When Hollywood great Marlon Brando passed away in 2004, he owned a paradise island in Tahiti – a sun-soaked retreat surrounded by turquoise waters and offering unbridled peace and tranquillity.
It may, therefore, come as a surprise to many that in the final few weeks of his life he expressed a desire not to see out his days there but, instead, in the Kent countryside.
The double Academy Award-winner had fallen under the county’s spell after what he had planned as a weekend break turned into a six-month sojourn.
So just how did a man best known for his roles in the likes of The Godfather, Apocolypse Now and A Streetcar Named Desire, end up sat outside a pub in Faversham on one of his many subsequent visits, watching the world go by while sitting on a fortune which, at the time of his death, ran into tens of millions of pounds?
Now, for the first time, we can reveal just how the iconic star came to the county, how he fell in love with Kent (and why Folkestone left him cold) and why he would have stayed for longer were it not for one incident.
By the mid-1990s, Marlon Brando’s career was winding down as he entered his seventies. He’d long since grown disillusioned with the movie business – he announced he’d retired at the end of the 1980s, but would return to the screen intermittently – and had suffered some significant personal problems.
Most notably, his son Christian had taken a plea deal to the involuntary manslaughter of Dag Droller, the partner of his half-sister Cheyenne, in 1990. He’d been shot at the superstar’s Mulholland Drive home. Christian had been jailed for 10 years (although would serve only half).
Cheyenne, who had been pregnant at the time of the shooting, committed suicide in 1995 in Tahiti. She was just 25.
For Brando it had been a gruelling period of mental strain.
“He had come to London around 1996,” explains long-time friend and legal advisor, Belinda Frioux. “I think he was making a movie at the time. He wanted to go to the countryside. It was difficult for him to go anywhere because, at the time, he was having personal family problems, and people would keep asking him about it.
“I had – and still have – a flat on the Lees Court Estate, just outside Faversham so I said I’d take him there. I told him how quiet it was, how nobody would bother him and he could just sit in the garden and be at peace.
“So he came down with a couple of his children and he absolutely fell in love with the area. He treasured its natural beauty and peacefulness.
“He came down on a Friday to stay for the weekend and stayed for six months. He loved it so much.”
Belinda – who describes her role as his legal counsel “like a consigliere, like Tom in The Godfather” – had worked closely with Brando for many years, brokering movie deals and assisting with the legal tangle his family members had found themselves in. She had become a close confidante. Her son, Christian, is one of the few who can honestly say Marlon Brando is his, genuine, godfather.
“When my son started school,” she explains, “the children were asked what they had done during the summer. Well, I got a call at the end of the day from the headmistress asking me to come in and see her. They were concerned as Christian was going around telling children he’d been to America to see his godfather, Marlon Brando.
“She thought he meant I’d let him watch The Godfather. I had to explain that we hadn’t let him watch the film at his age – but that Marlon was his godfather and he had been to visit him.”
Marlon Brando’s career had started 40 years before he’d made the visit to Kent. It had taken off in the late 1940s when he’d appeared in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It was a role he would reprise in 1951 for the movie version and which landed him an Academy Award nomination. It was, remarkably, the first of four consecutive tilts for the Best Actor Oscar.
He walked away with the title in 1954 for On The Waterfront.
But after such a stellar start to his career, his popularity started to decline during the 1960s. It wasn’t helped by his off-screen reputation as being difficult on movie sets – a situation which came to a head during 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty.
He was accused of throwing tantrums and ad-libbing – primarily through his long-held practice of not learning his lines and insisting, instead, on the use of cue cards just out of shot. Accused of trying to sabotage the hugely expensive shoot, it would have an impact on future roles. Not helped by the fact the movie lost millions.
However, despite the problems, the film did introduce him to Tahiti – an island in French Polynesia, in the Pacific Ocean, where much of the shooting took place. In fact, he was so enamoured by the area he bought a 99-year lease on the atoll Teti’aroa – which by the time of his death was valued at £80million. He also married his French Polynesia-born co-star Tarita Teri’ipaia (although the marriage – his third – would be over by 1972).
The rest of the decade was notable for movies which failed – with one or two exceptions – to deliver critically or commercially.
However, as the 1970s dawned, so his career took a turn which defied his critics and cemented his iconic status.
Cast as Vito Corleone in The Godfather – the head of one of New York’s Mafia families – in 1972, the movie was not only a huge hit, but remains acclaimed as one of the all-time greats to this day. It elevated Brando back to Hollywood’s top table and landed him another Oscar for Best Actor. However, he famously rejected the gong, citing “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry”.
