Marlon Brando, who died in Los Angeles on Thursday aged 80, was the most influential film star of his generation, pioneering on screen the use of the acting technique popularly known as the Method.
Originally developed by the Russian Constantin Stanislavsky and transplanted to America at the Actors Studio run by Lee Strasberg, the Method encouraged players to identify with their roles and imagine for them a biography beyond the bounds of the script. At its best this resulted in a realism and conviction never before seen on the screen. Marlon Brando was its most gifted exponent, and he set the pace for such later players as James Dean, Paul Newman and Al Pacino.
In his first six films, culminating in On the Waterfront (1954), for which he won an Oscar, Brando was consistently superb. It is no coincidence that three of them were directed by Elia Kazan, himself a leading figure at the Actors Studio.
In A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Brando was the definitive Stanley Kowalski, a performance against which all subsequent interpretations have been measured. Elia Kazan wrote about his portrayal of the animally magnetic, uncouth, slobbish Kowalski: "If there is a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don't know what it is." Brando conferred upon even the most oafish-seeming characters a dignity, integrity, sincerity and magnetic force that in his early films banished all temptation to mock.
In Viva Zapata! (1952), he was more Mexican than the Mexicans, while his Mark Antony in Joseph L Mankiewicz's production of Julius Caesar (1953) was a tour de force, effortlessly embracing the classical diction that many had thought beyond him.
In his early films detractors deplored his garbled delivery, particularly in The Wild One (1953) and in Streetcar, in which he famously addressed Vivien Leigh through a mouthful of squelching tomatoes. His uncouth behaviour, which he maintained off set as well as on, was thought to be typical of the man. Yet to a degree it was consistent with the Method approach. Brando often played louts of low intelligence and was living the part.
Had he sustained the quality of these films, Brando would have been unassailable as the finest actor the screen has known. But it was not to be. On the Waterfront was to be the apex of his career, setting standards that he would never quite recapture, even in the best of the films that followed.
With hindsight, the turning point can be pinpointed accurately. It hinged on a bad choice and an untidy attempt to reverse it. After his 1954 Oscar for On the Waterfront, Brando was the hottest property in Hollywood. Every studio wanted to sign him up, and Fox clinched the deal with what promised to be an epic, The Egyptian. At script stage, however, it was clear that this would be a "turkey" and Brando sought to tear up his contract. Fox sued for $2 million and the matter was resolved only by Brando agreeing to make Desiree (1954) for the same studio.
He was to play Napoleon - a better part but in an equally dire script. Brando later admitted that he "let the make-up do the work". It was a compromise, the first of many.
Though he continued to enjoy the pick of the most prestigious productions, Brando's work became increasingly gimmicky, seemingly geared to future promotion campaigns rather than to the art of acting. Hence: Brando sings - Guys and Dolls (1955); Brando plays a Japanese - The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956); and Brando plays a Nazi - The Young Lions (1958).
A curious feature was the number of films that called for him to be beaten up or otherwise physically abused. In On the Waterfront and The Wild One he was beaten to a pulp; in The Fugitive Kind (1960) he was castrated; in Apocalypse Now (1979) he was felled like an ox; and in One-Eyed Jacks (1960), the Western he directed himself, he had his trigger finger smashed by a vindictive lawman. Freud would have had a field day.
After Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) - a watershed production that cost $19 million, changed director in mid-course and returned only $9 million after 12 different endings were shot in a desperate search for a way to wrap it up - Brando's clout was permanently weakened. He was held personally responsible for the on-set delays and budget over-runs that scuppered the picture.
For the next 10 years he was reduced to worthless roles in frivolous productions, one of which, The Night of the Following Day (1969), was relegated to the second half of a double bill. By 1972 he was virtually unemployable, and it took all Francis Ford Coppola's persuasion to win Paramount's approval to cast him in The Godfather. At first the studio wanted nothing to do with him, one executive declaring: "He's dead in this business. Worse than dead, he's a vampire."
And so Brando underwent a screen test. For it, he stuffed his cheeks with tissue paper, rubbed boot-polish in his hair, smoked, ate Italian sausage, gestured feebly with his hands and jutted out his chin. The effect was instant. "The guy's terrific," said one of those who viewed the test. "Who is he?" In the end, his performance as the gangster Vito Corleone earned him his second Oscar.
