Did Marlon Brando Once Make a “Miraculous Recovery” to a Proselytizing Visitor When He Was Pretending to be a Paraplegic in a Veteran’s Hospital?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Marlon Brando made a “miraculous recovery” while preparing for his first motion picture role.

Marlon Brando was already a noted theater actor when, in 1949, he was picked to star in Fred Zinneman’s The Men, Brando’s motion picture debut.

In the film, Brando plays a soldier who is paralyzed after being shot during World War II.

Well, to prepare for the role, Brando asked to be admitted as a patient at the Birmingham Veterans Hospital in Van Nuys as a paraplegic. Since Brando was not famous at this point, he was able to blend in pretty well. Eventually, he let his fellow patients know that he was a movie actor there researching a role, but still, the vast majority of the other patients there did not know that Brando was not actually a paraplegic.

As the popular story goes, Brando in a bar with some friends from the hospital when a Salvation Army lady comes in collecting waste paper. She is shocked at the sight of all these paralyzed veterans, and cries out, “Oh Lord, grant that these men may be able to walk again!”

At which point, Brando gets up from his wheelchair, shocking the woman and delighting his friends.

That’s a pretty shocking story if true, right? But IS it?

Right off the bat, the story is strange enough that I’m automatically doubtful, but you know what, after reading a bunch of Brando biographies by a lot of different writers, while they all differ on specific details of the tale, they all seem to agree with the gist of the story – some woman makes a comment about “let these people walk” and Brando gets up from his wheelchair, shocking her.

Brando, in his autobiography, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, places the story as taking place at an Italian restaurant, and the woman in question just a normal (if annoying) woman who came over pouring pity at the men (which Brando noted is what they hated the most). So Brando replied that he wanted to believe in God, and she says that he should, and he says that he feels God coming into him now, at which point he gets up and does a little tap dance performance, shocking the woman and delighting his friends.

Darwin Porter, in his great Brando biography, Brando Unzipped: A Revisionist and Very Private Look at America’s Greatest Actor, tells a more realistic version of the story, which involves two Christian Scientists who came to the hospital to drop off magazines, but ended up prostelatyzing a bit to the patients – you know, typical Christian Scientist beliefs like “If you believe in God enough, you can be healed” – and it was to THIS that Brando stood up, as he was getting near the end of his stay anyways, and was planning on telling all the patients soon already, so took that moment to both tell all his friends AND zing some ladies he found annoying. According to Porter, Brando DID do a tap dance performance, too. Porter even names the two Christian Scientist women, Ethel Derriman and Rebecca Hoover.

So do I think that some version of the story did happen? Yeah, I think so – enough different people have cited it (and it’s not like the room was not filled with people, giving writers ample possible sources) that I think that some version of the story happened. I lean towards Porter’s version, but Brando’s could be true, as well.

The legend is…

STATUS: I’m Going With True

Thanks to Dr. Macro’s movie scan site for The Men stills. And thanks to Darwin Porter and Marlon Brando for their takes on the story!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is [email protected]

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