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Behind the Scenes of Brando's Life

His son tells of a doting, eccentric father as the famed actor's heirs and associates sort his estate and set out to craft his legacy.

September 22, 2004|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

More than a year before he died, Marlon Brando traveled north to the Santa Ynez Valley. The destination was a familiar one for the aging movie legend: Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch, where Brando settled in for a long stay at the home of the pop star who, improbably, had become one of his closest friends.

"The last time my father left his house to go anywhere, to spend any kind of time, it was with Michael Jackson," Brando's son Miko, a longtime Jackson employee, recalled. "He loved it.... My father had a 24-hour chef, 24-hour security, 24-hour help, 24-hour kitchen, 24-hour maid service. Just carte blanche."

Though Brando was a famed recluse in his later years, interviews with his family, friends and associates in recent days offer a glimpse of unexpected ways in which the legendary Hollywood figure lived out his days. Their comments come as executors for the estate chronicle Brando's holdings and craft a strategy for preserving his legacy.

By the final months of his life, friends and family said, Brando needed a portable oxygen tank most of the time to aid his breathing, which had been impaired by pulmonary fibrosis. He had shed 85 pounds from his once-enormous frame.

But one longtime friend, Joan "Toni" Petrone, said Brando took pains to keep his flagging health quiet, so that producers in Hollywood would not consider him too great a risk to hire.

It wasn't until shortly before his death, at age 80 on July 1, that the truly grim prognosis became clear to his friends and family -- and to Brando himself.

"I don't think he knew he was that ill," said Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy, named by the actor as co-executor of his estate two weeks before Brando's death at UCLA Medical Center in Westwood.

After his death, the two-time Oscar winner, who starred in such films as "A Streetcar Named Desire," "On the Waterfront" and "The Godfather," was placed on view at a local mortuary, his body dressed in a Japanese robe and his favorite red scarf, said Petrone, who knew Brando since 1952 and had worked for him for 12 years as an assistant.

Brando's memorial service was held at Medavoy's house and attended by Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Sean Penn, among others. Miko Brando said his father's ashes were divided between Tahiti, where Brando owned an idyllic atoll, and California's Death Valley.

Now Brando's family and executors are moving on to the next phase: determining how his estate will be divided.

Brando's will, filed July 9 in Los Angeles County Superior Court, estimated the value of his estate at $21.6 million. The estate includes Brando's home on Mulholland Drive above Beverly Hills and the Polynesian island of Tetiaroa, which Brando purchased after making "Mutiny on the Bounty" in the 1960s.

"I think there's talk about developing half of it, because at the end, my father wanted to develop it and have a hotel franchise take it over and develop it as a resort," said Miko Brando, 43. "He was talking with a big hotel franchise that would set it up as a luxury resort, hotel and spa. He never got around to it, so you know, if it comes up, that's an option we have. But we're keeping our business options open." The hope is to keep it in the family, he said.

In his will, signed Aug. 28, 2002, in Beverly Hills, Brando named nine of his children as beneficiaries. Left out was a 10th -- his adopted daughter, Petra. She is currently employed as an attorney at a London law firm. Efforts to reach her were unsuccessful Tuesday. Brando also made provisions for Alice Marchak, his longtime personal assistant, and Blanche Hall, a household cook in the 1970s who now lives at a Los Angeles retirement home.

A looming question is how the star's legacy will be controlled.

To that end, Medavoy -- who co-founded Orion Pictures and served as chairman of TriStar Pictures before becoming a full-time producer -- said the estate is in the process of obtaining trademarks on the actor's name and likeness, so that his heirs can exercise control over the marketing of his celebrity image.

"We probably won't do what they have done with Marilyn Monroe because that is not him," said Medavoy, who met Brando at the wedding of Penn and Robin Wright and said he remained in daily contact with the actor until his death.

Also underway is the cataloging of hundreds of pencil drawings that Brando sketched over his lifetime.

And the family is preparing a set of DVDs based on unreleased footage, shot within the past three years, of Brando teaching the finer points of the acting craft to young performers and interviewing prominent fellow professionals.

Petrone, who worked on the project, said it took several weeks to film and includes Brando talking to other actors such as Penn, Nick Nolte, Jon Voight and Edward James Olmos.

During the filming, Brando would "get up and entertain a little bit" and then ask students to get up and improvise, and the audience would critique them, she said.

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