MY SHORT HOT SUMMER WITH MARLON BRANDO
Over the years I’ve told my “Marlon Brando” story numerous times to friends, but have never written it down. Marlon’s death in July (2004) at 80 reminded me of that story. It took place when Marlon had just turned 40.
How did I meet Marlon Brando? One of the many perks that come with having your own TV show is that you get to meet a lot of (1) delightful, (2) interesting and (3) famous people. And Marlon Brando fit very nicely into all three of those categories.
In 1954, before I came to Hollywood, I saw the movie “On The Waterfront.” I’ll never forget the scene when Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger are sitting in the back of Steiger’s car. Marlon was berating Rod for not being the brother he should have been by not helping in his boxing career. Instead he was asking him to take falls for the mob. When Marlon said, “Charley, I could have been a contender, I could have been somebody,” I became a fan for life. All the way home from the movie I couldn’t get that line or the picture out of my mind. What a great actor. What a great film. I wanted everybody to see it. Brando won a deserved Oscar. And in a dream come true, eleven years later I was able to congratulate him to his face.
In the late 60s, I took time off for a vacation and to shoot background footage in London for my show. On the plane I met Brando’s attorney Allen Sussman. Brando was in London shooting the film “The Countess From Hong Kong,” directed by Charley Chaplin and co-starring Sophia Loren. Allen was meeting with Brando to negotiate the purchase of a South Seas Island.
When we landed, Marlon Brando met the plane. Can you believe that? MARLON BRANDO? Now here comes the unbelievable part. Marlon Brando was excited to see ME.
It turned out that he was a big fan of my show. WOW! Here was one of the greatest actors of all time making me, a TV dance-show host, an actual celebrity.
In the two weeks I was in London, he invited me to the movie set almost every day. I met his co-star Sophia Loran and director Sir Charlie Chaplin (That’s right: The Charlie Chaplin!). At night we toured the hot London discos and had sit-down dinners, complete with white-gloved butlers, at Brando’s lavish townhouse. Brando was a charming host and the best London ambassador a person could ever have.
During a break in the filming Brando and I were sitting off-stage, side by side in tall director’s chairs, and I told a joke. Unfortunately I can’t write out the joke on this page. It’s just too visual, with lots of facial expressions and hand gestures. So, you’ll just have to take my word for it that it’s funny.
When I gave the punch line, Marlon couldn’t stop laughing (I told you it was funny). Then, as if on some kind of off-stage cue, he suddenly stopped laughing and turned very serious. “I’ve got to tell that joke to somebody and I’ve got to do it right now,” he said as he jumped down from his chair and rushed over to the other side of the set to interrupt a lone gaffer busy adjusting a light. He was too far away for me to make out exactly what he was saying, but I could see his lips moving and his hands making all the right gestures.
Then I saw him deliver the punch line. He smiled and and waited for the laugh. Total silence. The gaffer just stared, turned and continued his work. Brando looked stunned, but not undaunted by this obvious setback.
He rushed over to Chaplin’s son Sidney, who was also in the film. He was studying his lines (I’m not making any of this stuff up). Marlon proceeded to get even more animated this time, accentuating all the hand gestures, ending with a flourish and another big expectant smile (What was he expectding? Laughter!). What did he get? Nothing! Silence! To make it worse, Sidney actually looked bored and went back to his script. How could they do this to BRANDO?
Like a scene from a movie within a movie, Marlon silently returned to his seat next to me. I was also silent as he climbed back on to his chair. I waited perhaps a full minute for some kind of explanation. After obviously studying his next line, Brando slowly turned and looked off to one side. The gaffer’s light gave me the dramatic effect of the famous Brando profile. He then slowly turned to me and said these immortal lines, “Lloyd. I guess it’s just you and me.”
It was pretty obvious that he blew the joke. But, I didn’t care. It was pure Brando and I will always cherish that moment. Here we were, sitting close together, just like the backseat scene in “Waterfront.” Not Brando and Steiger, but Brando and Thaxton. He may have turned to me and said, “Lloyd, I guess it’s just you and me.” But I’ll swear to my dying day that what I heard was:
“Lloyd, I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody.”