Marlon Brando – 10 roles that got away

Performance with Mick Jagger and Marlon Brando? Brando as Lawrence of Arabia instead of Peter O’Toole? Over the decades, many now classic films sought the great method actor for their starring role. Here are 10 movies that would have been very different if Brando had been in them.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

“I might have been a robber,” Marlon Brando replied when he was once asked what he would have been if he had not become an actor. The military school dropout owed his transformation from confused twentysomething to the most dynamic talent on Broadway to Stella Adler, who introduced him to the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavsky when he enrolled in her drama class at the New School in New York. Like Lee Strasberg at the famous Actors Studio, Adler encouraged her students to draw on their own experiences while creating a character. But she also taught them to do research and use their imagination and Brando never forgot her two key maxims: “Your talent is in your choices” and “Don’t be boring.”

Brando could never be accused of being dull during a 60-year career that began on stage with John Van Druten’s I Remember Mama (1944) and ended just two weeks before he died in July 2004. Two of his finest performances are included in the BFI Southbank season, Birth of the Method: The Revolution in American Acting, as a paraplegic war veteran in Fred Zinnemann’s The Men (1950) and as a boxer-turned-longshoreman in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). But one picture remains unseen a decade after his death.

On the Waterfront (1954)

In 2004, Bob Bendetson and Peter Shin approached Brando to voice avaricious 600lb villain Nicholas Dunderbeck in their animated feature, Big Bug Man. However, as he had long harboured the ambition to play an old lady, the 80-year-old took the role of candy company founder, Mrs Sour, and wore a dress, wig, makeup and white gloves to read his three scenes.

Brando had worn a pinafore and bonnet in The Missouri Breaks (1976), but he assured executive producer Gabriel Grunfeld that the session was “the most fun I’ve had since playing Julius Caesar” [sic – he actually played Mark Antony in Julius Caesar]. This $20m animated folly (which also features Brendan Fraser) may well get a release one day. But how different screen history might have been if these 10 Brando projects had not fallen by the wayside.

Rebel without a Cause (screen test, 1947)

Many conclusions have been jumped to since Warners included Marlon Brando’s 1947 screen test on the 2006 DVD of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). The studio had acquired the rights to the 1944 book, Rebel without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath, in which Robert M. Lindner reflected on his time as staff psychiatrist at the Lewisburg penitentiary. However, the task of deriving a dramatic scenario from the various case studies confounded such writers as Peter Viertel and Theodor Geisel (aka Dr Seuss). But draft scenes were presented to the 23-year-old Brando when producer Hal Wallis tested him.

Despite intuitively working with the camera, Brando rejected a $3,000 weekly salary and returned to the stage. Ironically, when Nicholas Ray made the 1955 picture that used little of Lindner’s tome bar the title, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther chastised James Dean for “imitating Marlon Brando in varying degrees”.

Sudden Fear (1952)

The method was viewed with some suspicion in conservative Hollywood. But Joan Crawford (who had started out in silents) was keen to pit herself against Brando in David Miller’s thriller, Sudden Fear. This was Crawford’s first outing as an executive producer and, after old sparring partner Clark Gable had turned her down, she made numerous approaches to Brando to play the scheming actor who plots to murder his rich playwright wife.

Having fired Brando from her 1947 stage production of Jean Cocteau’s The Eagle Has Two Heads, Tallulah Bankhead urged Crawford to have nothing to do with the “pig-ignorant slob”. However, Crawford persisted and when she finally demanded a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, Brando churlishly replied that he wasn’t interested “in doing any mother-and-son pictures at the present time”. Crawford promptly declared Brando to be a “shithead” and cast Jack Palance, who earned a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his performance.

Senso (1954)

Accounts differ as to why Brando didn’t co-star with Ingrid Bergman in Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Camillo Boito’s novella. Visconti believed the notoriously possessive Roberto Rossellini had forbidden his wife from playing the Venetian countess who falls in love with an Austrian officer in the mid-1860s. But Rossellini always insisted that Bergman took whatever parts she wanted and rejected this project because, being Swedish, she had no interest in the Risorgimento.

Farley Granger stepped into Brando’s shoes in Luchino Visonti’s Senso (1954)

Brando appeared less parochial and flew to Rome to be tested. However, On the Waterfront had yet to confirm his international reputation. So, the producers at Lux decided he was a spent force and coerced Visconti into accepting Farley Granger to play opposite Alida Valli. Ironically, later that same year, Granger refused to step into Brando’s shoes after he quit Michael Curtiz’s The Egyptian after the first day of rehearsal and the title role went to Edmund Purdom.

Oklahoma! (1955)

There are many ‘ifs’ surrounding Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s landmark musical. Initially, he had considered teaming Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward as Curly and Laurey, while Brando was lined up to play sinister farmhand Jud Fry. However, while Richard Rodgers was willing to accept a method actor as the brooding villain, he insisted on strong singers for the lovers.

Despite giving Brando his debut in The Men (1950), Zinnemann failed to dissuade him from plumping for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Guys and Dolls (1955) and Rod Steiger took his place. But Zinnemann was still unconvinced by Gordon MacRae as Curly and gave a young TV actor named James Dean a chance to prove his singing credentials opposite Steiger on the ‘Poor Jud Is Dead’ number. If Brando had dragged his feet just a few more weeks, Zinnemann might have supervised the most sensational screen test in Hollywood history.

