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When the wild one met the mild one

Movies

The friendship of Marlon Brando and Wally Cox was as fervent as it was unlikely -- and it took a peculiarly possessive turn.

October 17, 2004|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

The year was 1973, and Marlon Brando was still riding the success of his legendary performance in "The Godfather." In a few weeks time, in fact, he would win a second Oscar.

On this particular night, though, Brando was secretly ensconced in a back bedroom in the hills above Bel-Air. In a scene that would have made Don Corleone proud, the actor quietly accepted visitors out of view of the celebrity-studded gathering just outside the door.

Many of those in attendance were never even aware of Brando's arrival at the wake for his closest friend, actor and comedian Wally Cox. That's because Brando had crept in through a back window at Cox's residence and hidden out in the room where Cox had died.

Brando "was heartbroken, of course," over the death, recalled Cox's widow, Patricia. "Everybody was there," she added, including celebrities from "The Hollywood Squares" game show, on which Cox was a regular, as well as Tom and Dick Smothers, Vincent Price, Ernest Borgnine and Twiggy. "But Marlon didn't come out."

Philip Rhodes, the actor's longtime makeup artist and close friend since the mid-1940s, said he still remembers Brando's unusual response when Rhodes asked Brando about his whereabouts during the wake.

"Wally was my friend," the actor told him. "Nobody else's."

Marlon and Wally. Wally and Marlon.

One had been a handsome, rebellious movie icon. The other, a droll, owlish comedian. Yet the bond that existed between these physical opposites would survive decades, from their boyhoods in Evanston, Ill., and even beyond Cox's unexpected death in February 1973 of a massive heart attack. He was 48.

In the years that followed, Brando made a practice of keeping Cox's remains nearby, sometimes tucking the ashes in a drawer at his home on Mulholland Drive or under the front seat of his car. He did so against the wishes of Cox's widow, who said she considered suing Brando for selfishly keeping the ashes that he had accepted under the guise of scattering them in the hills where Cox loved to hike. After Brando died suddenly of lung failure July 1 at age 80, his family scattered the men's ashes in Death Valley, where the pair had often gone rock hunting.

The odyssey of the ashes is one of the more unusual stories to emerge since the death of the eccentric and intensely private actor. Brando had a history of stormy relationships, attributed to a troubled childhood and his upbringing at the hands of a distant father and an alcoholic mother. Much has also been made of his countless liaisons, reputed to be both heterosexual and homosexual, and failed relationships.

Some friends and family of both men insist Brando's relationship with Cox was platonic. Regardless, their bond offers a different perspective on one of the world's most famous, yet little known, men.

Marlon and Wally were 9-year-old boys when their parents introduced them -- Marlon's mother and Wally's stepfather were friends in Chicago, where the stepfather worked for NBC. The boys became fast, albeit unlikely, friends, said Eleanor Robinson, Cox's sister.

"Marlon was kind of a rough little boy," she said. "He tied Wally to a tree one afternoon and then left him. I'm surprised they remained friends, but they did."

A few years later, Wally's family moved to New York City. The Brandos, coincidentally, followed in the 1940s, and Brando began studying acting. Cox made jewelry in those days, using a pillowcase to lug his wares around to private parties. Cox would perform impromptu monologues at those parties, and people urged him to put together a nightclub act. Soon he was making appearances in New York and Hollywood and doing guest stints on Ed Sullivan's show.

His career took off in 1952, when he starred as the bookish high school science teacher Robinson Peepers in the TV series "Mr. Peepers." The series ran until 1955. Years later, he was a regular on "The Hollywood Squares" and also provided the voice for the animated superhero Underdog, who would famously declare, "There's no need to fear! Underdog is here!"

Mutually famous

Brando's career, meanwhile, was white hot, and he was well on his way to solidifying his reputation as a legend, an actor's actor. He had wrapped up his electrifying performance in "A Streetcar Named Desire." Still on the horizon were "On the Waterfront," which would land him his first Oscar, and "The Wild One." Although Brando and Cox were often the toast of New York and Hollywood, the two always returned to the company of each other.

"Marlon was fascinated with how funny Wally was, and I'm sure Wally was fascinated by how handsome Marlon was," Robinson said. "They envied each other for what each didn't have."

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