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When Omaha's greatest actor tried to save the world, things got weird

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Brando and his island

Marlon Brando, by his own account, was only ever really happy in two places.

The first place was Omaha, where Brando's family lived until he was 6, “in a big wood-shingled house on a broad street … with leafy elm trees that at the time seemed taller than anything that a young boy could imagine.”

Brando, who went by “Bud,” lived at 3135 Mason St., then 1026 S. 32nd St.

In his 1994 memoir, “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” Brando recalls one of his earliest memories: waking up before the rest of his family and sneaking outside, where he’d sit on the steps at “the dead end of 32nd Street” to watch a tree as it gently shed its ’copters. He’d watch as the whirlybirds drifted to the ground, holding out his hand, hoping to catch one, never quite succeeding. When one ’copter landed, he’d look up again.

“Waiting like that for the next magic,” he wrote, “was as good a moment as any other that I can remember.”

The second place Marlon Brando was happy was Tetiaroa, a 27-square-mile island he owned, about 30 miles north of Tahiti in the South Pacific Ocean. The island is, in fact, a coral atoll of 13 smaller islets (or motus), surrounding a bright blue lagoon, all of it engulfed in mile after mile of unbroken barrier reef.

Brando bought Tetiaroa (pronounced Teti-uh-ROH-uh) in 1966 and owned it until his death in 2004.

Nearly 70 years after his first happiest memory, Brando described a similar scene: sitting on a beach of his own personal paradise — head back, mouth open, looking skyward for shooting stars.

He didn’t reach his hand out to catch them anymore. But he never got tired of “waiting for the next magic.”

In an 80-year life marked as much by tragedy and failure as it was triumph and acclaim, the atoll became Brando’s calm in the storm — the “sole positive note,” wrote film historian Stefan Kanfer, “in a cacophony of misbegotten marriages, bewildered children and unsuccessful films.”

“I think it almost saved his life in a way,” said Brando biographer Patricia Bosworth. "He needed it. He needed the tranquility and the beauty of it."

But like so many things that initially brought Brando joy, the island would become a source of anxiety, hardship and spiritual and financial drain.

It didn’t have to be that way. Brando had more than enough money to buy the island and live there with his friends and family for the rest of his life. That’s just not what happened.

The trouble began when Brando decided to save the world.

He certainly believed the world needed saving. From nuclear holocaust, fossil fuel addiction, climate change, really any given doomsday, and he wanted to do something about it.

“I decided,” Brando said in an interview, “that instead of putting my feet upon a bamboo rest and puffing a big cigar, I should make my island an example of how simple things can work and how a simple energy system that is interlocked ... can create an ecological paradise.”

His island would be a living laboratory: For sustainability ideas, for solar power, marine life and more. The dream didn’t stop there. He also wanted Tetiaroa to be a haven for artists and intellectuals. The home to a world-class luxury resort. The site of a school. He wanted a habitat for gorillas, and a farm for crabs, lobsters, pearls and sea turtles. He wanted to scoop algae out of the lagoon and process it into a protein supplement that could feed the Third World. He wanted electric eels to power the island, and he wanted Tetiaroa to serve as the set of a TV game show.

Many of Brando’s ideas were mad. Some were ingenious. All were grand. And they all added up to an endeavor that was, ultimately, doomed.

After decades of pumping millions into the island — money he earned doing movies like “Superman” and “The Missouri Breaks” — Brando saw his dreams come to ruin when a once-in-a-lifetime hurricane hit paradise, wiping out all his efforts to show the world a better way of living.

Brando wrote in his memoir that millions more were lost to “wishful thinking and unfulfilled dreams … to projects started and never finished.”

The scene bears a striking resemblance to two of his movies: “Apocalypse Now” and “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” each of which starred Brando as the mad king of a fallen kingdom.

Like so many projects by grand, difficult men, Tetiaroa would double as an internal struggle for Brando. The island appeared to be, to some degree, a way to recapture his perfect picture of the world. To recreate the peace he’d found under that big tree in Omaha.

