For just 79p, you can download a track recorded in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1982, called I Just Want to Be like Marlon Brando. A jaunty comic number with a jug-band beat, it is credited to the 18-year-old Russ Le Roq, seen posing moodily against a derelict building in the black-and-white sleeve artwork. In a fake American twang, he sings, “People say I’m crazy but I don’t know, I just wanna be like Marlon Marlon Brando-o-oh.”
The would-be rock star – and would-be Brando-o-oh – would go a long way to achieving his ambition when, in 1992, he won the Australian Film Institute’s best actor award for the controversial Romper Stomper. His real name was Russell Crowe, and by 2001, at the age of 36, he had cracked Hollywood and claimed his first Oscar, for Gladiator. Brando was 30 when he won his first, for On the Waterfront, in 1955.
The song goes on, “He knows what he wants and he knows how to get it, and ain’t nobody gonna stand in his way.” It describes Brando, but might easily refer to Crowe. Like his statuesque, Method-acting hero, he’s not a man who looks like he’d blow over in a storm.
While Brando forged his legend playing rebels, fighters and beautiful brutes, Crowe is fixed in our imagination as a gladiator, a no-nonsense cop and a certain Nottingham-based outlaw. Although he donned a tweedy jacket and grew his hair shaggy to play the investigative journalist in State of Play, Crowe always looks like he’s bursting out of his clothes, just as Brando did in his beefcake prime.
Crowe’s parents worked in film-set catering, which meant that the young Russ landed bit parts in TV shows. But he was still advised against acting and got by on guts, determination and stage work. In his big break, Romper Stomper, Crowe played a neo-Nazi skinhead – an equivalent, you could argue, of Brando’s antihero biker in The Wild One. “I bought myself a leather jacket just to see if I could hack it”, trills Russ Le Roq. “A young bunch of locals, I call ‘em yokels, asked me for a fight… well, I said, alright.”
Brando was a classic fighter, the tongue-tied hero of On the Waterfront whose failed pugilist “coulda been a contender”. Crowe, as well as playing a boxing champ in Cinderella Man, has proven handy with his fists in real life, the duality of this sensitive tough guy epitomised when he manhandled the producer of the Bafta Film Awards in 2002 after a poem he’d read out on stage was cut from the “live” broadcast. He later apologised.
That said, he was charged for plain old second-degree assault in New York in 2005 after chucking a phone at a concierge. Brando broke a paparazzo’s jaw in 1973 and settled out of court. Such bad boys are common in the fraught fishbowl of fame, but both have sought refuge from the flashbulbs.
Though Brando became obese in his 50s, Crowe is still fit at 48, with the martial arts flick The Man with The Iron Fists out in cinemas from 7 December. Brando announced his retirement from acting in 1980, aged 56, although he couldn’t resist the occasional supporting part. Crowe continues to bestride the world like a colossus, with the title role in upcoming biblical epic Noah in 2014, and before that, the hotly anticipated Les Misérables in January, in which he co-stars with Aussie pal Hugh Jackman. (You may recall their show-stopping double act at last year’s Baftas at the Royal Opera House Crowe looked around and, with Sydney in mind, muttered, “Call this a f***ing opera house?”)
And in the forthcoming Superman reboot, Man of Steel, Crowe is the DC superhero’s biological father, Jor-El played in the original 1978 Superman by… you guessed it. On a rather more poignant note, Crowe revealed to the Sydney Morning Herald that Brando had bequeathed him a book of poetry on his deathbed in 2004.
“One of his closest friends got in touch with me,” he told the newspaper, “and she said that I was his favourite actor.” The copy of There Are Men Too Gentle to Live Among Wolves by James Kavanaugh remains Crowe’s most treasured possession. He’s just a big softie at heart.
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