Brando’s Last Act
Decades after interviewing Marlon Brando at the actor’s private atoll in French Polynesia, a writer returns to Tetiaroa to size up the new Brando resort.
It was 1978 when I first set foot on Marlon Brando’s private atoll in French Polynesia. The actor had just finished filming Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and I had been commissioned by Playboy to conduct an in-depth interview—the first Brando had granted since 1956, when Truman Capote visited him on the set of Sayonara in Japan.
Brando’s secretary had arranged the details of my 10-day visit, suggesting I bring snorkeling gear, medication for the inevitable stomachaches, and plenty of insect repellent and anti-itch cream. But when Brando met me on Tetiaroa’s airstrip, it was my footwear that concerned him most. “Your sandals won’t last here,” he said as he carried my bag along the island’s sandy shores to my bungalow. “The sand will get between your toes and the leather.”
I had traveled more than 5,000 miles to report on Brando’s extraordinary life and career—which held endless fascination for Americans at the time—but soon learned that he was far more interested in discussing his private paradise. According to Brando, Tetiaroa—a 12-island atoll located 30 miles north of Tahiti—was where Tahitian royalty once came to converse with the natural spirits that surrounded this turquoise-watered speck in the vast Pacific Ocean. Brando discovered the atoll while filming Mutiny on the Bounty in 1960, and six years later he purchased it for $270,000. By then the actor had married his Mutiny costar, the French Polynesian actress Tarita Teriipaia, and it was Tetiaroa where the couple and their two children would retreat to escape the prying lenses of Hollywood for weeks at a time.
As I pulled out my recorder on that first day with Brando, it became clear that I would learn more about the atoll’s white-sand beaches, palm trees, hermit crabs, and sunsets than I would about the star’s tumultuous love life or upcoming blockbuster. “When people come here to see me, they’re usually all wound up,” he told me in my hut, which was constructed almost entirely from palm trees. “They talk fast, they’ve got projects, ideas, deals. And I sit here like a beached whale.”
Indeed, during my stay, Brando spent most of his time relaxing, observing, and sharing his love of Tetiaroa. He stared at the ocean, enjoyed the sweet fragrant smell of the white tiare flower, and thought about how to save the indigenous turtles and fish from poachers. He showed me a night sky filled with sparkling stars, and a lagoon so calm, clear, and shallow I could wade through it for hundreds of yards. “It’s very elemental here,” he told me one night as we sat in my hut looking out at the lagoon. “You have the sky, the sea, trees, the crabs, the fish, the sun—the basics.”
Brando also fantasized about sharing his island with the world. He said he wanted to build a research center for oceanographers and a school for the blind, and he hoped to rid the island of fallen coconuts, which were breeding pools for mosquitoes. He was of two minds about bringing tourists to Tetiaroa: He did not like the idea of having to hide from guests who wanted to take his picture, yet he realized the local economic growth such an enterprise could spawn. More than 35 years later, the tourists—albeit a very select few of them—are starting to arrive.
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