Despite all the obstacles and setbacks, Brando never gave up on his Tetiaroa project. He worked on it to the end of his life, never to succeed.

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Aerial of Tetiaroa.

And yet, his dream for Tetiaroa did come true. Even if he didn’t live to see it.

The Tetiaroa project lives on, in the form of a luxury hotel and a research station dedicated to confronting struggles brought about by the Anthropocene. In a testament to Brando's ingenuity, the whole operation gets two-thirds of its energy from a process the actor dreamed up. It was one of his few ideas that ended up being the quintessential combo of crazy, brilliant and possible. 

The little Omaha boy who loved to look skyward might have grown up to be the greatest actor the movies have ever known. But the legacy he’d be most proud of extends far beyond that, to an idyllic island more than 5,000 miles southwest of 32nd Street.

 

“The happiest moments of my life have been in Tahiti. If I’ve ever come close to finding genuine peace, it was on my island among the Tahitians.”

— Marlon Brando

 
Tetiaroa map
 

Tahiti

It was in a library in Minnesota that Brando first fell in love with Tahiti.

He was a teenage student at Shattuck Military Academy (which would eventually expel him for insubordination). Thumbing through the pages of a National Geographic in the school’s library, he made a “wonderful discovery”: Tahiti.

Brando writes in his biography:

“I was entranced by the beauty of its beaches and the customs of the Tahitians, but most of all by the expressions on their faces. They were happy, unmanaged faces.”

He was hooked. And yet it would take another two decades and five Oscar nominations before Brando actually set foot on the island in French Polynesia.

Brando finally made it to Tahiti in 1962 to shoot MGM’s “Mutiny on the Bounty” remake — a film that would end up a colossal flop, plagued by a ballooning budget, script problems, bad weather and the on-set antics of its lead actor.

The studio blamed Brando for the movie’s failure, fostering his reputation as a notoriously self-indulgent actor, impossible to work with. In part because of this, his next decade would be filled with forgettable — in some cases, dreadful — movies. By the time “The Godfather” came around in the early '70s, the studio was so opposed to him playing Don Vito Corleone that the Oscar-winner was forced to do a screen test and take a substantial pay cut up front.

But if “Mutiny” was a disaster for both studio and actor, it also ended up changing Brando’s life for the better. It was through the film that he met Tarita Teriipaia, a 19-year-old dancer who would star as Brando’s love interest, later becoming his third wife (and third ex-wife). It was through the film that he discovered Tetiaroa.

He first saw it during a break in the shoot. He was on top of a mountain in Tahiti when a friend pointed north. “I discerned a slender pencil of land,” Brando wrote, “lying on the horizon about 30 miles away, and before long, it was exerting as mystical a pull on me as Tahiti itself.”

He made inquiries, and learned that the islets had at various times served as coconut plantations and the retreat for Tahitian kings. When Brando first laid eyes on it, Tetiaroa was owned by an elderly blind woman named Madame Duran. She inherited Tetiaroa from her late father, a Canadian dentist named Walter Williams, who had received the island as a gift from the Tahitian king in appreciation for doing the royal family’s dental work.

Brando asked a fisherman to take him to Tetiaroa, and the island was as beautiful as he'd imagined. He wanted it.

Though she initially rebuffed his offers, Duran years later agreed to sell Tetiaroa to Brando for $200,000. The Tahitian government was reluctant to allow the sale to go through, but eventually granted permission.

At long last, Marlon Brando owned an island in the South Pacific.

And over the next 38 years, this “edenic paradise,” writes film historian Peter Manso, “would become (Brando’s) refuge from Hollywood and the symbol of his hopes for the future.”

 

“(Marlon Brando) was totally contradictory. Don’t you think he’s a fascinating person?”

— Patricia Bosworth, author of “Marlon Brando”

 

The new world

Marlon Brando was continually at odds with the world and with himself.

He was a womanizer who was capable of, by many accounts, monstrous behavior. Brando himself referred to this as “the beast aspect” of his personality, which “held sway and overtook anything that was reasonable, rational, moral or decent.”

