Marlon Brando was born on April 3, 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents separated in 1935 and Marlon moved with his mother and two siblings to Santa Ana, California. In 1937, his parents got back together and the family moved to Libertyville, Illinois. His mother was a talented actress who worked in theater, which developed his interest in acting. From early childhood, he displayed a talent for imitating others down to their exact mannerisms.
Despite being expelled from numerous schools during his childhood, Brando wanted to study acting. His father was very critical of this decision, but allowed him to do what he wanted with his life. He moved to New York City, where he was able to study at the New School at the Actors' Studio under Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler.
Brando was able to land some small roles in theater, later graduating to Broadway in 1944's "I Remember Mama". He was voted "Broadway's Most Promising Actor" by critics after playing a paraplegic veteran in "Truckline Cafe", an honor that caught the eye of many directors. In 1947, Brando traveled to Provincetown, Massachusetts to audition for the role of Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire". The play's director, Elia Kazan, was very impressed by Brando's performance and immediately cast Brando for the role.
In 1950, Brando was given his first role on the silver screen in "The Men". As part of his method acting approach, he spent a month in a bed at a veteran's hospital to prepare himself for the role. A year later, he played his signature role in the screen version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1951. The critics raved about the performance, and he was nominated for a "Best Actor" Academy Award. He was nominated another three times for 1952's "Viva Zapata!", 1953's "Julius Caesar", 1953's "The Wild One", and 1954's "On the Waterfront".
For his role as Terry Maloy, a man fighting corruption on the docks in "On the Waterfront", that Brando won his best actor award. He displayed his true acting skills in the emotional scene in the back of the taxicab by completely improvising the dialogue with Rod Steiger, who played Terry Maloy's brother. Through the rest of the 1950s, he continued his great performances in movies such as "Guys and Dolls", "Sayonara", "The Teahouse of the August Moon", and "The Young Lions". However, it was obvious that his acting was losing its original energy and direction.
In the 1960s, his career continued to decline with lackluster performances in films such as "Mutiny on the Bounty". Many directors refused to work with him since he had a reputation for being difficult and causing movies to go over budget. By the end of the decade, most people believed that this once great actor's career was over.
When Brando heard that Francis Ford Coppola was directing "The Godfather" in 1973, Brando begged for a chance to audition. Brando did his own makeup and produced a performance that totally convinced Coppola to cast him as Vito Coreleone, the head of a crime family. Despite protests by the studio heads, Coppola got his way and the film was a tremendous success. Brando's acting in the role earned him a second Academy Award and revived his ailing career. Surprisingly, Brando declined to accept the award, making him only the second person in history to do so. In a bizarre move, he sent a Native American actress, Sacheen Littlefeather, to read his objections to Hollywood's portrayal of Native Americans, which received boos from the audience.
After "The Godfather", Brando followed up with a fantastic performance in "Last Tango in Paris". The film produced a lot of controversy due to its erotic nature, but Brando was still nominated for an Academy Award. His last notable performance was in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now", playing Colonel Kurtz, a deranged military colonel that leaves the war to live as a god in a tribe of Indians. His later performances included Jor-El in the first Superman movie and Dr. Moreau in "The Island of Dr. Moreau", none of which gained much recognition.
In May of 1990, Brando's son Christian shot and killed a man named Dag Drollet and claimed it was an accident. Brando delivered an hour of testimony in which he said he would trade places with his son if he could. Despite the testimony, his son was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to ten years in prison.
On July 1, 2004, Marlon Brando died from lung failure at UCLA Medical Center. Many consider him to be the greatest actor of all time, despite his late lackluster performances.