October 7, 2004
My Seder With Brando
You might remember him as Don Vito Corleone, Stanley Kowalski or the eerie Col. Walter E. Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now," but I remember Marlon Brando as a mensch and a personal friend of the Jewish people when they needed it most.
I got to know Marlon about 30 years ago through a mutual friend. His son, Christian, came to work for me in fisheries I owned in Alaska and Minnesota. Marlon impressed me as a dedicated parent. He would often call me up to check up on his boy with all the tenacity and loving concern of a Jewish mother: Was he eating enough? Did he get to work on time? Was he hanging out with the right people?
Christian was a great kid. He worked hard, had a good attitude and earned the respect of all his co-workers.
In the mid-1970s, when I would visit Los Angeles from my home in Minnesota, Marlon and I would get together. I was starting to become increasingly involved in my religion and he would tell me with great pride and satisfaction about his support for Israel even before it became a state. Marlon explained that in 1946, two years before Israel achieved statehood, he desperately believed that the survivors of the Holocaust deserved to have their own land where they could live free from oppression and the anti-Semitic tyranny of the outside world.
True to form, Marlon put his money where his mouth was and donated all of his proceeds from the play, "A Flag Is Born," to the Irgun, a Zionist political group dedicated to rescuing European Jewry and the establishment of Israel as an independent sovereign nation. He continued his donations and charitable work over the entire two-year run of the play as it went from Broadway to touring destinations around the United States.
"A people that have fought so hard to survive need and deserve their own land," he told me. " I did all that I could and actively supported Israel's statehood anyway I was able."
Marlon also told me with great emotion that his success in theater and movies was largely due to the Jewish people in New York who befriended and taught him. He warmly mentioned Stella Adler, the legendary acting coach who both taught Marlon his craft and housed him with her family while he was getting on his feet as an actor. He was also especially proud of the fact that he could converse in Yiddish, having learned it while living with her family.
One of my visits to Los Angeles coincided with Passover. I was not yet Orthodox and made plans to attend a seder at a local synagogue with my sister. Marlon called me that very day and invited me out to dinner. I graciously declined, explaining that it was Passover and I was going to a seder. Marlon became audibly excited over the phone and said, "Passover -- I've always wanted to attend a seder. Can I come with?" He had made me an offer I couldn't refuse. I told him it could be arranged and called the synagogue adding one more to our list.
A short time later, Marlon called me back and asked if he could bring a friend. I said, yes, by all means, never thinking to ask his friend's name. I called the shul again. They were a little less patient this time and begrudgingly told me that they could squeeze one more person in, but this was absolutely the last one as they were now officially sold out.
Still later that day, I received a phone call from a childhood friend of mine who had become a well-known singer/songwriter. Being Jewish himself, and hearing I was going to a seder, he asked if he and his wife could go along. The shul was unhappy to receive my most recent request, but somehow I softened the heart of the receptionist and she agreed to let my people go -- to the seder.
I will never forget the sight of our table in the synagogue, Marlon Brando was to my left and sitting next to him was his guest. This was during the height of Marlon's involvement with Native American causes and he had brought with him noted Indian activist Dennis Banks of Wounded Knee fame. Banks was dressed in full Indian regalia: buckskin tassles on his clothes and long braids hanging down from a headband, which sported a feather. My childhood friend Bob Dylan sat to my right joined by his wife, my sister Sharon and other friends.
At first the seder progressed normally without anyone in the temple noticing anything out of the ordinary. After about 45 minutes, the rabbi figured out that ours was not your average seder table. "Mr. Brando, would you please do us the honor of reading the next passage from the haggadah," he said. Marlon said, "It would be my pleasure."
He smiled broadly, stood up and delivered the passage from the haggadah as if he were reading Shakespeare on Broadway. Mouths fell open and eyes focused on the speaker with an intensity any rabbi would covet. When he was done I think people actually paused, wondering if they should applaud.
Somewhat later the rabbi approached another member of our table.
"Mr. Dylan, would you do us the honor of singing us a song?" The rabbi pulled out an acoustic guitar. I thought he would politely decline. Much to my surprise Bob said yes and performed an impromptu rendition of "Blowin' in the Wind" to the stunned shul of about 300 seder guests. The incongruity of a seder, with Marlon Brando reading the haggadah followed by a Bob Dylan serenade, would have made for a good Fellini movie. Needless to say, everyone was both shocked and thrilled by this unusual Hollywood-style Passover miracle. The entire shul came by to shake both Marlon and Bob's hands and they actually paused and spent time with everyone.
Just a couple of years ago, Marlon called me up in Minnesota, out of the blue. We had kept in touch through the trials and tribulations he was going through with his family. "Louie Kemp," he said, "I've been thinking about you. Twenty years ago you took me to a seder. I want you to know that I still think about it to this very day. In fact, I was thinking about it today and that's why I called you."
He continued to thank me and tell me of the special spiritual impact it had on him and how much he identified with a people freeing themselves from bondage and uniting to celebrate and remember that freedom.
He told me he was sending his three youngest children to a Jewish day school in Los Angeles. When I asked him why, he said, "Louie, don't you know that the Jewish schools are the best?" I could almost hear him smiling over the phone.
Louie Kemp is a businessman and founder of the Louis Kemp Seafood Co. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.