Brooding, raw, honest, he was unlike anyone audiences had seen before. Now the mark of his style is in descendants from De Niro to DiCaprio

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    It was the wrong role for him. He could talk their talk and walk their walk, but he wasn't truly a Method actor; he was much more an observer of others than an explorer of his own depths. And even that was hard for him. "There comes a time in life when you don't want to do it anymore," he once said. "You know a scene is coming where you'll have to yell or cry or scream's always bothering you, always eating away at you." Besides, as Kazan said, "it's not a natural thing for a man to be an actor," especially, he thought, in the "trivial" climate of that moment. There was no way Brando was going to add cultural heroism to the rest of his burdens.

    By the '60s, Brando's interviews--and his work--were growing more cynical. Acting, he said, was the expression "of a neurotic impulse," a "self-indulgence." Any pretensions to art he may have harbored were now just "a chilly hope." Far from being a culture's hero, he became its Abominable Snowman, flitting through the shadows of bad movies, becoming a blur on the paparazzi's lenses. Twice he paused in his flight to remind us of the greatness that might have been--with his curiously affecting menace in The Godfather, with the ruined grandeur of Last Tango in Paris. That was more than a quarter-century ago, but in a way, that was enough. For the passing years have taught us this: refusing to rally a revolution, Marlon Brando still managed to personify it. His shadow now touches every acting class in America, virtually every movie we see, every TV show we tune in. We know too that the faith vested in his example by all the De Niros and Pacinos, and, yes, the Johnny Depps and Leonardo DiCaprios, was not misplaced. Marlon Brando may have resisted his role in history, may even have travestied it, but, in the end, he could not evade it.

    TIME contributor Richard Schickel is the author of Brando: A Life in Our Times

    They Did It Their Way
    None of these actors used the Method. But each was a master of his craft:

    He defined classical acting for our age, but liked to call himself no more than a hardworking player. He never permitted us — or himself — to fully define the driven spirit behind his masks. Carrying on the tradition: Ralph Fiennes

    His talent was in creating a false self that was, at the same time, a whole and charming person — with just a hint of misanthropic darkness peeping through, grounding his creation in reality. Carrying on the tradition: Tom Hanks

    The Duke worked his magic in the most astonishing way of all, by personifying — at first unconsciously, then consciously — the spirit of a whole nation. What's more remarkable: we believed him. Carrying on the tradition: Harrison Ford

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