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

Frank Sinatra had never forgiven Brando for landing the coveted role of Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront and their relationship had scarcely improved during the making of Guys and Dolls, as Sinatra had dubbed Brando ‘Mumbles’ and he had retaliated by making the one-take Sinatra eat cheesecakes through 35 takes of the Mindy’s deli scene.

Brando’s rival Frank Sinatra in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

Consequently, when John Garfield died and Otto Preminger sounded out both Brando and Sinatra about playing Frankie Machine in his adaptation of Nelson Algren’s controversial novel about drug addiction, Sinatra beat Brando to the punch by accepting the role after reading just 50 pages of Walter Newman’s script. Unsurprisingly, all chances of the pair playing brothers in Flaming Star (1958) went out of the window. But Brando did have reason to thank Sinatra, as he rejected Preminger’s 1971 offer of the lead in The Godfather (1972), which earned Brando his second Oscar.

The Defiant Ones (1958)

Despite Sammy Davis, Jr’s ambition to star with Elvis Presley in this story of a black and a white convict escaping from a chain gang while handcuffed together, Stanley Kramer was solely interested in teaming Brando and Sidney Poitier. “You wouldn’t need a script,” he enthused. “Just turn on the cameras and let things happen.” However, while Brando liked the integrationist message, he hadn’t warmed to Kramer when he produced Laslo Benedek’s The Wild One (1953) and turned the picture down.

Kramer later claimed that Brando was stuck in Tahiti making Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), but he didn’t start work on that project until 1960. Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster and Anthony Quinn all declined the opportunity to partner Poitier before Tony Curtis signed up and joked that he was preferred because Brando would only play the black role, while Douglas had wanted to play both.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

On 17 October 1960, producer Sam Spiegel called a press conference to reveal casting details for David Lean’s adaptation of T.E. Lawrence’s 1922 memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Yet, when Spiegel declared that Brando had been chosen because, at 31, he was the same age that Lawrence had been in 1917, there was such incredulity among the assembled press that one British journalist asked, given Brando’s distinctive delivery style, whether it would be a speaking role.

David Lean’s eventual T.E. Lawrence, Peter O’Toole, in Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Spiegel insisted, “In a way, they are very much alike. Both have that mystic, tortured quality of doubting their own destiny”, while Lean had been so taken by Brando in Edward Dmytryk’s The Young Lions (1958) that he felt he would look like a god in the flowing Arab robes. However, Brando opted to make Mutiny on the Bounty instead and later let Lean down over Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970).

Cleopatra (1963)

When producer Spyros Skouras asked Joseph L. Mankiewicz to take over his ailing ancient epic after Rouben Mamoulian’s resignation, he apparently retorted: “Why would I want to make Cleopatra? I wouldn’t even go and see Cleopatra.” However, sensing a bumper payday, Mankiewicz changed his mind and, dispensing with the services of Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd, sought Trevor Howard and Brando to play Caesar and Mark Antony opposite Elizabeth Taylor.

Having already convinced Brando he could do Shakespeare in his 1953 version of Julius Caesar, Mankiewicz was certain he could coax him into donning a toga for a second time. But Brando was still driving Carol Reed crazy on the location shoot of Mutiny on the Bounty and the role went to Richard Burton. A decade later, Mankiewicz tried to reunite Brando and the Bard, but plans to team him with Maggie Smith in Macbeth never came to fruition.

Performance (1970)

Brando first met director Donald Cammell in Paris in 1957 when Christian Marquand brought him to visit the actor in hospital after he had scalded his testicles with a cup of coffee. A decade later, Cammell sent Brando the first draft of a screenplay entitled The Liars. Notwithstanding the prospect of co-starring with Mick Jagger, Brando wasn’t keen on playing an American hitman in London and was so busy with other projects that Cammell decided to cut his losses and approach James Fox for what was now called The Performers.

What would Performance (1970) have been like if it had co-starred Brando and Mick Jagger?

The pair fell out in the early 70s, but Brando re-established contact in 1978 with a view to collaborating on a script about a female pirate. Nothing came of the picture (although a novelised version of Fan-Tan was published in 2006) and Jericho went the same way when Brando bailed on playing an ex-CIA assassin days before shooting commenced in 1989.

Batman Returns (1992)

Tim Burton had not felt fully connected when he made Batman (1989) and put a good deal of thought into developing the dark psychology of the characters in the sequel. Perhaps this was why he toyed with the notion of casting Brando as the Penguin. He was no stranger to comic-book movies, having been paid $14m for a 10-minute turn as Jor-El in Superman (1978). However, creator Bob Kane was dismayed by the idea, while Warners preferred Dustin Hoffman.

Danny DeVito as the Peguin (right), with Christopher Walken in Batman Returns (1992)

Unconvinced by alternatives Christopher Lloyd, Bob Hoskins and John Candy, Burton and screenwriter Daniel Waters redrew the character so that he more resembled Werner Krauss in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). When asked later if he had come close to landing Brando, Burton replied: “No. I also wanted Sammy Davis, Jr. to play Beetlejuice, so … sometimes my ideas don’t go down so well with the studios. But hey, you try.”

The season Birth of the Method: The Revolution in American Acting ran at BFI Southbank in October and November 2014.

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