The death of stage and screen legend Marlon Brando has brought on a plethora of obituaries and appreciations that have covered all aspects of his life and career — except one. In myriad interviews throughout his life, Brando noted that the most important influences on his career were his early training with acting teacher Stella Adler — daughter of famed Yiddish actor Jacob Adler — and his association with the Jewish community in which she lived. This week, Michael Bronski talked with painter Ellen Adler, who is Stella Adler’s daughter and the vice chair of the Stella Adler Studio, about the actor’s relationship with the Adler family as well as her own 60-year friendship with him.
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What was Brando’s relationship with Stella Adler?
Ellen Adler: It began as a professional relationship. Marlon studied with my mother from 1943 to 1944. She always was asked if she recognized his talent from the beginning, and she said, “No.” You have to realize that young actors came into her studio, and they were unformed. Often they were embarrassed to ask for her help. But in one of the drama workshops, Marlon gave a terrific performance and there were some Hollywood agents in the audience. They came and asked him to sign a standard seven-year contact. But he spoke to a friend, and they decided to ask my mother’s advice. He came over to our house to talk it over, and she told him not to sign and to hold out and to “make them take you on your own terms.” Later my mother told me that Marlon would be as great a performer as “Papa,” referring to her own father, Jacob Adler.
Did the relationship to the Adler family become more personal?
EA: Oh, yes. Marlon really became part of our family’s everyday life in our home at 131 West 54th Street. You have to realize that our home was really dead center for New York intellectual life at the time. He met everyone there — Boris Aronson, Irwin Shaw, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein. Really, the list is endless. Name someone who was in the arts at the time, and they were at the house. After he came to my mother for advice that evening, Marlon and I began dating and that continued for years. He was at the house when I was home, but also when I was attending Bard College. He was part of our family in a very real way.
What was the effect of this on Brando?
EA: Well, you have to remember that he was from the Midwest, from Omaha, Neb., and we were the first Jews he had ever met. And because this was one of the centers of New York intellectual life, Marlon was introduced to a vast variety of things he had not encountered before. He began reading — novels, poetry, philosophy, history, you name it. It was really the beginning of his intellectual life and his political life, as well.
What do you mean by his political life?
EA: Well, in 1946 he became involved in Peter Bergson’s production, “A Flag Is Born,” a play that was an impassioned political plea for a Jewish homeland. And again, Marlon was involved with people — all Jews — who were at the center of the artistic world. The play was written by Ben Hecht, the music by Kurt Weill. My aunt Cecilia was in it as well as Paul Muni. And Marlon played David, the survivor of a death camp who goes on to Palestine.… “A Flag Is Born” was a vital piece of New York theater and Marlon passionately believed in it. And it came directly out of a specifically Jewish experience and, to a very large degree, out of the history and the experience of the Yiddish theater.
Five years ago, there was the great flap about his remarks on “Larry King Live” that Jews ran Hollywood. Did you ever have the impression that Brando harbored antisemitic ideas or thoughts?
EA: No, never. He was one of the most open and fairest men I have ever met. You have to realize that when he went to Hollywood, there wasn’t one studio that was not run by a Jew. He was making a realistic statement.
Did you keep in touch with Brando after he left New York?
EA: Yes, we were always very close. We spoke almost every day. In fact, we spoke the day before his death. He was, by far, one of the largest men I have ever known. His intellectual appetite was enormous. He just knew so much; he had a hunger for knowledge…. But really, it is his sense of fairness and his sense of humanity that will always stay with me. These are values that were there when I first knew him, but that grew over the years he spent with my family.
This will be a tremendous shift for me. We met when he was 20 and I was 17, and have been close ever since then. In many of the obits people wrote about his being alone. But Marlon never was alone. He had an enormous imagination and an enormous curiosity about the world and people. He lived in his imagination, and his mind was always alive.