The news of Charlton Heston’s death on April 5 at age 84 brought to mind the passing, four years ago, of one of his legendary contemporaries, primarily because April 3 would have been Marlin Brando’s 84th birthday.
I remembered the date because I had done a fair amount of research on Brando for a column I wrote shortly after he died. The column, which focused on an incident that both tarred Brando’s reputation for years afterward and served to illustrate how Jewish organizations and their spokesmen sometimes risk trivializing the serious issue of anti-Semitism, drew an unusually large number of reader responses.
It all began during an appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live” in April 1996. Brando praised Jews for their contributions to civilization, only to be reminded by King that he had voiced some criticism of Jews in the past, particularly Hollywood’s Jewish movers and shakers. King kept badgering Brando for negative comments; at one point the actor blurted out, “See, you are rushing me, I can’t think . . . I’m slightly rattled here.”
Brando finally gave King what he wanted. Hollywood, he said,
is run by Jews; it is owned by Jews, and they should have a greater sensitivity about the issue of — of people who are suffering. Because they’ve exploited — we have seen the — have seen the nigger and greaseball, we’ve seen the chink, we’ve seen the slit-eyed dangerous Jap, we have seen the wily Filipino, we’ve seen everything but we never saw the kike. Because they know perfectly well, that is where you draw the wagons around.
Hardly reported was Brando’s reply when King wondered whether Brando’s complaint would play into the hands of anti-Semites: “No, no, because I will be the first one who will appraise the Jews honestly and say, ‘Thank God for the Jews.’ ”
Brando was an eccentric, a devotee of radical causes, a man given to all manner of weird fulmination. But he didn’t deserve the opprobrium that followed. Branded a Jew-hater, rebuked by the ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, hounded by death threats from self-styled Jewish militants, Brando actually wept during a meeting with Jewish community representatives.
If Brando was an anti-Semite, I wrote at the time, we need more of that kind of anti-Semitism. As a young actor in 1946, he not only co-starred in Ben Hecht’s pro-Zionist play “A Flag Is Born,” he spoke at rallies and meetings organized by the play’s sponsor, Peter Bergson’s American League for a Free Palestine.
But Brando’s feelings about Jews can best be appreciated from the following eloquent passages in his 1994 autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, about the year he spent as a young man at New York’s New School for Social Research:
I lived in a world of Jews. . . . They introduced me to a world of books and ideas that I didn’t know existed. I stayed up all night with them — asking questions, arguing, probing, discovering how little I knew, learning how inarticulate I was and how abysmal my education was. I hadn’t even finished high school, and many of them had advanced degrees from the finest institutes in Europe. I felt dumb and ashamed, but they gave me an appetite to learn everything. They made me hungry for information. . . .
One of the great mysteries that has always puzzled me is how Jews, who account for such a tiny fraction of the world’s population, have been able to achieve so much and excel in so many different fields — science, music, medicine, literature, arts, business and more. . . .
They are an amazing people. Imagine the persecution they endured over the centuries: pogroms, temple burnings, Cossack raids, uprootings of families, their dispersal to the winds and the Holocaust . . . . Yet their children survived and Jews became by far the most accomplished people per capita that the world has ever produced. . . .
Whatever the reasons for their brilliance and success, I was never educated until I was exposed to them.