Roger Richman, whose Beverly Hills licensing agency pioneered the branding of dead celebrities, said it is too early to say whether a line of Brando merchandise would do well. What's more, Brando must be introduced to a whole new generation in order for his image to have staying power and commercial appeal.
"It takes five or six years for his memory to be learned and cherished by a different demographic," Richman said. "Most people alive today who first knew of Brando were 15 to 35 years old back then, but now they are 80 or 90."
Richman said California law essentially holds that the families of celebrities have no rights to protect their namesakes after their deaths, unless they can show that the celebrity had merchandised himself or herself while alive.
Richman represents a wide array of famous dead people, including actor Steve McQueen, the Wright Brothers and Albert Einstein.
He said that McQueen has generated millions of dollars in advertising since his death in 1980. Richman said Ford Motor Co. this week announced it was putting McQueen in a new commercial for the 2005 Ford Mustang. It features an image of McQueen climbing into a Mustang before roaring off in the car. The commercial is intended to recall one of the actor's most famous roles, driving a Mustang in the 1968 movie "Bullitt."
The rights to what is perhaps Brando's most famous role, that of Don Vito Corleone in "The Godfather," are owned by Paramount Pictures, not the estate.
"Unfortunately, Paramount Pictures owns the rights to 'The Godfather,' and they've had a lot of offers to do a lot of deals, but as of yet they've never wanted to do anything," said Jeff Lotman, chief executive of Global Icons, an 8-year-old licensing agency in Los Angeles, which represents the heirs of such celebrities as Bing Crosby, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.
Lotman said he once sought out Brando about doing some sort of merchandising deal, but Brando "would never do it."
"I spoke to him a couple years ago," Lotman recalled. "It was pretty wild. You'd pick up the phone and it's him on the other end of the phone. I was almost speechless."
Lotman said that if someone were to develop a line of Brando merchandise geared to his outlaw image in "The Wild One," they might be successful selling items like a Brando line of jeans, leather jackets or even motorcycles. That's because in the early 1950s, when the movie was made, Brando was considered the "king of cool."
"I really think that Brando could be a brand," Lotman said. "When you have a name like that which is so synonymous with tough and at the same time strength, I think there are things that could be significant."