This brief revival in his career was consolidated in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (also 1972). Whether the film was viewed as bold and imaginative or as disgustingly lurid, Brando's performance as an ageing American who commits a series of indecent acts in an unfurnished apartment with an anonymous French girl won respect, not only for his world-weary air of resignation to what looked like a perilous kind of passion, but also for his way of suggesting that he was just there behaving - very badly perhaps, but very naturally. Much of the film had been improvised before the cameras.
After this, however, Brando retreated more and more into highly paid bit parts and took a nine-year sabbatical in the 1980s before returning to the screen intermittently in cameos and comedies that did not stretch his abilities.
Voluntary retirement on his very own South Sea island (Tetiaroa) also took a toll of his physique. Long gone was the athletic form that had graced his early work; in its place was a grotesque figure of monstrous proportions that made him hard to cast in any but sedentary roles. Hence the South African lawyer he played in A Dry White Season (1989) and the psychiatrist in Don Juan de Marco (1995). He was an actor for whom the best known line from On the Waterfront ("I could have been a contender") could scarcely have been more apt, and it was hard to disagree with James Mason that "Brando made such a mess of his career".
He was born at Omaha, Nebraska, on April 3 1924, the son of a manufacturer of chemical feedstuffs and insecticides. In his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me (1994), Brando described a childhood marred by his mother's alcoholism and his father's indifference. "He enjoyed telling me I couldn't do anything right. He had a habit of telling me I would never amount to anything." At 15 he was sent to Shattuck Military Academy, Minnesota, from which he was expelled for insubordination just before the end of his last term.
He toyed with entering the Church, and also the Army, but was turned down on medical grounds. The father he felt had no time for him nevertheless paid for him to go to New York to train as an actor. He enrolled at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research under the veteran director Erwin Piscator. He also studied under Stella Adler, a leading teacher of the Method school of acting; she became a formative influence.
Plays in which Brando appeared in the late 1940s included I Remember Mama, Truckline Cafe, Bernard Shaw's Candida (as Marchbanks) and A Flag Is Born, about the birth of the state of Israel. Though John Garfield had been first choice to play Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, he turned it down; and the director, Elia Kazan, then fought for Brando to fill the role. After Tennessee Williams heard Brando read he landed the part; and on December 3 1947 Broadway history was made when the play opened with Brando opposite Jessica Tandy.
Theatre audiences had never before heard an actor deliberately slur his words in the interests of realism or flaunt his sexuality so blatantly on stage. It was an innovative approach that set the tone for the whole of the next decade.
Hollywood beckoned, and in 1950, under Fred Zinnemann's direction, Brando made his screen debut in The Men as a paraplegic war veteran, a role to which he brought an astonishing physical force. To prepare for the part, he spent weeks observing real casualties at the Veterans' Hospital in Van Nuys, California.
Brando then repeated his stage role in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, and played a Mexican revolutionary in Viva Zapata! His performance as the leader of a gang of motorcyclists in The Wild One was considered so powerful and inflammatory that the film was banned in Britain for 12 years. It is remembered especially for a classic exchange in which Brando, asked what he is rebelling against, replies: "Whaddaya got?"
Brando's Mark Antony in Julius Caesar was equally remarkable. An anti-romantic reading, it underlined the political calculation behind his every word and deed. And he looked like a god - a winner if ever there was one beside James Mason's rational but colourless Brutus.
John Gielgud, who played Cassius, used to recall that when Brando arrived on the set in his tomato-coloured toga and with his hair cropped in a straight fringe, he looked self-conscious, as if afraid of people's laughter. He would then take out a cigarette and stick it behind his ear. But Gielgud noted that Brando heeded his solicited advice on the delivery of the great Forum speeches "in every particular", and noted Brando's collection of tape-recordings by the great American classical actors John Barrymore and Maurice Evans, which he used to improve his diction.
Although many film-goers found it hard to accept his presence in ancient Rome, Brando acquitted himself with a surprising assurance and eloquence considering that the film was his first and last brush with Shakespeare.
On the Waterfront, in which Brando played an inarticulate, gum-chewing longshoreman who gradually learns where his true loyalties lie, gave him his finest role. The celebrated taxi scene in which he berates his brother (Rod Steiger) for robbing him of the chance to become a boxing champion remains a classic. Subsequent work, including Sayonara (1957), in which he was a Southern Air Force officer involved in an inter-racial love affair in occupied Japan, was more conventional.
