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Apocalypse Now - Martin Sheen remembers Marlon Brando

Apocalypse Now

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DURING a recent round table interview for his latest film, The Way we asked Martin Sheen to give us an anecdote on what it was like to work with screen legend Marlon Brando on legendary war film Apocalypse Now.

He obliged by giving us several, complete with Brando impressions. Here’s what he had to say. Apocalypse Now is being re-released in UK cinemas on May 27 and on 3-disc special edition Blu-ray on June 13.

Q. On first meeting Marlon Brando…
Martin Sheen: First of all, the biggest problem working with Marlon was the image we brought to him. It was: “Oh my God, it’s Marlon!” So, the first thing he did when he arrived – because I guess he had a sense of that – was to go around and introduce himself to everybody: crew members, all the way down to the drivers and the wardrobe people. [In Brando accent] “Hi, I’m Marlon, what’s your name? What do you do?” It took a full day. But everyone was stunned by him. He was so disarming and he became after my heart. I adored him… his compassion. The only thing he wouldn’t talk about is acting [laughs]. He had no interest in it at all. He wanted to know about you and your family and where you come from and how you deal with all your life experiences. He only worked about five or six weeks. So, we had to do all of his stuff very intently.

Q. On filming Kurtz’s death scene…
Martin Sheen: We were shooting a sequence where I’m coming along and I’m going to kill him inside the cave. I’ve got this farm implement and I’m going to bash his brains in with it. So, I’m coming along and Francis [Ford Coppola] had set it up on a low dolly on the floor and Marlon is sitting there reading a book and talking to himself… he’s recording things. He’s giving his reminiscences, so that’s how he is distracted from seeing me. So, I’m sneaking up and it starts on me coming up to him, before then going up onto the wall and you see that I’m bringing up this club, and then it slides down to him, so you see him before you see the club coming down. I would slash near him so it would look like I took his head off.

So, that was the shot and as we did the first take as I came along… just as I got the axe back and I’m ready to heave down on him, he said: “Pray for your father.” I dropped the club and I said: “What?” And he said: “Pray for your father.” So I said: “OK, I will.” And Francis said: “What’s going on? Why have we stopped?” So, I said: “Marlon asked me to pray for my father…” [Laughs] Nobody said anything, I just took a dark and that was it.

Q. On Brando’s disapproval of him smoking…
Martin Sheen: I smoked then… I smoked a lot, as you can see. But he hated smoking. He had a little houseboat down by the river and we’d rehearse down there and practice and run over things. One day, we were seated in there – he and Francis and I were seated in this houseboat and they had ordered some chicken. So, we were all eating but I had finished ahead of everyone and I lit up a cigarette. I was alone and I’m just smoking and Marlon went like this… there’s no one seated next to him, so he goes [leans into an imaginary person]: “I’m sorry, what?” He’s looking at me and he says: “OK, don’t worry, don’t worry…” And then he says: “Excuse me Martin, my friend here is so disturbed by your smoking… oh, you haven’t met my friend?”

Suddenly, I see his friend, so I say: “Oh hey, how you doing?” I’m talking to this imaginary guy! But he says [continues in Brando accent]: “He’s so upset about your smoking; it’s so Neanderthal… You mustn’t smoke. You’ve gotta stop it man. He’s very concerned about your health.” I almost quit smoking! But that’s how he was [laughs]. He was so imaginative and so alive. But he was a big jokester. I mean, he loved practical jokes. He’d go out of his way to create a practical joke and stand by and laugh. He was like a child in a lot of ways… he was very child-like. It’s part of the reason he was such a brilliant actor. As I say, it’s the last thing he talked about: movies and acting. He didn’t have the slightest interest. I miss him. He was a dear man.

Apocalypse Now

Q. On Brando being ill…
Martin Sheen: He was ill when he arrived. He really had some serious blood disorder and they’d gotten him a cabin near us and they’d given him all these gifts when he arrived. They were fussing over him. But what he didn’t have was clean water. We’d gone to huge expense to bring water in because we knew how important it was. So, we had 30 cases of water and only half of them survived. I spent all my money getting the water there. But Janet sent up a case of Perrier and Evian to him and that did it – that sealed it. He adored her and they stayed friends the rest of his life. Honestly, he sent flowers down every day. He adored Janet. She’d cook, you know. But he’d come down and talk to the kids. The kids didn’t have a clue who he was. He’d sit on the porch waiting for supper and the kids would say to him: “So, where did you go to school and how old are you now? So what do you do for a living?” But that’s how we found out about him and he was fascinating. But he loved Janet.

Q. On trying to get Brando to make An Artist & The Pope with Robert De Niro…
Martin Sheen: The only disappointment was that we had bought a book called An Artist & The Pope and it was a story about this wonderful artist named Giacomo Manzu. He was the artist that designed the medal for the Italian Olympics and he was the artist that designed the symbol for Alitalia and so forth. He was a very famous modern artist in Italy and he had won a contest to finish the doors at St Peter’s – the ones as you leave the Cathedral on your right. Those doors were never completed… the exterior of them. And he had won a contest but because he was a Communist they wouldn’t give them to him. So, when Pius XII died, John the 23rd came in – good Pope John we called him. He wanted to know: “When are we going to finish these doors?” And the Vatican would say: “Oh, the guy is Giacomo Manzu and he’s a Communist.” But Pope John said: “Oh, I’d love to meet him!” And they became these great friends.

Giacomo Manzu did the official sculpture of The Pope, which is in the Vatican museum and this [book] is the whole story of their relationship. One day, he was modelling for Manzu and they were finished for the day and he said: “Would you like to see where I live?” So they went upstairs to the Vatican apartment and John lived in a little room with a single bed and a place where he knelt down, a crucifix and that was it. Manzu said: “Holiness, this is where you live?” And he said: “Yes, and this is where I’m going to die.” And he said: “Oh by the way, I want you to come and do a face mask of me. Would you do that for me?” And he did. When John was dying, they called Manzu and he did the official face-mask and while they were waiting, he was looking at the Pope’s brothers and sisters. So, Manzu asked his sister: “I can’t remember, was John right or left handed?” So, he made a sculpture of his right hand too, which he had used to sign so many important documents.

But I digress… the reason I mention this is that we wanted Marlon to play John the 23rd and Robert De Niro to play the artist and we bought the book. But we could never get it done. But can you imagine? Wouldn’t that have been a story? With Marlon playing John the 23rd.

View photos from Apocalypse Now

  1. Awesome anecdotes!

    Tom    May 26    #