Brando said at Lil Bobby Hutton’s funeral,” Kearns told me over the phone from his home in LA, “Is that it was almost exactly, word for word, what President Obama told reporters in July of 2013, when he commented on the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch guy who shot Trayvon Martin– another Black seventeen-year-old. Brando said, ‘That could be my son lying there.’

“And like Brando,” Kearns continued, “Obama spoke of the experiences and history that are specific to the Black community. Kearns then read Obama’s full statement, “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.

“There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.’”

“And I think Brando was so disturbed by the murder of Bobby Hutton because it was two or three days after Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee,” Kearns told me, “Brando was so upset by King’s assassination that he went on the Johnny Carson Show and told Johnny,  quote, “I sat in front of the television set and I wondered what it meant to me that [King’s] dead, and that he died, and his last act was trying to get a fifteen-cent wage increase for garbagemen, and that he was hauled to his grave by two mules on a rickety cart, and that on his tombstone was written ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last.’

“‘And I thought somehow this has got to matter, somewhere,’” Kearns continued quoting Brando, “‘I couldn’t think of any other alternative rather than to make my time, my energies, and my money fully available to do what I can as an individual to rectify the situation we’re in. . . . I think that nothing’s really gonna change unless I do it, unless the trombone player does it, unless the guy sitting and watching the television with a beer can does something about it.’

“Then Brando said he wanted viewers to pitch in one percent of their annual salary to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to carry on Martin Luther King’s work. Brando said he was contributing ten percent. And in those days a network host like Johnny Carson was very careful not to take a political side so as not to lose viewership, but Carson said, ‘I think it’s time to stand up and be counted rather than just talk about it.’ And then Johnny gave Marlon a check for one percent of his yearly salary.”

According to the thesis of Marlon Brando: American Rebel, Marlon Brando studied acting with Stella Adler, who had studied with the great Russian Method Acting teacher, Konstantin Stanislavski, who cultivated the “art of experiencing,” rather than the “art of representation,” through a grounded rehearsal process that came to be known as the “Method of Physical Action,” or “Method” for short. Stella Adler also added the “art of imagination” into her classes, which Brando subscribed to, putting down all of the “Method Actors,” and crediting Stella Adler with being the one who showed him the way.

As Kearns noted in his book, “Brando despised Lee Strasberg for taking credit for a lot of that ‘Method Acting’ when he ran the Actors Studio in the 1950s.”

In fact, Brando found that acting came so effortlessly to him, that he discounted the “art of acting,” and began his search for more meaning in his life. He found it in the causes he embraced.

“I was surprised by the roots of Brando’s activism and the extent of it,” Kearns told me over the phone, “Brando as a young man was from the beginning, as a kid, when he was first kicked out of high school and sent to a military academy, he was basically a rebel searching for a cause. And he began to find those causes when he moved to New York at the age of nineteen and enrolled in the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village and became part of its Dramatic Workshop with Stella Adler.”

Brando also displayed his talent for pissing off the intelligentsia when, in 1945, he turned down a role in Eugene O’Neil’s The Iceman Cometh, because he said it was so boring that he fell asleep while reading it, and instead chose a play called, A Flag is Born, directed by Luther Adler, Stella Adler’s brother, and starring Paul Muni, one of the few actors Brando respected. A Flag is Born was produced by the “American League for a Free Palestine,” a group formed to create a homeland for all the European Jews displaced during World War Two: Israel.

After a couple of more roles on Broadway, Brando signed up with the “American League for a Free Palestine” and joined one of the two-man teams who went across the country making speeches at synagogues and Jewish centers to raise awareness and money.

It was on this speaking tour that he saw newsreels about the Ku Klux Klan, and in places like Washington, D.C., witnessed shocking examples of racism.

“At this point, Brando couldn’t believe what was what going on in this country,” Kearns said, “And he really wanted to do something to fight injustice.”

But Brando’s fight against injustice would have to wait until he became a star on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire and was offered chances to go to Hollywood. Ultimately, he made the jump with a producer named Stanley Kramer. Kramer was known as a producer who did ‘message movies— left wing, liberal films that meant something- – that made a difference, and Brando kept saying he wanted to make a difference. The first movie was called The Men, about soldiers who were paralyzed in the Second World War. When he got to Hollywood, he didn’t check into the Beverly Hills Hotel. He took a train and arrived in a suburb and lived in in his aunt’s house. His grandmother was staying there at the time, so he had to sleep on the couch, and within weeks he checked himself into a veteran’s hospital in Van Nuys and lived as a paralyzed vet, not using his legs, getting around in a wheelchair. Some of the other patients thought he actually was a paraplegic, so he lived like that and became the role.

Brando was nominated for “Best Actor” Academy Awards for his next three films: the movie version of Streetcar, Viva Zapata! and Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar was a real gamble,” Kearns told me. “Brando had been mocked as the ‘mumbling’ stage actor and here he was alongside great British Shakespearean actors. He was Mark Antony, and he did more than hold his own. He was great. So Brando follows these three Academy-Award nominated performances with a biker flick.”

And it wasn’t just any biker flick, but THE biker flick of all time, The Wild One, the movie that predicted the future: teenagers, black slang, the Beatles, and Punk Rock.

Of course, everyone remembers the famous exchange, “Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” Johnny: “Whattaya got?”

