From the start, it sounds ridiculous: "Go to Tahiti, and find Marlon Brando." But, the worldwide search for the legendary method actor, the star of such classic movies as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, On the Waterfront, and Mutiny on the Bounty, soon becomes an obsession. The story of one man’s coming of age.
When we first meet him, Sager is 30 years old, divorce pending, no longer the youngest in the room. Winter is coming. His prospects are dim. After 10 years as a journalist, he knows it’s time to raise his game. He needs to write something big and important and lasting. Something epic. Something meaningful. Something to seal his reputation.
As it is, the new editor of the Washington Post Magazine suggests an all-expenses-paid search for the most elusive actor of the times - starting at his south seas hideaway, a private atoll off the coast of Tahiti. Even though Brando famously hates the press and has refused for years to grant any interviews, Sager takes the job.
Brando’s work as an actor paved the way for generations to follow, as did his commitment to social activism. And, he is credited with breaking the stereotype of the stoic, inch-deep, flawless American hero in favor of a distinct new template for American manhood - flawed, mercurial, quixotic, tough but tender.
Sager’s story of his worldwide hunt for the iconic actor is a totally true tale of far-flung travel, grandiose schemes, tropical adventure, Hollywood superstardom...and a beautiful Tahitian translator, who puts Sager’s mission in jeopardy when she suddenly disappears. A classic piece first published in 1987, Hunting Marlon Brando is completely re-written and updated with over 40,000 words of new material. As it turned out, it’s a story that altered the entire course of Sager’s life.
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(Hunting Mike Sager is also available in ebook and print.)
AS THE SUN ROSE, as the first grainy light of dawn began to seep through the slatted blinds on the bay window, as the chatter of starlings and the cooing of pigeons in the eves replaced the clamor and fuss of the dope boys and hookers transacting business on either end of my little street, I snorted the last line and reached a conclusion.
What the fuck?
What the fucking fuck?
There was nothing on my calendar. I had no assignments. Winter was coming—freezing weather, dirty melting snow, exorbitant heating bills. I had nowhere to be for Christmas; I had no date for New Year’s or any other time. Not to mention the constant proximity of drugs. Maybe getting out of my fashionably distressed neighborhood for a while wouldn’t hurt?
I was 30 years old, divorce pending, no longer the youngest in the room. I was ready to turn the page for the big buildup. You have to dare to be bad in this world of ours, you have to try stuff, you might have to fail. One thing is certain: If you do what you’ve always done, it’s guaranteed to turn out the same. After nearly a decade as a journalist, I’d done a lot of stories, I’d even been on the front page and the front cover. But what had it amounted to? Just so many clips?
It was time to raise my game. To do more than just a story. To write something big and important and lasting. Something epic. Something meaningful. Something that would seal my reputation. Change the conversation. Maybe even get me a movie deal.
As it was, the Washington Post magazine suggested an all-expenses paid search for Marlon Brando, the most elusive actor of our times.
I took the job.
Five minutes out of Tahiti, the twin-engine, 12-seater breaks though the cloud cover, and thereafter the sky is clear, the ocean a vast cloth of wrinkled blue, curved at the horizon. The only other passengers, besides myself and Angelina, are four members of a French film crew who’ve just wrapped a mini-series version of Mutiny on the Bounty.
Twenty minutes later, the plane is making a full circuit of Teti’aroa, Marlon’s sunny atoll, 12 islands situated in a Crayola-blue lagoon, encircled by a sun-bleached coral reef. On one of the larger islands, Onetahi, is an air strip—a somewhat rudimentary stretch of packed sand and asphalt scissored like an off-center part through the lush jungle. I could barely contain myself. After so long, so many nights, so much anxiety, I was really almost here. Now all I had to do was find Marlon.
I wake to a clattering breeze beneath a coconut palm, a melody of fronds like wind chimes.
This is my second day on Marlon’s island. It is mid-morning. I was up till 4am reading Marlon Brando: The Only Contender. I’m still a little woozy.
