Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about theater and whether they are true or false.
THEATER URBAN LEGEND: Marlon Brando urinated onstage to upstage another actor.
Reader Robert S. wrote in to ask me to find the truth behind a famous theater anecdote. He wasn’t even positive WHO the story was about, just that it involved an actress threatening to upstage another actress without even being ON stage (she manages to pull it off by using tape to adhere a glass to a table so it looks to the audience like it is going to fall over at any moment – she then leaves the stage for the other actress, who now no one is paying attention to because they’re all looking at the glass, hence being upstaged without being onstage). I was able to narrow the story down to the great Tallulah Bankhead, who had the story told about her a number of times, to the point of it even making it into Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes. However, it is so vague that I can’t confirm or debunk it actually happened. I’ve certainly never seen anything concrete either way. However, while researching THAT tale of upstaging another actor, I came across a case of Tallulah being upstaged by the young Marlon Brando (seen here together…
) that was so hilarious that I figured I just had to share it with you all…
The year was 1946 and Marlon Brando was early in his career as an actor. He was moody and annoyed many people, but his talent was undeniable. He landed a role opposite Tallulah Bankhead in a New York-bound translation of Jean Cocteau’s L’Aigle à deux têtes, translated as The Eagle has Two Heads.
Brando and Bankhead clashed repeatedly during the out of town tryouts of the show and Brando was ultimately replaced right before the production hit New York. However, that turned out to one of the greatest pieces of luck in the young actors career, as it freed him up to play Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ new play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which ended up breaking Brando’s career wide open (Williams would later claim that Bankhead, who turned down the role of Blanche in Streetcar, actually recommended Brando to Williams, telling him that while she hated him, she thought he was good for the role – Bankhead later denied ever sending the alleged telegram and Williams didn’t hold on to it. I tend to believe Williams, as it seems like an odd thing for him to make up, but I can’t say it happened for sure).
Anyhow, the most amusing way that Brando and Bankhead clashed came during a notable scene where Bankhead has a long monologue, some say it lasted as long as a half hour. Brando was to stand upstage while the monologue went on, and he grew so irritated at the scene and at Bankhead in general that he would do whatever he could to draw the audience’s attention from her.
The producer of the play, Jack Wilson, recalled:
During Tallulah’s speech, Marlon would unbutton, then rebutton his fly. He would squirm during her speech and was especially adept at picking his nose. He would leer at the audience, wink at a stagehand standing in the wings. One night he scracted his ass, and I mean really scratched, going for those dingleberries. Not just onstage, Marlon was ‘driving me nuts,’ in Tallulah’s words.”
On opening night in Boston, as reported by Darwin Porter in his book, Brando Unzipped, Brando made his most audacious move yet, turning his back to the audience, spreading his leg and then urinating on stage scenery. Tallulah couldn’t see him, so she didn’t know why the audience was giggling at her monologue. That was it for Brando. In his last performance, he tried to upstage even the urinating routine. When his character is killed, he then milked it for a tremendously long death sequence, leading to a critic attending the show to say that he looked like he was a car looking for a parking space in Midtown Manhattan.
Marlon Brando was definitely an odd duck.
The legend is…
Thanks to Darwin Porter for the great quotes!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org