Of the 5,000 or so calls to the emergency 911 number in Los Angeles on May 16, one stands out. The frantic voice on the line at 10:45 P.M. was Marlon Brando’s. A man in his home, Brando said, had been shot.
When L.A. Fire Department Capt. Tom Jefferson arrived minutes later and rushed to the den of Brando’s sprawling, 12-room Los Angeles home, he found an eerie scene of apparent tranquillity, A man “was lying back on the couch,” said Jefferson, “kind of like he was watching TV.” The television was on, and channels were flipping continuously, as though the man were scanning the dial. According to police who arrived soon after, the man held a cigarette lighter in one hand, a remote control in the other. But he was dead, shot once in the face.
Brando’s son Christian, 32, told police he had accidentally killed the man, the boyfriend of his 20-year-old half-sister, Cheyenne. The pregnant Cheyenne, Christian said, had complained to him at dinner that evening of being slapped around by her 6’3″, 270-lb. lover, a Tahitian named Dag Drollet. Christian, his attorneys later maintained, had confronted Drollet with a .45 cal. handgun that went off when Drollet tried to wrest it away from him. There were reportedly no witnesses: Marlon Brando, 66, his Tahitian common-law wife, Tarita Teriipia, 48, and Cheyenne had been in other parts of the mountaintop house when they heard a shot. Marlon, defense attorneys say, rushed to the den and attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation before and after phoning 911 for assistance. But the bullet had exited through Drollet’s neck, and he was beyond help.
Besides the gun that killed Drollet, 26, police confiscated from Christian a .44cal. carbine, a shotgun, a MAC-10 machine-pistol, an M-14 assault rifle and what they said was a silencer. According to police, Cheyenne showed no signs of injury. “There was no abuse ever involved,” insisted LAPD Det. Andy Monsue. The cops arrested Christian on the spot, and two days later he was arraigned on first-degree murder and lesser charges. He pleaded innocent.
At 6 A.M. the following morning, Christian called from the West Los Angeles jail and left a message on the answering machine of his longtime friend, singer Duke Williams. “Well, I’ve really done it this time,” Christian said. “I shot somebody.”
A local daily, the Santa Monica Outlook, reported that Christian explained to police, “I didn’t want to shoot him. If I was going to kill that guy, I would have taken him to Franklin Canyon and hit him in the head with a baseball bat and pulverized the guy.” According to the Los Angeles Times, police quoted Marlon Brando as saying Christian “always had a very bad temper and could be explosively violent when angry.” Marlon reportedly went on to say that he did not believe Drollet had abused Cheyenne, but that his daughter had “psychological problems” and had made false allegations against family members.
New York civil rights attorney William Kunstler—a friend of Marlon’s whom the actor called within minutes of the shooting—pleaded for Christian’s release on bail at a May 21 hearing, citing letters from supporters including Jack Nicholson. But Deputy D.A. Steven Barshop argued that Drollet’s killing was a premeditated murder. The angle of the wound, the prosecutor said, suggested that Drollet had been shot from above while sitting, not in a struggle. As a haggard, ashen-faced Marlon looked on, L.A. Municipal Court Judge Rosemary Shumsky denied bail. After the hearing the elder Brando, his enormous girth straining at the belt on his gray slacks, was swarmed by reporters asking him how he felt. “It’s impossible to describe,” he said. “You’d have to go through what I’m going through to know how it feels.”
Whether or not he proves to be criminally responsible for Drollet’s death, the shooting is only the latest chapter in Christian’s troubled history. From infancy, Marlon Brando’s firstborn was at the center of a lurid spectacle of recrimination and brawling between his parents.
Christian’s mother, the Calcutta-born and convent-bred actress Anna Kashfi, was a 21-year-old London University economics student when she was discovered by a Paramount talent scout, who delivered her to Hollywood in 1955 to play opposite Spencer Tracy in The Mountain. She met Brando, then 31, in the Paramount commissary; he was about to start filming The Teahouse of the August Moon.
