My Surprising Bond With the Troubled, Tragic Christian Brando (Guest Column)
A longtime journalist, who interviewed the son of Marlon Brando in the years before his death at 49, chronicles their complex friendship in a one-act play, 'Wild Son,' bowing in Santa Monica on April 28.
Damaged, volatile, darkly handsome, dangerous, dead at 49…and one of the sweetest lost souls I'd ever met. This was the Christian Brando I knew and now hope to bring back to life in my play Wild Son: The Testimony of Christian Brando.
Of course, I'd seen Christian's name in the headlines more than once before our first meeting. As the subject of a vicious and very public custody dispute between his father Marlon and mother, actress Anna Kashfi. As a kidnapping victim when he was 13 years old. And, most infamously, for the 1990 killing of Dag Drollet, his younger half-sister Cheyenne's boyfriend (and father to her unborn child) in the living room of Marlon Brando's Mulholland Drive estate.
My direct introduction to Christian took place in late 2005, just three years before his own premature death from pneumonia. Marlon ("Pop" to Christian) had died the year before and Christian was out of prison after serving six of a 10-year sentence for manslaughter. As a reporter for People magazine, I'd long covered the Brando "beat," but I'd never had any contact with Christian, despite my best efforts. Nor, it seemed, had any other journalist in Los Angeles. Christian, the person and not the headline, was a mystery and he was impossible to locate. Until the afternoon my office phone rang.
A woman's voice on the other end of the line inquired if I'd be interested in running an exclusive item announcing her Las Vegas wedding to Christian Brando. I certainly was, and proceeded to jot down the pertinent info, all the while conscious of a kind of wailing in the background…the mournful sound of a bluesy harmonica being played.
"Um, that wouldn't be Christian, would it? I'd love to get a quote from him."
With Christian now on the phone, I gathered in several colorful quotes. It was clear he'd been drinking and was very much three sheets to the wind. But after pursuing him unsuccessfully for so long, I suggested we get together and meet in person. We arranged to do so the next day. And while Christian's marriage lasted only a few months before accusations of abuse on both sides, court hearings and an annulment, my friendship with him extended until his death.
"Me? You want to write a book about me?" Christian asked with wonder in his voice. "Wow…nobody has ever wanted to tell my story." He pointed at several fat biographies of his father that his new wife had stacked neatly on her living room coffee table. "Me?"
For the next several months, Christian and I would get together — first at his wife's home and, later, at the small Hollywood apartment he shared with a new girlfriend. Beer can always in hand and tape recorder rolling, Christian told me his life story.
For the most part, that story was incredibly sad — tragic, really. As much as he loved "Pop," which he clearly did, their relationship was highly explosive and, according to Christian, violently dysfunctional from early childhood. Christian's description of time spent with his mother was perhaps even worse, saying that as a boy he was used by Kashfi like a pawn to take vitriolic revenge on Marlon, all the while with Kashfi herself well on the way into alcohol and drug abuse. The most poignant thing Christian ever told me was about the time, as an adult and after he'd been released from prison, he'd invited both his parents to have dinner with him. "Not once in my entire life had I ever sat down at the dinner table with the two of them together as a family," he said. "And I got this crazy idea into my head that I could make that happen." Marlon and Anna both adamantly refused, both separately accusing Christian of being high on drugs.
I was never quite sure what Christian I would get when visiting with him. Once, he escorted me through each room of his apartment, pointing out divots in all the walls while explaining that earlier that day, and after a heated argument with his girlfriend, he'd taken his hunting knives and angrily hurled them deep into the plaster.
Another time, Christian got into my face, aggressively questioning my sexual orientation. I laughed and shrugged it off because I sensed he was just pushing random buttons in order to test me, to see if he could drive me away. I think to see if I would remain his friend.
Yet, on other visits, Christian might sit peacefully playing his guitar, sipping on his beer while telling stories of life in Hollywood as the son of the world's most famous movie star. Tales about Mulholland Drive next door neighbor "Uncle Jack" Nicholson ("Jack's a great guy, but believe me, you don't ever want to mess with him"), high school classmate Michael Jackson ("The guy was a freak even then"), Warren Beatty, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn and, most lovingly, Anjelica Huston ("Anjelica is all class").
Until late into our friendship, Christian did not wish to speak about the Dag Drollet killing. But finally, one night we went together for dinner at an old school, red-booth Italian place in Hollywood. Oddly, as we walked through the door, the iconic Godfather theme could be heard piped in throughout the restaurant. Christian didn't seem to notice. Over drinks, he told me of meeting sister Cheyenne at Musso & Frank's restaurant. How she had told him about Drollet hitting her during her pregnancy. How, after eight beers, Christian's blood was at a boiling point and how they drove together back to Mulholland. How Christian entered the house, sticking his head into Marlon's bedroom to say hello to his TV-watching father before confronting Drollet in the living room. How a gun went off.
Said Christian, "There is not a single day that goes by where I don't think of Dag Drollet and wish that I could take it all back."
Champ Clark's one-act play, Wild Son: The Testimony of Christian Brando, featuring John Mese and based on Clark's interviews with Brando, runs as a guest production at Santa Monica Playhouse on Sundays, April 28 through May 26, 5:30 p.m.; wildson.brownpapertickets.com or 800-838-3006.