HOLLYWOOD — The year was 1973, and Marlon Brando was still riding the success of his legendary performance in "The Godfather." In a few weeks time, in fact, he would win a second Oscar.
On this particular night, though, Brando was secretly ensconced in a back bedroom in the hills above Los Angeles' Bel-Air. In a scene that would have made Don Corleone proud, the actor quietly accepted visitors out of view of the celebrity-studded gathering just outside the door.
Many of those in attendance were never even aware of Brando's arrival at the wake for his closest friend, actor and comedian Wally Cox. That's because Brando had crept in through a back window at Cox's residence and hidden out in the room where Cox had died.
Brando "was heartbroken, of course," over the death, recalled Cox's widow, Patricia. "Everybody was there," she added, including celebrities from "The Hollywood Squares" game show, on which Cox was a regular, as well as Tom and Dick Smothers, Vincent Price, Ernest Borgnine and Twiggy. "But Marlon didn't come out."
Philip Rhodes, the actor's longtime makeup artist and close friend since the mid-1940s, said he still remembers Brando's unusual response when Rhodes asked Brando about his whereabouts during the wake.
"Wally was my friend," the actor told him. "Nobody else's."
One handsome, one owlish
Marlon and Wally. Wally and Marlon.
One had been a handsome, rebellious movie icon. The other, a droll, owlish comedian. Yet the bond that existed between these physical opposites would survive decades, from their boyhoods in Evanston, Ill., and even beyond Cox's unexpected death in February 1973 of a massive heart attack. He was 48.
In the years that followed, Brando made a practice of keeping Cox's remains nearby, sometimes tucking the ashes in a drawer at his home on Mulholland Drive or under the front seat of his car.
He did so against the wishes of Cox's widow, who said she considered suing Brando for selfishly keeping the ashes that he had accepted under the guise of scattering them in the hills where Cox loved to hike.
After Brando died suddenly of lung failure July 1 at age 80, his family scattered the men's ashes in Death Valley, where the pair had often gone rock hunting.
The odyssey of the ashes is one of the more unusual stories to emerge since the death of the eccentric and intensely private actor. Brando had a history of stormy relationships, attributed to a troubled childhood and his upbringing by a distant father and an alcoholic mother. Much also has been made of his countless liaisons, reputed to be both heterosexual and homosexual, and failed relationships.
Some friends and family of both men insist Brando's relationship with Cox was platonic. Regardless, their bond offers a different perspective on Brando, one of the world's most famous, yet little known, men.
Brando and Cox were 9-year-old boys when their parents introduced them. The boys became fast, albeit unlikely, friends, said Eleanor Robinson, Cox's sister.
Cox's career took off in 1952, when he starred as the bookish high-school science teacher Robinson Peepers in the TV series "Mr. Peepers." The series ran until 1955. Years later, he was a regular on "The Hollywood Squares" and also provided the voice for the animated superhero Underdog, who would famously declare, "There's no need to fear! Underdog is here!"
Brando's career, meanwhile, was white hot, and he was well on his way to solidifying his reputation as a legend, an actor's actor. Although Brando and Cox were often the toast of New York and Hollywood, the two always returned to the company of each other.
"Marlon was fascinated with how funny Wally was, and I'm sure Wally was fascinated by how handsome Marlon was," Robinson said. "They envied each other for what each didn't have."
A demanding nature
To those who knew him closely, Brando could be both a marvelous friend and a moody tyrant, gracious to a fault yet jealous and exasperating. Brando also could be temperamental and didn't hesitate to take it out on everyone else.
Cox, who had married three times, also struggled with Brando's demanding nature, two of his former wives said.
Milagros Tirado "Millie" Beck, Cox's second wife, said Brando was often "generous in spirit," but he also could turn "totally vicious, mean ... "
The first time she met Brando, she recalled, he arrived with an entourage at Cox's home in rural Connecticut: "He comes in and he doesn't say a word. He was kind of sulky and very rude and I sensed, absolutely, that he was like a brother being jealous of an intruder."
Cox's third wife, Patricia Cox Shapiro, said much the same.
"He didn't want Wally to marry me," Shapiro said. "He was very possessive of Wally."
Beck and Shapiro said they are aware of the rumors that Brando and Cox had a gay relationship, but they never believed it.
"I never had a sense of that," Beck said. "I had a sense of true brotherly love."
At the time of Cox's death, Brando was in Tahiti. He rushed back to the United States when word reached him.
Shapiro asked Brando to scatter Cox's remains in his favorite hiking places. But three years after her husband's death, the widow happened to be reading an article about Brando in Time magazine and came across these quotes by the actor, as he recalled Cox: "He was [like] my brother. I can't tell you how much I miss and love that man. I have Wally's ashes in my house. I talk to him all the time."
The ashes of Brando and Cox were not the only remains scattered in Death Valley by the Brando family this year. After his good friend and actor Sam Gilman died at age 70 in 1985, Gilman's widow, Lisabeth Hush, gave Brando a portion of his remains in honor of the long friendship between the men. Miko Brando, Brando's second-eldest son, said those ashes also were sprinkled at Death Valley.
Hush said she has a theory why Brando kept the ashes of both friends. She recalled that although Brando wasn't particularly religious, he was spiritual: "I think he communed with them ... I believe that. You don't just collect ashes for ashes."