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A product you can't refuse?

Marlon Brando's estate files a trademark protection application for the actor's image.

October 15, 2004|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

Interested in a pair of Marlon Brando sunglasses? How about some Brando decorative refrigerator magnets or a mouse pad? Brando shirts, pants, neckwear and underwear? Or would you care to lounge around the house in a Brando kimono?

These are just some of the commercial products the estate of the late, two-time Oscar-winning actor has listed in an application for U.S. trademark protection on file with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Mike Medavoy, a Hollywood producer and co-executor of the Brando estate, said that many items were included in the filing simply as a precautionary measure. He said the intent is to prevent anyone from profiting off the name and image of the reclusive actor without the approval of the Brando estate.

"The last thing I'm going to do is do something that cheapens Marlon's image," Medavoy said. "You want some sort of blanket protection against anyone doing something that basically goes out and steals his image and puts it on a napkin. This way, you can protect against it."

If approved by the trademark office, the trademark application would give the three executors of Brando's will wide latitude to license the manufacturing of many different types of products for sale in the future.

Among other things, the estate seeks trademark protection on such items as bottle openers, key chains, drums, music boxes, post cards, gift wrap, calendars, credit and debit cards, confetti, paper doll books and temporary tattoos, as well as audio/visual recordings and pre-recorded performances and acting lessons.

Although Brando shunned the media and public life, the reclusive actor was well aware of the potential to sell products bearing his image -- and approved of it, those closest to him said. Brando died suddenly on July 1 of lung failure. He was 80.

Brando had set up a trust a few years ago that spelled out how any money made off his name and image will be distributed among his beneficiaries, said David Seeley, the attorney for the estate. Brando did not specify guidelines for the use of his name and image. Seeley said the contents of trusts are private.

The trust is controlled by three co-executors: Medavoy; Medavoy's brother-in-law, Larry Dressler; and Avra Douglas, a friend of Brando's late daughter, Cheyenne. Seeley said the trustees -- and not Brando's beneficiaries, which include his children -- have legal say over what is licensed.

"The beneficiaries have no legal ability to make any decision about" the use of Brando's name and likeness, the attorney said. They can offer suggestions and guidance, Seeley said, and "they can call Mike and say, 'It's in poor taste to do a Marlon Brando mug or bobblehead,' but Mike can say, 'Thank you very much,' and do what he wants."

Seeley said licensing decisions are still far off in the future but stressed that the trustees will wield that power with care. He said he doubted that the trustees would approve of a line of Marlon Brando shirts and pants, for example, but added that it was certainly possible that the Brando trust could one day license Marlon Brando T-shirts.

Medavoy said that there might also be reason to license Marlon Brando leather jackets, since the actor epitomized a cool, rebellious look in the early 1950s, when he starred as an outlaw biker in "The Wild One."

Medavoy, a close friend of the late actor, said he would not profit personally from any licensing deals he negotiates on behalf of the Brando trust. "I don't get anything out of this," he said, "... and I have no intention of taking any money."

He said Brando's trust does provide some remuneration for its trustees, but he said he wasn't sure exactly what that was.

The trademark application was submitted to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Aug. 4. Trademark administrator Sharon Marsh said the agency's staff subsequently conducts a search to determine if there is any other mark that could "cause confusion" with the trademark requested.

"When you file an application, you have to say, 'I want to register this mark' [and] identify the following products or services and list everything you plan to use the mark on," she said.

Friends of Brando say he would likely approve of the application.

Philip Rhodes, one of Brando's oldest friends, said Brando could be quite contradictory. Although he despised the media, he was also very savvy when he needed to make money.

"Marlon was commercial," Rhodes said. "All those pictures he made late in life were for quick money and as little work as he could do."

The branding of dead celebrities can be a lucrative but tricky business, experts say. From Marilyn Monroe to Frank Sinatra, a celebrity's name and likeness has to appeal to a broad spectrum of the public for years after they die.

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