When Frank Sinatra Grew Tired Of Marlon Brando, It Was Just A Matter Of Time Before He Took Revenge

It’s fair to say that Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando remain two of the most iconic entertainers in popular culture. And in the early ’50s the stars were both in their respective heydays, meaning Hollywood was abuzz when the duo signed up to share the screen for the first time in Guys and Dolls. After the actor and the crooner met, however, fireworks ensued – on and off set.

Indeed, Sinatra and Brando appeared to become sworn enemies practically from the moment when they first clapped eyes on each other. And things didn’t get any better when the pair began working together, either, as Sinatra seemingly ended up making it his mission to upstage his co-star. Here’s a look at the grudge that ensured the action behind the scenes of Guys and Dolls was just as drama-packed as it was on camera.

As fans of the movie will likely know, the silver-screen adaptation of Guys and Dolls was based on the musical of the same name that had premiered on Broadway in 1950. This production in turn had been inspired by two short stories penned by Damon Runyon: Blood Pressure and The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown. And during the stage extravaganza’s lengthy 1,200-show run, it managed to pick up a Tony Award for Best Musical.

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When the time came to turn Guys and Dolls into a film, however, Joseph L. Mankiewicz both took the director’s chair and wrote the script. Michael Kidd, who had choreographed the theatrical production, also came on board, while original songwriter Frank Loesser contributed three new tunes to the flick. But it would be the cast announcement for the movie that may have made everyone in Hollywood truly sit up and take notice.

One of the actors due to appear in the production, of course, was Sinatra, who had been all but written off by the turn of the decade following a string of box-office and critical flops. However, his performance as Maggio in From Here to Eternity turned his career around and resulted in both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. In turn, Sinatra credited co-star Montgomery Clift for improving his acting skills.

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This career revival continued in 1954 when Sinatra appeared in romantic musical Young at Heart alongside Doris Day. That same year, he proved his versatility when he starred as a murderous psychopath who pretends to be a secret agent in Suddenly. And in 1955 he put himself in line for another shot at an Oscar with his turn as a heroin junkie in the gritty drama The Man with the Golden Arm.

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Sinatra’s musical career received a significant boost during the same period, too. In 1954 his first LP for the Capitol label, Songs for Young Lovers, was hailed as a return to form by the music press. Its follow-up, Swing Easy!, was even crowned Billboard’s Album of the Year. And in 1955 Sinatra embraced the concept album to much acclaim with In the Wee Small Hours.

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In contrast, Marlon Brando’s career was only just beginning at the start of the same decade. He achieved his big break in 1951 with an Oscar-nominated performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Then, a year later, he picked up a second Academy Award nomination for his role in Viva Zapata!

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And Brando’s winning streak continued with memorable turns in The Wild One and Julius Caesar. The actor even became a counterculture icon with his performance in the biker movie – in no small part down to the leather jacket and blue jeans he donned and the Triumph Thunderbird 6T that he rode throughout. After that, Brando finally won his first Oscar in 1954 for his role as Terry Malloy in crime drama On the Waterfront.

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In Guys and Dolls, meanwhile, Sinatra was cast as Nathan Detroit – a gambler who makes his living organizing illegal craps games. And not only does Nathan have the local lieutenant on his case, but he also faces pressure from his nightclub singer fiancée Adelaide about walking down the aisle. Nathan’s life gets even more complicated, too, when he runs into old friend Sky Masterson.

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Sky – who is portrayed by Brando in the 1955 movie – is challenged to take any girl of Nathan’s choosing to dinner in the Cuban capital of Havana. And with $1,000 at stake, Nathan decides that the woman in question should be a Save a Soul Mission sister named Sarah Brown. Sky initially introduces himself to her as a gambling addict who’s seeking to change his ways.

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And Sarah agrees to go to dinner with Sky if he can bring in at least 12 different sinners to her Thursday evening gathering at the mission. Then, by the time they return home, the pair have fallen for each other. But the couple’s relationship is tested when Sky is accused of organizing an unlicensed craps game at the mission during their time away – much to Sarah’s dismay.

