LOS ANGELES — The words are pretty simple: “Stella!” and “I coulda been a contender ...” or even “The horror ... the horror ... .”
But these lines, when spoken by Marlon Brando, revolutionized the way actors behaved onscreen and ignited a generation of performers to unleash their inner passion before the cameras.
Brando, who died at age 80 on Thursday, revolutionized Hollywood’s image of a leading man playing street-tough, emotionally raw characters in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront” and then revived his career a generation later as the definitive Mafia don in “The Godfather.”
“I was shocked and deeply saddened at the loss of the greatest acting genius of our time. What will we do without Marlon in this world?” said his “Godfather” co-star Al Pacino, one of the generation of stars influenced by his work.
Brando was the bridge between the heroic and upstanding screen purity of earlier stars such as Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda and a generation of conflicted anti-heroes played by the likes of Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman.
The reclusive Brando died of lung failure at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at UCLA Medical Center, according to hospital spokeswoman Roxanne Moster.
Brando’s attorney, David J. Seeley, said funeral arrangements would be private.
For generations of movie lovers, Brando was unforgettable — the embodiment of brutish Stanley Kowalski in 1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” famously bellowing “STELLA!” at his estranged love with a mix of anguish and desire.
Then came his mixed-up, washed-up boxer Terry Malloy of 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” who laments throwing fights for his gangster brother with the line, “I coulda been a contender ... I coulda been somebody.”
The key to Brando’s craft was Method acting. The technique eschewed grandiose theatricality in favor of a deeper psychological approach, often through near-continuous rehearsal that led many actors to behave like their characters even when offstage.
While his early roles were marked by an overt, almost predatory sexuality that made him a rebellious film icon, Brando let his good looks fade as he gained weight and became increasingly reclusive in later years.
He was pushy, difficult, temperamental and demanding — and his preference for repeated takes came to be regarded as excessive and costly.
Even though the studios had written off the star in the early 1970s, he went on to create the iconic character of Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather,” which reinvigorated his career and earned him his second best-actor Oscar.
His first came years earlier for 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” and Brando showed up in a tuxedo and graciously accepted it.
But his stunt at the 1973 Oscar ceremony cemented his status as one of the movie industry’s most bizarre talents. Brando sent a woman who identified herself as Sasheen Littlefeather to reject his “Godfather” trophy on his behalf and read a diatribe about Hollywood’s poor treatment of American Indians.
Regardless of his personal peculiarities, nothing could diminish Brando’s reputation as an actor of startling power and invention.