In 1960 he made his only film as a director - the Western One-Eyed Jacks, originally intended for Stanley Kubrick and in which Brando also took the lead role as a bandit. Though it opened to mixed reviews, it was an intensely personal picture, in which Brando's relationship with a surrogate father ("Dad" Longworth, played by Karl Malden) plainly echoed elements from his own life. Paramount cut it and tampered with the ending, but the brooding atmosphere survived and the film broke new ground for a Western in being set extensively on the Californian coast against a background of crashing waves.
The debacle of Mutiny on the Bounty, with Brando as Fletcher Christian (the old Clark Gable role, but now played as a foppish aristocrat) was long held against him in Hollywood. For the rest of the 1960s, with the exception of Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), directed by John Huston from a Carson McCullers novel, Brando was unable to find a worthy role. Title followed title - The Ugly American (1963); Bedtime Story (1964); The Saboteur: Codename Morituri (1965); and Southwest to Sonora (1966) - without making waves.
Even A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), Charlie Chaplin's last film, was a disaster. Intended as a sophisticated comedy, with Brando as a diplomat opposite Sophia Loren, the souffle sank. Candy (1968), an example of mainstream porn with Brando in only one scene as an Indian guru, was the low point of his career.
Queimada (1970), made in Italy for Gillo Pontecorvo, was better but little seen abroad; while The Nightcomers (1971), made in England for Michael Winner, was a pointless prequel to The Turn of the Screw.
The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris came just when Brando needed them, restoring a badly tattered reputation. When Brando won his second Oscar in 1972 for the first of these, he declined to accept it, sending an aspiring actress named Sacheen Littlefeather to the ceremony to refuse on his behalf, on the ground that Hollywood films degraded American Indians.
Brando's later work in the 1970s consisted largely of cameos. In The Missouri Breaks (1975) he had a small role but equal billing with Jack Nicholson. Cast as a "Regulator" hired to bring Nicholson's outlaw to book, he camped up the production, playing one scene in a gingham dress and a granny cap.
For Superman (1978) he was paid an unprecedented $3.7 million for just one scene as Superman's father on Planet Krypton. In The Formula (1980) he had three scenes but co-star billing with George C Scott. Of both stars, the director Steve Shagan said: "I sensed a loss of purpose, a feeling that they didn't want to work any more and had come to think of acting as playing with choo-choo trains."
In the late 1980s Brando returned to the cinema after a long absence, but the films were no better. The Freshman (1989) was an inferior comic retread of his work in The Godfather; and in 1992 he played Torquemada in Christopher Columbus - The Discovery, the feebler of two weak movies made to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's first landing in America. His last films were Don Juan de Marco in 1994 and a remake of The Island of Dr Moreau in 1996. An Irish comedy, Divine Rapture, with Brando as a Roman Catholic priest, was abandoned in 1995 after two weeks' shooting. In 1999 he appeared in a film called Free Money, a comedy made exclusively for the Sky Premier television channel.
Marlon Brando's private life was always public, and he took care to make it so. "Like the vast majority of men," he said, "I've had several homosexual experiences and I'm not remotely ashamed of it." At a London party in the 1960s, to which he turned up drunk, Brando invited his host, the critic Kenneth Tynan, to accompany him to the bathroom. There he dared him, as a proof of friendship, to kiss him full on the lips. Tynan, eyebrows raised, assented. Brando had told the actor Cameron Mitchell, his co-star in Desiree, that he was "trisexual", which must have caused some head-scratching in 1954.
His last years were overshadowed by tragedy. In 1990 his son Christian shot dead his half-sister Cheyenne's boyfriend, Dag Drollet, and was jailed for 10 years (later reduced). Five years later Cheyenne committed suicide after three previous attempts.
Marlon Brando was formally married twice. His first wife was the "Indian" actress Anna Kashfi, mother of Christian. The day after their wedding, her parents announced that she was actually Welsh and that her real name was Joan O'Callaghan. She and Brando divorced two years later.
His second wife, whom he married in 1960, was Movita Casteneda, who had played in the original (1935) version of Mutiny on the Bounty. This marriage was dissolved within a year. Later he married a Chinese-Polynesian dancer, Tarita Teriipaia, the mother of Cheyenne and of his son Teihotu. In all, Marlon Brando is said to have fathered 11 children by four women, including three by Christina Ruiz, his "maid".