The Wild One was inspired by an actual incident in Hollister, California in 1947. This was a town that held a motorcycle rally on July Fourth weekend and invited biker clubs from around the region. In the 1930s and early 1940s, motorcycle club members were law-abiding, upstanding individuals who tootled around on their cycles making sure they obeyed traffic laws.

But after World War II, the so-called “outlaw clubs” were formed and Hollister wasn’t ready for it. Hundreds of motorcyclists descended on the town and wreaked havoc. They got drunk, did wheelies in the streets, broke windows, drove their bikes into bars, and slept on lawns. No one was killed, no one was raped– it was just a bunch of guys getting drunk, and they all left on Sunday because they had to be back at work Monday morning.

But the media really sensationalized the story. Life magazine ran a spread, featuring a photo of a biker on a Harley holding two beer bottles, with more bottles littering on the street around him. It turned out it wasn’t his bike. The photographer had found a guy, plopped him on a somebody else’s cycle, and placed the bottles around him, but the weekend went down in history. A fictional story based on the weekend called “Cyclists’ Raid” appeared in Harper’s magazine in 1951, which became the basis for The Wild One.

“The film also really helped spread black culture through white teenage American culture,” Kearns argued, “Movies at the time weren’t marketed toward teenagers and this movie wasn’t marketed toward teenagers. It was marketed toward adults, but teenagers went for it.”

“The group was called the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club,” Kearns continued. “In A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando was this brute from New Orleans, Stanley Kowalski, who rapes the tragic Blanche Dubois. ‘Blanche’ is the French word for ‘white’ and Stanley could be seen as a stand-in for a Black man, and here you had the Black Rebels invading a town called Wrightsville which could easily be called ‘Whitesville.’ And the Black Rebels talk the jive lingo, the rebop, bebop slang, all Black lingo that this film was foisting upon white America– and the kids were digging it.

“In the end,” Kearns concludes. “The film was censored by the Production Code Administration in Washington, and the messages that Brando wanted in the film, as far as he was concerned, weren’t there. He wanted to show the psychology of the outsider. He wanted to show why these rebels did not fit into society, why society did not let them fit in, and the hypocrisy of white suburban America. He was very disappointed with that. But then again, this film had more social impact than any film he’d make until the Last Tango in Paris.”

Burt and I then argued over the impact of The Godfather vs. the impact of Last Tango in Paris. Burt was friends with Hollywood mavericks Al Ruddy and Gray Frederickson; Ruddy won the Oscar for producing The Godfather, and Frederickson got his Academy Award for producing The Godfather, Part II. Twenty years ago, Burt Kearns wrote and produced a film with Ruddy and Frederickson, so Hollywood Rebel is filled with great dirt on Brando during his lifetime, including Brando’s extensive bisexual sex life, and his affairs with James Baldwin, Wally Cox, and Richard Pryor, to name a few, as well as the hundreds of women Brando bedded.

Kearns also notes the exact times and places Brando first took stands on major human rights issues, including the treatment of Native Americans. In 1964, he showed up in Pierce County, Washington where Native Americans were being arrested for fishing on this river despite treaties that gave them the right to fish there. There were lots of press and hundreds of spectators when he boarded into a fishing boat with a local chief and some activists, hauled in some steelhead trout, then returned to shore where he was arrested. They say it was the strangest booking in county history because the sheriff and prosecutor shook Brando’s hand after the booked him. The press ate it up. There were headlines like “Return to the Waterfront” and “Mutiny on the River,” silly stuff, but it brought the issue of Native Americans and treaties to the front pages of newspapers across the country.

If that isn’t enough, there are great stories of Brando advocating for death row prisoner Caryl Chessman, campaigning for desegregation, the Black Panthers, and — talk about gay rights– Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) with costar Elizabeth Taylor, which was considered to be the first time a major male star played a gay character– US Army Major Weldon Penderton.

Yeah, Brando covered all the bases, before “Political Correctness” became the mandatory rule of the game.


Marlon Brando
Hollywood Rebel
By Burt Kearns

Over the last eighty years, Marlon Brando has become such an object of fascination, buried under so many accreted layers of mythos and half-truth, that it is all but impossible to see the man behind the icon. As we approach the centennial of this undisputed American legend, Marlon Brando: Hollywood Rebel is a revelatory biography that tells its story the same way the man himself approached a role: from the inside.

Author, journalist, and pop culture authority Burt Kearns digs deep into the unexplored aspects of Brando’s career, interests, and singular personality, revealing how his roles on stage and screen, combined with his wild and restless personal life, helped to transform popular culture and society writ large. His influence was both broad and deep. Brando’s intense approach to acting technique was emulated by his contemporaries as well as generations of actors who followed, from Nicholson and DeNiro to DiCaprio and Gosling. But his legacy extends far beyond acting. His image in The Wild One helped to catalyze a youth revolution, setting the stage for rock ‘n’ roll culture in a way that directly inspired Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Andy Warhol, and punk rock culture. Brando was also frank about his affairs with both sexes; a leader of the sexual revolution and a hero of gay culture, he defied stereotypes and redefined sexual boundaries in his life and the roles he played. But of all his passions, activism was even more important to Brando than acting: he was an early supporter of Israel, civil rights, the American Indian movement, Black Power, gay rights, and environmentalism.

Startlingly intimate and powerfully told, Marlon Brando: Hollywood Rebel shows how the greatest actor of the twentieth century helped lead the world into the twenty-first.