And yet ... he gave his time, money and celebrity to causes such as the civil rights and Native American movements.

He was the greatest film actor of the 20th century; indeed, he reinvented 20th century film acting.

And yet ... he frequently disdained his profession to anyone who would listen. He called acting “lying for a living.” He would say of his later roles that he only did them for the money. (“I’m interested in making enough money so that I can say **** you to money.”)

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Brando on the set of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Brando was contradictory in all matters, and Tetiaroa was no exception. In one sense, he wanted to build his own private getaway. In another, he wanted to use his island as a giant experiment and share all the resulting innovations with the planet.

If Brando loved the planet itself, he wasn’t especially optimistic about its dominant species. He was deeply critical of Western culture, in particular:

“In the United States … we have an abundance of material things, but a successful society produces happy people, and I think we produce more miserable people than almost any place on Earth.”

His views on human nature ran bleaker still:

“I’ve never found any system — religious, social, philosophical, ethical, political or economic — that was able to suppress man’s innate animus and predilection to gather into groups dedicated to exterminating other groups for their beliefs, profit, hatred or frolic. Nothing has ever made people good.”

Tetiaroa would come to represent the competing impulses defining much of Brando’s life.

“On the one hand, he wanted to be alone; and on the other, he had to have the world around him,” said Bernard Judge, a Los Angeles architect and Brando’s partner in the Tetiaroa project.

Like Brando, Judge lived in Tahiti and on Tetiaroa throughout their development of the island.

When Judge first arrived in Tetiaroa, the island had no electricity, housing, running water or toilets. It was a struggle to even get on or off the island. The only access was by boat, made tricky by the barrier reef. Later, Judge and Brando would add an airstrip.

When Brando bought Tetiaroa, he promised Madame Duran that he would preserve the island in its natural state as much as possible. That promise would guide Judge and Brando in everything that followed.

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A map of the Tetiaroa atoll.

More than just the preservation of the island itself, Brando wanted Tetiaroa to serve as a “laboratory where I could experiment with solar power, (aquafarming) and innovative construction methods.”

He also wanted to build a luxury hotel resort, which, Brando hoped, would pay for his projects. Beyond that, things had a tendency to get a little weird.

“Marlon’s ideas ran from the silly to the sublime,” Judge wrote in his book, “from the possible to the ludicrous, but they were all sincere. He had thought about importing elephants to do heavy physical work and of making Tetiaroa a community dedicated to world peace, with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at the helm.”

Brando had many ideas about what to do on Tetiaroa, which he pitched to various experts in various fields. Most of the ideas came to nothing. They included:

 

Electric eels in the lagoon

“At one point, he told me he thought electric eels would be a good way to make electricity on Tetiaroa, so he bought some, Judge explains in his book. I have no idea where one buys electric eels in L.A., but he kept them swimming around in an aquarium at his home on Mulholland Drive.”

A consultant explained to Brando that he would need thousands of eels in the lagoon to provide enough electricity to power Tetiaroa, and then he’d have to figure out how to make them provide a constant electrical current. Also, thousands of electric eels would surely kill all the fish in the lagoon.

“But once Marlon got an idea in his head,” Judge wrote, “he would not let go.”

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The crab cages.

A coconut crab farm

They abandoned the mission when the crabs began killing and eating each other.

A sea turtle farm

Another failure, but among the most successful failures.

They began by raising 200 green turtles from hatchlings. The turtles started in tubs and, when they got too big, they went to the turtle park in the lagoon.

“We had invested a lot of time and energy, and it looked like we finally had a winner,” Judge wrote. But in 1976 a storm wiped out the turtle park, the turtles escaped, and the idea died.

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A baby sea turtle.

A gorilla habitat

This was a short-lived idea. Brando just liked watching the apes. According to Peter Manso’s bio “Brando,”  primate scientist Penny Patterson (who taught sign language to Koko) visited Tetiaroa to determine the project’s viability.

