Apr 22, 2012

Dick Cavett and Marlon Brando: Two Boys from Nebraska

This post is a part of the LAMB Acting School 101: Marlon Brando event.

The man’s incorruptible and that’s what I hoped! -Cavett, about Brando

Dick Cavett once said that he was planning to write an article about his friendship with Marlon Brando. The title: Night of the Living Brando. That appears to sum up the relationship between these Nebraska natives.

The two were friends for several years. Brando would even call up Cavett in the middle of the night to talk to him. Though they had strong mutual respect, they also saw many things differently, from politics to entertainment.

I never had the impression that Brando regretted escaping to his island paradise in his later years, but in an interview upon his death, Cavett lamented that he’d taken the opportunity life presented him and “just pissed it away.”

One of the best examples of this good-natured, but serious-minded tug-of-war between the two is on the June 12, 1973 episode of the The Dick Cavett Show, where Brando was a guest. It is a few months after his rejection of the Academy Award for The Godfather, in protest of the treatment of American Indians. He is clearly determined to continue to speak of their plight. And so the tug-of-war begins.

Brando swaggers onto the set, confident and almost, but not quite arrogant. His gray hair is slicked back from his face. He wears black slacks, a maroon ascot and a strangely crisp denim jacket. From the first glance, he has a mischievous look in his eyes.

Brando looks hungry. He leans back in his chair, loose, relaxed, but physically commanding. Though he doesn’t take an intimidating posture, he looks dangerous, as if he is going to gobble up the trim Cavett in one gulp.

There is rapturous applause, and he takes it with grace, though he seems a bit impatient with all the praise. Finally the noise dies down, and he looks at Cavett with a wolfish, charismatic grin. The crinkles around his eyes form a perfect frame, he’s still beautiful, and it is clear why this man became a star. He is magnetic.

Brando has flown all the way from Tahiti to film this show. He likes Cavett, and he thinks that he will give him a platform to discuss his human rights concerns. He is mostly correct.

The first question bombs, “do you go to the movies?” Long pause. “Once in a while.” Another wolfish grin. This is the sort of exchange that makes me cringe throughout the interview. I want hate him for giving earnest Dick Cavett a hard time, but he’s so darn appealing, and he has integrity. I can’t help but be drawn to him.

It took me a while to appreciate Brando’s performance here, and I think he’s very aware that he is performing. I had to get over my superficial discomfort over his behavior to appreciate what he was trying to say. He makes some good points, but he forgets his manners while making them. Or am I just chafing at the way he rejects convention? I’m still not sure.

Things that irritated me the first time I saw the interview: the long pauses, the way he keeps going back to the American Indians while almost completely ignoring all other questions, how he constantly interrupts Cavett and changes the subject, still rankle me to a degree, but I understand what he is trying to do.

Perhaps he should have answered a few movie questions, after all, he’d never be there without his film career, but his concern for oppressed groups appears genuine and he, like many other stars, is simply attempting to use his influence for good.

Maybe Brando gives Cavett a hard time, but he respects him, and he doesn’t do it out of cruelty. He listens carefully, and he seems to think things through thoroughly before he answers. He’s is funny in a low key way, but he’s not going for laughs. He really doesn’t seem to care what people think about him. Part of it is that he seems to have faith in people drawing the right conclusions about him.

It still bothers me how frequently he cuts off Cavett, impatiently swiping away questions about his press coverage or the movies so that he can continue to speak about this cause which concerns him so deeply.

Though Cavett tries to stay the course with his questions, he does listen to Brando. He also devotes a third of the show time to his guests, representatives of the Cheyenne, Paiute and Lummi tribes. Still, there is a deep tension.

At the end of the show, Cavett asked Brando to come back the next night. I had the impression that he would like that, though he asks in a joking manner. Brando’s answer was silence, a grin, then, “sure Dick.”

That night, Cavett watched Brando punch photographer Ron Galella and break his jaw. He said it was one of the two weirdest moments in his life. To give you an idea of the impact of that incident, the other moment was when a guest died of a heart attack on the show, mid-interview.

Here’s the rest of the interview:

Part Two


Part Three


Part Four


Part Five


Part Six



  1. I'll have to come back and look at the rest of the videos. A great post, KC. Two very unique individuals. I always admired Cavett, and still don't understand Brando. Yeah, he's intimidating, until he smiles.

  2. That's what got me about this appearance Thingy, no matter what he did, he always won me back with that smile. Is there any star like that anymore? They all seem like lightweights now. I like Cavett too. He fit in with all those famous people, but he remained humble and a starstruck kid.

  3. The best interview by far that Brando ever gave was the Playboy Interview in the magazine's 25th anniversary issue in about 1978 or '79. Wonderful stuff.

  4. Thanks for the tip Bob; I'll have to check it out. I've always been more interested in Brando as a person than an actor (though I don't know how much those two things ever separated). I think he would have liked that.