In 1957 Kashfi was pregnant and became the first of Brando’s three wives. But the wedding bouquets had scarcely wilted when she told a reporter, “Living with Marlon is like an afternoon at the races—short periods of orgiastic activity followed by long periods of boredom and anticipation. He’s almost never home.” She added, “He attracts women like feces attract flies.” After a year of matrimony, she left—taking 5-month-old Christian with her. Thus began a brutal, 16-year custody war in which Christian was both prize and pawn. Custody was first awarded to Kashfi, but she proved to be less than a model mother.
Actress Delores Taylor, then headmistress of the Montessori preschool that Christian attended, remembers rushing to Kashfi’s house one day after receiving a call from a neighbor. Taylor discovered the little boy standing alone at the edge of the swimming pool. Inside the house she found Kashfi, “passed out, lying in her own vomit.”
In 1965, citing Kashfi’s dependence on prescription drugs and alcohol, a Santa Monica Superior Court judge placed Christian temporarily with Brando’s older sister Frances. Later, he returned him to Kashfi. In 1970 the boy was placed in the custody of both parents. In 1972 Christian was a boarding student at the Ojai Valley Military Academy near Santa Barbara. According to Kashfi, he had adjustment problems and was reported by the headmaster to have set a fire in a dormitory.
While Brando was away filming Last Tango in Paris, she had Christian taken to Mexico, where an investigator whom Brando hired found him in the care of a group of American hippies. They claimed Kashfi had promised them payment for hiding the boy. “I would have predicted that Christian would have a very difficult time getting an organized life,” says actor Tom (Billy Jack) Laughlin, a friend of Marlon’s who founded Christian’s Montessori school. “But I would not have predicted the violence.”
“Christian’s life has never been settled. His six-year marriage to a childhood friend, makeup artist Mary McKenna, ended in an acrimonious divorce in 1987. An 1lth-grade dropout, he has worked at various trades. For a while he had a tree-trimming business, until he was injured in a fall. A sometime construction worker, he also tried his hand at welding iron sculpture. Two years ago film producer Carmine De Benedittis persuaded him to play the lead, a hired assassin, in the Italian film What’s at Stake.
“I saw his picture and I knew right away I had found the killer for my movie,” says De Benedittis, who may have been eager to cast a Brando. But no sooner did Christian arrive in Rome than Marlon summoned him and the producer back to L.A. to discuss the project. “When I went to meet Marlon Brando, I noticed that when Christian is near his father, he seems to shrink, he becomes a gnat,” De Benedittis recalls. “He seems to be crushed by the force of his father’s character. It’s a very heavy load, to be called Christian Brando.”
Marlon—after suggesting Christian be written into more scenes—gave his blessing. But Christian had mixed feelings about the $30,000 job. “Christian is so sensitive and against violence,” says his friend Bill Cable, who played a bit part in the film, “that he didn’t even want to do that role.”
Cable, 44, offers an explanation for his friend’s extensive gun collection. “When we came back from Italy,” he says, “he started getting threatening phone calls. Someone would say, ‘I’m gonna kill your whole f—-ing family, and I’m gonna start with you.’ I got a lot of those calls when I was at his house. So we both went out and got guns.”
The house where Cable sometimes stayed with Christian is a small gray ranch with a junk-strewn yard on Wonderland Avenue, high atop Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills. Reportedly. Marlon bought it and rented it to his son. It apparently has not been lived in for a few months, but whoever was there last left dirty dishes in the sink, an Alcoholics Anonymous handbook on the floor and a Soldier of Fortune magazine on the rumpled bed.
Down the hill from the house is the Canyon Country Store, where part-owner Tommy Kamran Bina saw Christian almost daily for eight years. “He was my friend,” says Bina. “He was very nice.” The shopkeeper says Christian often bought food for homeless people and once gave away his own pickup truck to the leader of a street gang in return for the gang’s promise to stop terrorizing Bina. He last saw Christian at about 8 o’clock on the night of the shooting. “I asked him how he was, and he shook his head and said something like, ‘Not great.’ He seemed very depressed, but he wasn’t drunk or anything.” Christian bought cigarettes and left.