A game show

Brando had an idea for a game show-style program in which contestants would win a trip to his island, Manso writes in “Brando.”  On the show, the guests (and the viewers at home) would be taught ecological innovations through games and pranks. Or something. Nothing came of it.

Wind and solar energy

Judge: “We started testing wind energy with a windmill, and solar energy with photovoltaics. Everything was going swimmingly, except for one thing: We were constantly running out of money.”

 

In the ’80s, Brando’s filmwork would dry up. Mostly by choice — though his lifelong struggles with compulsive eating were beginning to take a toll on his health, as well as the number of roles he could take.

But before the drought, he was landing some of the biggest paydays of his career: in the 1976 Western “The Missouri Breaks” and as Jor-El in 1978’s “Superman.” According to Manso, Brando earned a reported $15 million for the latter, even though he only had 15 minutes of screen time in “Superman.” Brando told reporters at the time that he was only doing “Missouri Breaks” to help finance the Tetiaroa project.

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Marlon Brando in the 1976 western film “The Missouri Breaks.”

The one area in which Tetiaroa did make money was the hotel. In its prime, Brando wrote, the hotel had “28 bungalows, a kitchen, a couple of bars, a dining room and a reception area.”

The resort was at various times described as a “slum,” but it also occasionally broke even, after it shifted to a locale for more exclusive clientele, such as Quincy Jones and Robert De Niro. It would be the one modest success in the midst of so many failed and abandoned projects.

“At times it seemed to me that Marlon enjoyed trying to make things come true by employing the sheer force of his will,” Bernard wrote in his book. “Alas, an exercise in futility.”

 

“If I have my way, Tetiaroa will remain forever a place that reminds Tahitians of who they are. ... If I can do this, it will give me more pleasure and satisfaction than any acting I have ever done.”

— Marlon Brando

 

Apocalypse now

In 1983, a once-in-a-lifetime hurricane hit Tetiaroa. The atoll was evacuated in time, and no one was injured, but the storm wiped out everything — including the hotel, with an estimated loss of $5 million. “Whatever Brando’s lingering dreams,” Manso wrote, “all plans were dashed.”

Brando would continue to own the atoll for another 20 years and would, on occasion, come up with new ideas for it. But the storm had ripped the heart out of the project.

At least Brando still had the island as a refuge. Though before long even that would go away. In 1990, Brando’s son Christian fatally shot Dag Drollet, the boyfriend of Brando’s daughter Cheyenne. Christian went to prison, and Marlon was named in a wrongful death suit by the Drollet family. In part because of the suit, Marlon Brando never returned to Tahiti nor Tetiaroa, not even for Cheyenne’s funeral after she killed herself five years later.  

He spent most of the rest of his life secluded in his Mulholland Drive house, which, in his paranoia, he had turned into a fortress. When he did go out, he would often do so in disguise. One time he went out as the Invisible Man, his face wrapped in white bandages.

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Marlon Brando in the 1996 sci-fi horror film “The Island of Dr. Moreau.”

In Tetiaroa, Brando had left hotel operations to his ex-wife, Tarita. A 2005 LA Times article by Matthew Heller said the atoll had become “more like a dystopia than a utopia.”

“In his absence,” Heller wrote, “the roofs and walls of the hotel bungalows, which should have been replaced every six years, fell apart; garbage, rather than being composted, stacked up where the tourists couldn’t see it.”

As dreams go, this one was in a sorry state.

 
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Aerial photo of Tetiaroa.

 

“(Tetiaroa) was a good place to start in, say, saving the world. Because if you can’t save one small island, there’s not much hope for the world, is there?”

— Richard Bailey, owner and developer of The Brando

 

And yet

Today, more than 14 years after Brando’s death, a luxury resort called The Brando resides on Tetiaroa. As does a research station that invites scientists to come and work on potentially groundbreaking sustainability projects.

