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 ..."
After getting expelled from military school, Brando at 19 moved to New York and stayed with his sister Frances, an art student. He took up the study of acting in the city, and appeared in such plays as "I Remember Mama," and "Truckline Cafe."
The latter was directed by Elia Kazan, who would hire him for the play "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1947 and later for the movie. The Tennessee Williams play made him famous, but the actor was uncomfortable with the attention. He hated the clamor of fans and suffered through interviews. After his two-year contract for "Streetcar" he never appeared in plays.
His first film was director Stanley Kramer's "The Men" in 1950. To research the story of paraplegic war veterans, he spent a month in a veterans hospital.
His impact on screen acting was demonstrated by Academy Award nominations as best actor in four successive years: as Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951); as the Mexican revolutionary in "Viva Zapata!" (1952); as Marc Anthony in "Julius Caesar" (1953); and as Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront" (1954).
Besides his win for "The Godfather," he also had Oscar nominations for "Sayonara" (1957), "Last Tango in Paris" (1973) and "A Dry White Season" (1989).
While working on the musical "Guys and Dolls," he reportedly infuriated co-star Frank Sinatra - who was notoriously impatient with reshoots - by insisting on take after take, coolly redoing scenes while Sinatra bristled. A remake of "Mutiny on the Bounty" in 1962, with Brando as Fletcher Christian, seemed to bolster his reputation as a difficult star.
The "Bounty" experience affected Brando's life in a profound way: he fell in love with Tahiti and its people. Tahitian beauty Tarita, who appeared in the film, became his third wife and mother of two of his children. He bought an island, Tetiaroa, which he intended to make part environmental laboratory and part resort.
The key to Brando's craft was Method acting - a practice learned at Stella Adler's renowned Actors Studio in New York. 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.
"You never stopped being the character, you never stopped being in that mode," said Eva Marie Saint, Brando's co-star in "On the Waterfront."
Brando's personally combative nature only increased as he grew older. It may best be defined by his line from 1953's "The Wild One," in which Brando, playing a motorcycle gang leader, was asked what he's rebelling against. "Whaddya got?" was his character's reply.
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 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 award 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 activist Sasheen Littlefeather to reject his "Godfather" trophy on his behalf and read a diatribe about Hollywood's poor treatment of American Indians. It was roundly booed - and torpedoed much of the goodwill his performance had earned among studio honchos.
Regardless of his personal peculiarities, nothing could diminish Brando's reputation as an actor of startling power. He was the bridge between the heroic and upstanding screen purity of 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.
Marlon Brando Jr. came from the American heartland, born in Omaha, Nebraska, on April 3, 1924. Nicknamed "Bud" to distinguish him from his father, Brando and his family moved around the country throughout his youth. He was being reprimanded for misbehavior at school, and had a talent for playacting, both in elaborate pranks and in plays and recitations.
Although he remained a leading star, Brando's career waned in the 1960s with a series of failures. Coppola, then a relatively new filmmaker with little Hollywood sway, wanted him for Mafia leader Corleone in "The Godfather" in 1972.
The film was an overwhelming critical and commercial success. Brando's jowly, raspy-voiced don became a film icon, down to the subtlest mannerisms: the Mafia chief stroking a cat sweetly as he plotted violence, the contemplative brush of fingers against his bulldog jaw.
But Brando knew how to bite the hand that fed him. Aware of his mistreatment by the studio and reportedly sore about his earnings for "The Godfather," he refused to show up to shoot a brief flashback scene at the end of sequel. He did maintain a working relationship with Coppola, who chose him for a role, the insane Col. Kurtz in 1979's "Apocalypse Now."
In the early '70s, one of his greatest performances was overshadowed by an uproar over the erotic nature of Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris." In his memoir, "Songs My Mother Taught Me," Brando wrote of being emotionally drained by "Last Tango," an improvised film that included several autobiographical speeches.
Most of his later films were undistinguished. A hundred pounds heavier, he hired himself out at huge salaries for such commercial enterprises as "Superman" and "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery."