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How Marlon Brando almost derailed Francis Ford Coppola movie 'Apocalypse Now'

Notoriously one of cinema’s most troubled behind-the-scenes sets, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is a true Vietnam war epic in which production lasted over a year and went wildly over budget. The problems ranged from such expensive sets being destroyed by severe weather, to lead actor Martin Sheen having a mental breakdown on set, which led to a near-fatal heart attack. Though perhaps the film’s largest obstacle was the erratic behaviour of central actor Marlon Brando once production began in 1976. 

The actor arrived on location in Manila extremely overweight, forcing Coppola to edit around the character and change his initial plan. Downplaying the actor’s weight by dressing him in black, focusing on his face and using shadows and silhouettes to make his character, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, seem more mysterious. To add further issues to the production because of the actor’s weight, all prepared costumes had to be scrapped as Coppola expected Brando to arrive in a slim condition. 

An enigmatic figure, Marlon Brando was open in admitting that he did Apocalypse Now for the paycheck, with his specific contract stating that he would be paid ‘$3 million for four weeks of work on weekdays only’, and would not be required to ‘work past 5:30pm’. Reportedly, once Brando was eventually on-set and ready to perform, for the first four days of production the actor refused to show up, heading to Coppola’s trailer instead to discuss random topics and collect his acting fee. 

Demonstrating just how difficult Marlon Brando proved to be, in conversation with Coppola regarding how Colonel Kurtz should be played, the actor rejected each of the director’s ideas, including his suggestion to follow the original book, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and shave Brando’s head. After much argument and disagreement, Brando reportedly said he would “sleep on it”, before showing up the next day with a shaved head, announcing that he’d read Conrad’s book and now agreed with Coppola. 

The director described Brando’s presence on set, noting “he was like an irresponsible kid,” though spoke very fondly of the actor, announcing him a “genius in a class of his own”. Asked about Brando’s potential fear of the hefty performance at hand, the director commented: “Marlon was too interesting a man to be scared,” and observed that: “People say, ‘You got such a great performance out of the actor,’ but directors don’t do that. You’re just the coach”. 

A larger-than-life figure, we may never get an actor like Marlon Brando ever again.

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