The hotel, a 20-minute plane ride from Tahiti, has 35 beachfront villas, two restaurants, a spa, fitness center, tennis court and wifi. A one-bedroom villa costs between $2,500 to $4,200 a night, with a minimum stay of two nights. A round trip from Tahiti to Tetiaroa costs an additional $500 per person.

Just like Brando wanted, artists and intellectuals (like Leo DiCaprio and Barack Obama) frequent the hotel.

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A villa on Tetiaroa.

The ball got rolling on The Brando before its namesake’s death. Brando was collaborating, albeit contentiously, with Tahiti-based hotel developer Richard Bailey. After Marlon died, the Brando estate leased Tetiaroa to Bailey, who built the resort in a way he thought would please the actor — at least within reason. This version of paradise doesn’t include Brando’s craziest ideas: no gorillas or game shows.

“We started from different points of view and converged on a set of principles, Bailey said.

The hotel and island operations are as green as they get. Completely carbon-neutral. Nothing built over the water that might affect lagoon life. All waste water stored, treated and recycled. They get food from their gardens and make their own honey.

The lack of fossil fuels, Bailey said, was in part achieved by one of Brando’s ideas: a process that uses deep sea water for air conditioning. That innovation, Bailey said, produces two-thirds of the island’s energy.

“That’s one of (Brando’s) crazy ideas that turned out to be absolutely innovative and extremely compelling,” Bailey said. “Deep sea cooling is his legacy to the world because this had never been done before.”

The island’s stewards have had to make a few compromises that the notoriously stubborn Brando probably would have raged against. In order to make boat passage possible, the developers cut a channel through the barrier reef, something Brando and Bernard Judge fought against. Judge, for his part, is still upset about this.

And Brando would have hated the hotel’s name. He didn’t want people to come to the island because it belonged to a movie star. He wanted them to come to the island because it was beautiful.

“He would have vigorously disapproved of the name ‘The Brando,’” Bailey said. “But at the end of the day, what were we going to call it?”

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Sea turtle near Tetiaroa.

But Brando likely would have been thrilled by the creation of the Tetiaroa Society, a U.S.-based nonprofit and research station that manages the atoll. The Tetiaroa Society hosts scientists from all over the world, with conservation programs that revolve around restoring and maintaining the natural habitats for various species on the island and in the lagoon and reef. The programs address the global through the lens of the local, as the two are increasingly intertwined. Something Marlon understood as well as anyone. 

Frank Murphy, executive director, said that The Brando covers 70 to 80 percent of the Tetiaroa Society’s operational costs, the rest being endowment.

“It’s guided by the vision that Marlon had,” Murphy said. “Now we’re trying to pull it off.”

 

“There isn’t an end to this story. Just as I cannot imagine where I was before I sat under that elm tree at the end of 32nd Street with my hand stretched wide for those magical pods, so I continue to be an enigma to myself in a world that still bewilders me.”

— Marlon Brando

 
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Clip from a story that ran in the July 23, 1973, Omaha World-Herald, about Brando making a short visit to Omaha.

 

Omaha

In the summer of 1973, shortly after winning his second Academy Award, Brando returned to Omaha to revisit his past. It was a short visit, lasting about three hours.

On the trip, Brando asked a cab driver to take him to the Field Club School, where he went to kindergarten. And to Hanscom Park, where Brando recalled his childhood memories of watching the monkeys in the cages.

He also went back to his childhood home on 32nd St. and asked the residents if he could take a look around. After the shock of a movie star knocking on their door wore off, the Shapiro family gave Brando a tour. He went to the bedroom where he slept and to the spot where the treehouse used to be, and he told the family about the tree in the front of the house that he used to sit under.

On Brando’s way out, the family asked him if he wanted a photo of the house to take with him. He declined.

He said he had a picture in his mind and didn’t want to change it.

 

* * *

 

Sources

“Marlon Brando”  by Patricia Bosworth

“Brando’s Smile”  by Susan L. Mizruchi

“Somebody”  by Stefan Kanfer

“Hollywood Hellraisers”  by Robert Sellers

The documentary  “Listen to Me Marlon”

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