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Sacheen Littlefeather

My friendship with Marlon Brando

Sacheen Littlefeather refuses the Academy Award for best actor on behalf of Marlon Brando. Getty Images

In 1973, Marlon Brando declined his best actor Oscar for The Godfather. Fed up with Hollywood, he asked a 26-year-old Native American activist, Sacheen Littlefeather, to make his speech instead. “He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” Littlefeather announced to a TV audience of 85 million. “The reasons for this being the treatment of American Indians today.” The crowd booed. In the wings, veteran Western star John Wayne was seething. “He was coming towards me to forcibly take me off the stage,” Littlefeather, 74, tells The Guardian. “He had to be restrained by six security men.”

She had met Brando through her neighbour, Francis Ford Coppola. Brando had publicly expressed support for Native Americans, but Littlefeather “wanted to know if he was for real”. One day, strolling past Coppola’s house, she shouted over his garden wall: “Hey! You directed Marlon Brando in The Godfather.” She asked for Brando’s address, Coppola obliged and she sent the actor a letter. Months later, Brando called her. “He said, ‘I bet you don’t know who this is.’” I do, she replied. “It’s Marlon Brando. It sure as hell took you long enough to call. You beat ‘Indian time’ all to hell.” They spoke for hours. Soon she was staying over at his house. “We used to have a great time, laughing till tears were coming out of our eyes.” It was never romantic, though. “He was my mother’s age, for God’s sake.”

Their Oscars stunt got Littlefeather blacklisted in Hollywood and didn’t do much for Brando’s career. “I couldn’t get a job to save my life.” Still, it was worth it. “We made history together.”

Watch Sacheen Littlefeather’s Oscars speech here 👎