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This particular game had in fact been the brainchild of Nathan, who by this point is now flat broke. Taking pity on his friend, Sky claims that he didn’t manage to persuade Sarah to go to dinner with him after all and pays Nathan the $1,000 they agreed on. He also makes an unusual bet with his old acquaintance and his fellow illegal gamblers.

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In a bid to win Sarah back and come good on his initial promise, Sky offers to pay each gambler $1,000 if he rolls the dice and loses. If he wins, however, the others all need to show up at the next mission prayer meeting. Unsurprisingly, Sky proves to be victorious, and Sarah is subsequently greeted by a dozen largely unrepentant sinners.

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The happy ending continues when Nathan speaks to Sarah about Sky losing his initial bet. Realizing that Sky isn’t the unscrupulous individual she thought he was, Sarah tracks him down, and the pair end up back together again. Alongside Nathan and Adelaide, Sarah and Sky are last seen in the middle of New York landmark Times Square having a double wedding.

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But, of course, Brando and Sinatra aren’t the only stars in Guys and Dolls – although they are by far the biggest names. The musical also features Jean Simmons as Sarah and Vivian Blaine as Adelaide, while Johnny Silver appears as Benny Southstreet, Sheldon Leonard portrays Harry the Horse and Robert Keith is seen on screen as Lieutenant Brannigan.

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Despite both being fairly prominent celebrities, though, Brando and Sinatra had never met before signing up to appear in Guys and Dolls. And it’s fair to say, too, that they didn’t exactly hit it off after finally being introduced to each other. Indeed, in a book penned by Brando’s best friend Carlo Fiore, it’s claimed that Sinatra had little interest in becoming chummy with his co-star.

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In Bud: The Brando I Knew, Fiore describes the initial meeting between the pair that he witnessed. And he doesn’t paint a particularly flattering picture of the singer. Fiore wrote, “Sinatra appeared… blue eyes flashing [and] people jumping out of his way as he walked in a straight line. [He acted] as though he owned everything in sight and everybody was on his payroll.”

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Then Sinatra and Brando were introduced to each other by Mankiewicz. And although they both smiled as they shook each other’s hands, Fiore believed that the Rat Pack legend’s grin was forced. “It was the kind of smile a professional fighter gives his opponent at the pre-fight weigh-in,” he wrote.

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In stark contrast, Brando was apparently genuinely thrilled to come face to face with a film star of Sinatra’s magnitude. That initial enthusiasm may have soon faded, though, once the pair began working together in front of the cameras. In any case, both parties had very different ways of approaching the movie-making process.

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Fiore wrote, “Marlon likes to ease into a scene, to roam about on the set and absorb the atmosphere. He wants to glance at the extras [and] give a nod and smile to a familiar face.” But whereas Brando seemed very much a team player, Fiore described Sinatra as an altogether different beast.

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“The movie was only one of many important things he had to do that day,” Fiore explained in reference to Sinatra’s approach to life on set. “Business associates were waiting in his dressing room. There were calls to make to Las Vegas, New York and Florida. His entourage was gathered outside his dressing-room door, waiting to laugh at his jokes, light his cigarettes, hand him a drink or bring him a hot dog – do anything for him, anything.”

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And things didn’t improve much when the two legends had to share the screen. Whereas Sinatra preferred to shoot his scenes in no more than two takes, a slightly more thorough Brando insisted on as many attempts as needed. Somewhat inevitably, this perfectionist streak soon incurred the wrath of the singer.

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During one particular moment in the movie, Sinatra’s character Nathan has to tuck into some cheesecake while listening to Brando’s Sky. But after eight takes of dessert-eating, Sinatra decided enough was enough. According to Fiore, he yelled, “These f**king New York actors! How much cheesecake do you think I can eat?” before storming off the film set.

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Rumor has it, though, that Brando didn’t actually need so many takes to get his performance just right. Rather, he allegedly fluffed his lines on purpose simply to get Sinatra both wound up and queasy as a result of so much cheesecake. When filming resumed, in any case, Brando delivered his lines immaculately.

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But Brando’s multi-take approach wasn’t the only thing that rubbed Sinatra up the wrong way. In fact, Ol’ Blue Eyes had initially gone up for the juicier role of Sky in Guys and Dolls but had been overlooked in favor of Brando. It wasn’t the first time that he’d been pipped to a role by the brooding method actor, either.