The sand is soft ivory, warm to the touch, with a crust of coral on top—when you walk across an untrod patch, it breaks and crunches as does a deep snow glazed with freezing rain. Red ants skitter here and there, hermit crabs in painted shells motor sideways, probing with their animated claws. At the tree line, the vegetation is lush, a blend of vines and flowers, leaves and fruits. Coconut palms bend gracefully over the water’s edge, curved and vain, ripe with green nuts. The lagoon teems with fish, feeding in bands and swirls of aquamarine and amethyst and emerald.
Five feet south of me, on her own beach towel, Angelina is still asleep. She must have joined me here while I was napping. She is topless. Her breasts rise and fall gently with each breath—smooth, tan, tapered in repose. Scraps of lust and poetry float through my mind, and I have an urge to reach out, to touch, to feel the firm softness against my fingertips, the dark thimble of her breeze-beswept nipple . . .
But I cannot, for I am hunting Marlon Brando, and the breasts are those of my translator, a softly sculpted girl of 27 on an ivory beach in a string bikini bottom who speaks fluent English, French, and Tahitian.
And now she is stirring.
I’m hacking through the jungle on the far side of motu Onetahi, the capital islet of Teti’aroa.
In lieu of a machete, I’m beating back the brush with a strong length of driftwood. It’s sharp at one end like a sword. I figure if I run into feral pigs or other unexpected trouble, I’ll be able to use it to defend myself.
I have a backpack stocked with water, snacks, and the tools of my trade—two microcassette recorders, extra tapes, a 4 x 8 note pad, two pens. I’m slathered in bug spray and wrapped tight, head on a swivel, walking on the balls of my feet, stepping carefully, trying not to make too much noise. He’s close, real close. I can feel him sucking me in even as I feel him repelling me.
The jungle is all weirdness and sounds—a thick, primitive, evil-feeling place, everything lewdly fertile and engorged. Plants with eight-foot leaves, vines the thickness of arms, roots like legs. Birds and insects chirp and sing, a disharmonic symphony of percussive sound with the volume jacked. A pungent blend of mold, pollen and plant rot makes my nose run. Sweat streams down my face. I spot a thick snake coiled on a limb of a tree and move past quickly, keeping my eyes glued to the serpent, like an armed robber easing his way out of a backroom poker game. Then something nearby hits the ground with a thud; my heart does a flip-flop.
I drop to one knee, sweep the perimeter with my eyes. What the fuck was that?
I check the area in the direction of the sound, find a grove of coconut palms, the ground littered with fallen nuts in various states of decay. For a brief moment, in the dappled sunlight, the brown, hairy oblong spheres look like so many severed heads.
I was too young for Vietnam, but this is what it must have been like—chaotic, anxious, and surreal, like the movie Apocalypse Now—a mission through the steaming jungle, a quarry I cannot see, a reason that has become too confused to unravel or understand. Like war, like love, the desire within me is strong; it burns like the midday sun. There are no odds anymore. I’m on point, I’m close, I’m walking a path that leads through the days and weeks of my mission like a main circuit cable plugged straight into Marlon. I want him. I need him. It is my mission to locate him and I will.
This is my vow to myself: If he is here, I will find him.
And if he’s not here . . . I will find out where he is and go there. . . as soon as my two weeks on Teti’aroa are done. I mean, no sense wasting a good trip, right? I already pre-paid. Plus, I’ll need time to figure out my next steps.
In any case, failure is not an option. The rest of my life, my career, everything I’ve worked for . . . all of it is balanced on the fulcrum of Marlon.
As I write this, nearly four decades have passed.
When I last saw Marlon, in December 1986, with the aid of a hastily purchased pair of 10x50 binoculars, he was 64 years old—fat, bald, distracted, dressed in a blue bathrobe.
Today I’m 64.
Marlon has been dead for 16 years.
To my knowledge, our intersection had zero influence on the course of his life.
But for me, it changed everything.