The controversial Last Tango in Paris followed soon after and he pocketed a cool £2.85m for three weeks work on Superman in 1977, where he briefly portrayed the superhero’s father.
But his life was sailing on far from calm waters. Repelling the press attention which inevitably followed him – he was notoriously difficult with the few interviews he granted journalists – his private life provided rich pickings. His affairs – with, it is suggested, both men and women – resulted in him having 11 children.
So does the public image tally with what Belinda Frixou remembers of the man?
“He may have been one of the best actors in the world,” she says, “but he always said, openly, 'I hate the movie world'. When people say he was difficult, he wanted to do things a certain way. He never learnt lines, he improvised and did his own thing. So from that point of view, it was difficult for the directors and other actors.
“But he was just different. Very talented. And he'd been famous, don't forget, since he was 18. It makes life difficult.
“Given how closely we worked over so many years, I knew him probably better than most people. I was his lawyer and friend and we would often spend hours and hours on the phone wherever he was in the world every day.
“The man I knew was extremely kind and extremely funny. He was a very clever and interesting person who helped a lot of people.
“You’re always going to get those sorts of stories about incredibly famous people. But he was, in fact, a lovely, genuine person.
The man I knew was extremely kind and funny. He was a very clever and interesting person who helped a lot of people
“He was godfather to my son and would call him almost every day just to say hello.”
While in Kent, Brando tended to prefer staying around the country lanes and market town of Faversham – he often strolled the likes of Selling and Shottenden. They did visit elsewhere (“I remember we took him to visit Folkestone, but he just preferred the countryside – he wasn’t a seaside person”) but he was happiest not straying far from his temporary home.
Adds Belinda: “The people at Lees Court were very calm and when they saw him they didn’t bother him. They were amazed Marlon Brando was sat in their garden. But he liked to meet local people.
“I remember taking him into Faversham to get his hair cut. He chatted to the girl cutting his hair for hours.”
But as the weekend morphed into six months, his fame finally caught up with him and would cut his stay in the county short.
“He was planning to stay for a whole year,” recalls Belinda, “but one day we’d gone into Faversham. We were sat at a coffee shop when someone recognised him. While he was having something to eat and drink the press arrived.
“They then followed us to Lees Court and that was it. For him, it spoilt it.”
But it didn’t deter him from making – numerous – repeat visits in the years leading up to his death. He would frequently travel down to Lees Court whenever he was in England “or just en route to other places when he was making movies”.
Marlon Brando’s health started to decline – not helped by his weight gains (his weight tended to fluctuate dramatically). He needed regular oxygen and would often spend time at his close friend Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch where the singer would ensure Brando could enjoy the outside fresh air complete with oxygen tank.
But after suffering pneumonia in 2001, the next few years proved a struggle.
On July 1, 2004, he passed away at the UCLA Medical Centre. He was 80. It was, ironically, the same place Jackson would be pronounced dead almost exactly five years later.
His cause of death was respiratory failure from pulmonary fibrosis with congestive heart failure. He was also suffering from diabetes and liver cancer. His will included his paradise island and close to £20 million in cash.
“Two weeks before he died he called me and he said 'all I dream about is coming back to Kent’,” reveals Belinda.
“I think if he hadn't died he'd have made the journey again.
“I can’t believe it’s almost 20 years since we lost him.
Two weeks before he died he called me and he said 'all I dream about is coming back to Kent’.
“I’d been friends with his girlfriend – that’s how it started. But he was the type of man who was very loyal so once I became his lawyer he consulted me on virtually everything.
“Every film in the last 25 to 30 years of his life I dealt with. I had a very interesting career with him.
“He was my client and my friend and I miss him very much.”
As for Christian – the then eight-year-old godson of Marlon Brando? Today he’s 35 and a partner in the same law firm as his mother.
And the island in Taihiti he owned? Today it is home to The Brando – an eco-friendly resort where the top-priced luxury villa will set you back more than £40,000 for a two-night stay.
Brando’s iconic reputation remains. Just last year, film bible Empire named him among their 50 Greatest Actors of All-time.
It said of his talents: “Among the most influential screen actors of all-time, Brando hit Hollywood like a hammer in the early 1950s – fundamentally changing the definition of ‘good’ acting, and with it films themselves. Brando’s deeply-felt naturalism was magnetic, and his power undeniable. All his famous difficulty was worth it for the magic he created.”