MARLON BRANDO, 1924-2004

It's impossible to think about a Marlon Brando obituary that doesn't layer on the superlatives. Mesmerizing. Extraordinary. Revolutionary. All of them, and probably more, are true. Certainly no actor played more iconic roles--brutal Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire," tortured Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront," quietly carnivorous Vito Corleone in "The Godfather." Even more remarkable, Brando started on his tear in the 1950s, when he stood for everything--rawness, spontaneity, nonconformity--that American society did not. Brando scared people to death. Before him, acting was what Cary Grant or Gregory Peck did, something suave and lofty. Brando rubbed dirt in the eyes of that kind of performing. Without Brando, there would be no Nicholson, no De Niro, no Depp.

But it's hard not to wonder, what would Brando say about all this praise? He may have been the greatest American actor, but he was also the most conflicted about success. Rather than pick up his 1972 Oscar for "The Godfather," he sent a Native American woman to do it. Even his ballooning weight seemed like a fortress to keep the world out. You can't blame him, what with his alcoholic mother and, notoriously, his son Christian's 1990 killing of the boyfriend of Brando's daughter Cheyenne and her 1995 suicide. It wasn't easy being Brando. In her 2001 biography, Patricia Bosworth quotes an ex-girlfriend who was watching TV with the actor when they came across "Streetcar." "Marlon told me, 'Turn it off,' but I said, 'Please let me watch.' So we did for a while, and then Marlon groaned, 'Oh, God, I was beautiful then'." Was he ever.