The source of any depression remains a mystery to his friends. They say Christian and his girlfriend of several years, actress Laurene Landon, were living apart but still saw one another. Cable, who played pool with him two days before the shooting, says Christian didn’t seem troubled and would never have shot anyone except to save a life. Even Christian’s ex-wife, who once testified in her divorce that he had roughed her up and threatened to kill her, now swears by Christian. She was one of the first to visit him in jail. “He was very protective of his sister.” she said, “but not the sort who would kill someone.”
Friends say Christian was most comfortable off by himself in the woods, fishing or backpacking. He did not enjoy the attention that came with having a famous father. “He was very shy with the name Brando,” says an acquaintance, cable talk show host Skip E. Lowe. “He preferred being introduced simply as Christian.”
For Christian Brando, there’s no avoiding publicity now, and his lead defense attorney, Kunstler, tried immediately to apply the proper spin to it. “Christian says it was an accident,” said Kunstler. “He feels terrible about it, as anybody would. It’s one of those tragic circumstances that happen in families sometimes.”
In fact Cheyenne’s three-year affair with Drollet, the son of a prominent Tahitian politician, had been touched by tragedy before. In March 1989 Drollet, driving in Tahiti with Cheyenne, struck and killed a pedestrian. (Criminal charges were dropped because the victim was drunk.) In August, Cheyenne—the daughter of Brando’s wife Tarita, his co-star in Mutiny on the Bounty—swerved off a Tahitian road and suffered disfiguring injuries to her face. For a time after the accident, she was severely depressed, once mentioning suicide.
This April in Tahiti, photographer Dominique Petras went horseback riding with Cheyenne, who was then about five months pregnant, presumably with Drollet’s baby. Petras warned Cheyenne to keep her horse at a walk, “and she said, ‘No, I want to go for it.’ ” says Petras, who had to hold the horse back. “She didn’t care.” Petras says Cheyenne behaved bizarrely, blowing her nose on her shirt and bursting into laughter at odd moments. “I asked if something was wrong, and she said it was none of my business.” Some friends think she was upset by the fatherly attention Marlon paid to her teenage half-sister, Maimiti, Tarita’s daughter by another man. Sibling rivalry may have been further stoked when Marlon’s maid, Christina Ruiz, gave birth last year to the youngest of his nine children, Ninna, while Brando was filming The Freshman (due out in August).
This year Cheyenne quit high school—-her third—at 20 and moved out of Drollet’s house in Tahiti. After her father failed to convince her to join him in L.A., Drollet prevailed upon her to go. She asked him to accompany her, and he did, but he phoned his mother on May 13 to say that he and Cheyenne were still having problems. Just how serious those problems were will be an issue at Christian’s trial. No one in the Brando house told police they heard any fighting or shouting on May 16. Just a shot.
Kunstler stresses that Christian had a blood-alcohol level of .19 percent (more than twice what constitutes drunkenness for California drivers) two hours after the shooting. “He was in his cups. He has had an alcohol problem in the past,” says the lawyer. “I think that one thing led to another, and Christian may have confronted [Drollet] with the gun to scare him. I don’t know. But he was drunk, and there was a struggle over the gun, and it went off.” In support of that contention, he says that Drollet was not found with a remote control in his hands, and that evidence suggests the gun was fired only an inch or so from Drollet’s head. As to the lesser but seemingly damning charge that Christian possessed an illegal silencer, Kunstler says it was a perfectly legal flash-suppressor. The prosecution has been less willing to divulge its scenario of the shooting. But, said Detective Monsue, “We feel it did not happen as [the defense attorneys] have alleged.”
Ultimately it will be up to a jury to decide what happened. Whatever the verdict, Christian Brando’s chances for happiness are probably gone forever. “He’s had enough,” says Tom Laughlin. He’s had too much excruciating pain in his early life. He didn’t need this.”
—James S. Kunen, Robin Micheli and Dan Knapp in Los Angeles, Logan Bentley in Rome