“Brando’d,” by Ken Pisani

Aug 7th, 2013 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

At a poorly attended Los Angeles gallery exhibition this week of the photographs of little-known celebrity photographer Howard Busgang, one image stood out among the rushed compositions of unwelcome encounters: a heretofore unseen photograph of Marlon Brando with his head in a cast.

In a 1973 altercation with paparazzo Ron Galella, Brando, exiting a Chinatown restaurant with TV host Dick Cavett, broke the photographer’s jaw. Emboldened by his lucky punch, Brando then became something of a serial-jaw-breaker: in quick succession, Brando broke the jaws of Bernardo Bertolucci, Lee Strasberg, Truman Capote, Syvain Sylvain, Ed Kranepool, Joe Franklin, and Bella Abzug.

Over the next three years Brando remained completely absent from acting, obsessed with the art of face punching. It was rumored he was taking boxing lessons from former heavyweight contender “Two Ton” Tony Galento, with whom he’d appeared in the films On The Waterfront and Guys and Dolls in the 1950s, when both men, unbeknownst to each other, were dating Wally Cox.

Brando appeared in only a single film between 1972 and 1978, a time when he was so feared that his closest friends ran from the sight of him and the agents at William Morris would not see him without first donning football helmets. His costar in 1976’s The Missouri Breaks, Jack Nicholson, was nearly fired from the production for his tendency to flinch and shriek whenever Brando so much as lifted a hand in their scenes together. (It was decided to shoot all Nicholson’s scenes with Brando in close-up opposite another actor or, in long shots, replaced by stand-in Chick Bernhardt, a granite-jawed stunt man whom Brando was clever enough to refrain from socking.) Although Nicholson managed to complete principal photography without suffering injury, the same could not be said of costars Randy Quaid, Harry Dean Stanton, an unknown actor who played “Vern,” production assistant (and son of the director) Matthew Penn, and local postmaster Clarence Scoggins, knocked unconscious while trying to collect an autograph (which Brando signed anyway). Brando even punched his horse in what he considered a far better knockdown than the one in Blazing Saddles, and until his death never forgave director Arthur Penn for not including it in the film.

The end of Brando’s propensity for jaw-breaking came later that year at an American bicentennial celebration at the Hotel Commodore when Brando, enthused to run across Norman Mailer passed out in a stairwell, shook the famous author awake only to be punched in the face by him, breaking his own jaw in three places.

While recuperating at St. Vincent’s Hospital under the pseudonym “Marlin Brandeux,” word of his condition had leaked to Howard Busgang, a failed baby photographer whose sister had also been admitted for treatment of injuries sustained while attempting to board the Tovarisch, a Soviet tall ship participating in “Operation Sail” festivities that she’d mistaken for a theme restaurant. Sneaking into the hospital late one night, Busgang snapped a single shot on his Graphlex, an exclusive photo of the belligerent movie star given his comeuppance that Busgang knew would make him famous. He was about to slip from the room when Brando, having been awakened by the vintage camera’s clattering shutter, called out to him in the familiar, raspy voice of Don Corleone, and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

In exchange for the negative, Howard Busgang was invited to accompany the actor to every film location for the rest of Brando’s career, jet-setting to the Philipines for Apocalypse Now, Zimbabwe for A Dry White Season, Malta for Christopher Columbus, and Australia for The Island of Dr. Moreau, where Busgang met and later married the actress playing “Sow Lady #2.” Over the years he snapped candid, behind-the-scenes photos of the actor—oil wrestling with Gene Hackman on The Formula, comparing genitals with Johnny Depp on Don Juan DeMarco, riding a Komodo dragon that later died on The Freshman. With Brando’s blessing, Busgang sold many of these to several outlets of the time including Photoplay, Modern Screen, and once, Ring Magazine, after a rare relapse when the recovering jaw-breaker found himself forced to punch Charlie Sheen on the set of Free Money.

According to those closest to Busgang, the forced companionship founded on opportunity and extortion eventually deepened into genuine friendship. Even after the legendary actor retired due to the failing health that had made it difficult to antagonize directors, rumors continued to circulate about the true nature of the relationship between the men, speculation that amused Brando until his death in 2004 of embarrassment for lending his voice to the videogame version of The Godfather.


Defenestration-Ken PisaniKen Pisani dabbles in television, stage plays, comic books, and other fictions. (Yes, Ken needs to focus.) His short story, “My Brother Died And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt,” was collected in the anthology More Tonto Short Stories, published in the U.S. and U.K. An earlier effort, “The Failing,” was a short fiction winner at Cedar Hill Press in 2007. The windfall from both those literary triumphs will offer small comfort in retirement. Ken has also been published by a variety of websites, including Defenestration, the literary humor magazine that boasts its ability to make you want to hurl yourself out a window. To enjoy more of Ken’s writing (such as it is), visit comicbooked.com, where he blogs infrequently about comic books and pop culture, and eatthepoor.com, where he blogs occasionally if not lucidly about the economy, politics, media, and other topics of little interest.

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