To most of the world, Marlon Brando was a legendary movie star and giant of the entertainment world, whose tireless work as a philanthropist, environmentalist, and UNICEF ambassador is less well known. To Petra Brando Fischer he is simply dad, and she is determined to elevate and continue her father's charitable efforts. To this end, Petra has established the Brando Fischer Foundation, a UK-based nonprofit aimed at continuing the legend's work in aiding underprivileged and suffering children.
In a series of serendipitous events, with this year marking the 40th anniversary of the Golden Globe and Oscar-winning Apocalypse Now, she will present the iconic 1972 GMT-Master Rolex watch belonging to Brando, who wore it in the groundbreaking film. The watch is signed ‘M. Brando’ by Brando’s own hand, using a micro-engraving pen. It’s the very same watch that has held a sentimental place in the Brando Fischer household and will be up for auction on December 10 in New York City. The watch, courtesy of Phillips Watches, previously toured London, Geneva, and Hong Kong. Proceeds from the sale will be administered through The Brando Fischer Foundation to benefit children in need.
Unsurprisingly, the tour has garnered international attention. “It’s been an emotional ride remembering all the special moments my dad and I shared together,” Petra acknowledges. “It’s also a really wonderful opportunity to see so many people celebrating him. It’s heartwarming. I didn’t know it would be as emotional as it’s been.”
It’s paramount to Petra that her celebrated father, whose career spanned over 60 years and who starred in such films as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), The Godfather (1972), and Last Tango in Paris (1972), is remembered for the way in which he lived his life, rather than solely for his cinematic achievements.
“During his life, my dad was passionate about helping children in need. During the 60s and 70s, he was very involved with UNICEF and traveled the world visiting villages in developing countries, and later recruited artists to perform in a variety show in order to raise awareness of children in need. To be associated with that organization gave him what he said was the greatest pride and satisfaction. I know he’d be proud of what we’re doing, and especially proud that something he owned will help children in need.”
It’s no secret that Brando was a great humanitarian and social justice warrior long before the term became part of the progressive vernacular. He’s famously known as a passionate supporter of the civil rights movement, and champion of reparations for the historic mistreatment and persecution of Native Americans. The latter was evidenced by a moment that will forever be remembered in Oscar history, when he famously refused to attend the Academy Awards in 1973, instead asking a Native American woman, Sacheen Littlefeather, to accept his Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather.
“Yes. He asked Sacheen Littlefeather to collect his Oscar,” says Petra. She explains that while many assumed that Brando refused to attend because he viewed awards shows as shameless, superficial, and ostentatious displays of invidious competition, and having nothing to do with artistic or cultural merit, “It wasn’t that he didn’t value the Oscar, it was that he wanted to give a platform to something that he cared very deeply about. And he saw it as an opportunity. He knew that his decision wasn’t well-received, but he valued social responsibility above all else.”
Speaking of awards shows, about her father (10 Golden Globe nominations and 5 wins), Petra offers, “You know, my dad often watched the Golden Globes. He found it entertaining and enjoyed the informality of the show. Actually, he was in touch with your then-president, Aida Takla O’Reilly. They were discussing presenting him with a lifetime achievement award. He liked Aida so much, she actually got him to seriously consider it, which was a rare feat in itself,” she chuckles.
Petra is the daughter of Caroline Barrett. “My mom was his girlfriend for seven years, and for over 25 years she was his right hand and best friend, she worked with him on location doing his dialogue and organized every aspect of his life.”
Petra divulges a few little-known aspects of Brando’s predilections. “Chess was his love and he played it every day. He’d sit there and play against a chessboard computer; it was his thing,” she recalls. “He was also a ham radio operator back in the early 80s before computers came out. He got me one as well when I was young, and when we’d make contact, it was amazing.
“He was always fascinated by computers and technology. When the AOL chat rooms came out, he loved it. I can’t remember what his name was, but he pretended to be a Chinese foreign exchange student,” she laughs. “He loved the anonymity of it. That was one of the things that were difficult for him -- he was so down to earth and craved a normal life, and he struggled sometimes with his fame and the adulation.”
Among the myriad causes he championed, he was most certainly ahead of his time when it came to environmental issues.
“While I was growing up, I would spend every holiday on his private island in Tahiti. I remember when he banned all single-use plastics on the island in the 1970s. You hear people talking fervently now about banning single-use plastics when he was conscious of it so long ago. He was mad about recycling, and he would lecture us if we threw anything away that was recyclable.” She laughs. “He would go through the bin and make sure that there were no recyclable materials. If he found one, he’d sit you down and give you the biggest lecture about the environment. And that was back in the late 70s and early 80s.”
To further illustrate his commitment to protecting the environment, she regales me with another anecdote. “People on the island had ordered jet skis, but he thought they would harm the marine life. He also banned spraying mosquitoes for the same reason,” she recalls. “He sneaked out late one night, put something into their engines and they never worked again. No one knew what happened to them until he confessed to my mother years later.”
One can only imagine what it was like, as the daughter of a legend of such epic proportions, to have grown up awash in A-list dinner parties and celebrities milling about her house. “Well, it was easy to forget that my dad was a celebrity, and he didn’t often have celebrities over or talk about movies, because he really wanted us all to grow up in a normal environment.”
But surely, she must have met some of his Godfather co-stars?
“I didn’t really pay attention to it, to be honest. Al Pacino was one person who I remember dropped in. I remember my dad putting his arm around him and being so excited to see him; I think it was the first time they had seen each other since The Godfather. My dad definitely had a fondness for him.”
Petra resides in London with her husband of 16 years, Russel Fischer, who heads up a production company, Big X Productions, with his partner, Richard Rees. “I gave the Rolex to Russel when we got married. He’s kept it safely tucked away all these years, and out of respect for my relationship with my father, he never wore it.”
As to the extent of Brando’s emotional attachment to the famed watch, she says, “It was his favorite. He had other watches that he wore a lot, and actually he was very rough on his watches, but this one he kept protected. He was so unassuming, so down to earth, and not interested in material possessions. But he did love having a watch on his wrist and was rarely without one. The Rolex from Apocalypse Now was the one he kept safe, and only wore on special occasions.”
When asked to predict what the watch will go for next week, she says, “I have no idea, but we are grateful for the opportunity and for the support it will give our foundation. We’re excited to see it do something really meaningful.”