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Just a year earlier, Sinatra was very nearly offered the part of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. Producer Sam Spiegel believed, on the other hand, that Brando would be a better fit. And after Spiegel stumped up $100,000 to secure Brando’s signature, the star duly came on board – and later scooped the Best Actor Oscar to boot.

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It may have seemed unlikely, then, that Sinatra would accept the lesser Guys and Dolls role of Nathan. But surprisingly, the Rat Pack legend agreed to take second billing and share the screen with a man with whom he was far from best buds. And Sinatra had a few tricks up his sleeve, too, to make sure that he still stole the limelight.

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After all, Sinatra sure wasn’t a man to take things lying down. In fact, he was renowned across Tinseltown for his ability to hold a grudge for a ridiculously long period of time. And according to Fiore, Sinatra wanted to exact revenge on Brando on this occasion by singing him “right off the screen.”

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Naturally, vocal talent was the one area in which Sinatra had an indisputable advantage over Brando, given that he had already appeared in numerous musicals and recorded a string of classic albums by the time he arrived on set. In contrast, Guys and Dolls would mark both the first and the last time that Brando would sing on screen.

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So, while Nathan was initially written as possessing a very strong Jewish-Bronx accent, Ol’ Blue Eyes had other ideas. Although he attempted a vague accent while in conversation, he simply performed in his own romantic and smooth voice when singing. And Sinatra’s completely out-of-character approach soon enraged his co-star.

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Indeed, in the memoir about his friend, Fiore wrote, “I was standing behind Marlon, peering at the scene over his shoulder, and he slowly turned around until we were standing face to face. He was a little pale and whispered harshly, ‘He’s playing my part. He’s not the romantic lead. I am.’”

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Inevitably, Brando wasn’t going to keep this to himself. After wandering over to Mankiewicz, he reportedly told the director, “Joe, Frank’s playing his part all wrong. He’s supposed to sing with a Bronx accent. He’s supposed to clown it up. But he’s singing like a romantic lead. We can’t have two romantic leads.”

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But although Mankiewicz agreed that Sinatra had gone off piste, he had little intention of doing anything about it. Indeed, according to Fiore, the director merely smiled when Brando suggested that the legendary crooner should be told how to sing a song. Mankiewicz then insisted, it’s said, that if anyone was going to be brave enough to advise Sinatra, it should be Brando.

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Inevitably, this didn’t go down too well with an increasingly exasperated Brando. Fiore wrote, “Marlon was dumbstruck for a few seconds. When he recovered, he said, ‘It’s not my job to tell him. It’s the director’s job. I’m never going to work with Mankiewicz again.’” And Brando stuck to his word.

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Yet despite the constant on-set tension, the pairing of Brando and Sinatra seemingly proved to be a significant draw for cinema-going audiences. Guys and Dolls took a fairly respectable $13 million at the box office, you see, on a budget of just $5.5 million. The critics weren’t quite so enamored, however.

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And perhaps to Sinatra’s delight, reviewers directed some of their displeasure towards Brando. Time magazine certainly wasn’t impressed with the actor’s musical talents, commenting that he “sings in a faraway tenor that sometimes tends to be flat.” To Brando’s credit, though, he himself later admitted that he was way out of his depth.

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In Meet Marlon Brando – a documentary released in 1965 – the Oscar winner readily revealed, “I couldn’t hit a note with a baseball bat. Some notes I missed by extraordinary margins.” In fact, it took some behind-the-scenes trickery to make Brando’s flat tones a little easier on the ear.

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Brando went on, “They sewed my words together on one song so tightly that when I mouthed it in front of the camera, I nearly asphyxiated myself.” Sinatra’s attempt to sing Brando off the screen therefore undoubtedly worked a treat. And, unsurprisingly, there was little love lost between the pair even in the years after Guys and Dolls’ release.

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Brando is quoted as having said, for example, “Frank is the kind of guy [who], when he dies, he’s going to heaven and give God a hard time for making him bald.” Sinatra apparently gave as good as he got, though, by directing various shots at his Guys and Dolls co-star. As well as nicknaming him “Mumbles,” he also reportedly described Brando as the “world’s most overrated actor.”

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