‘The Freshman’ At 25: Cast And Crew Recall The Madness And Genius Of Marlon Brando (And Thumb-Eating Lizards)

Imagine if Sylvester Stallone told a reporter that Creed is such a terrible movie that it’s making him retire from acting. “It’s worse than Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot,” he might say to the disbelief of everyone in show business. Such a quote would be published on every movie site going, with critics and bloggers asking what it could mean for the fate of a presumed blockbuster. It’s difficult to conceive how that scenario would play out today, what with studios pumping small fortunes into marketing campaigns and even the most anticipated bombs finding salvation in foreign markets. But 25 years ago, that kind of remark had the power to torpedo a surefire hit.

Andrew Bergman may not have had to worry about the Internet in 1989, but the salacious news could still spread like wildfire. Marlon Brando proved that when he referred to The Freshman, his first starring role in almost a decade, as “horrible” and “a stinker” in a conversation with a Globe and Mail reporter. The reclusive actor told Murray Campbell that Bergman’s comedy was “going to be a flop” and that it was forcing him to retire. “I’m so fed up,” the legend said of show business. “I wish I hadn’t finished with a stinker.” Years later, Campbell wrote that he didn’t make much of the interview at the time, claiming that if anything, it was an “amusing little story I could tell at dinner.” Only after he saw the global reaction did he understand that Brando had used him.

Twenty-five years after the film’s release, Brando’s sabotage serves as a reminder of how powerful one man’s word was in a time when film marketing wasn’t injected into every aspect of our digital lives. For someone of Brando’s stature to claim his latest film would be a flop, well, it meant certain box-office doom for The Freshman. That’s a shame because The Freshman remains a charming, mostly brilliant mafia comedy overshadowed by the more serious films of the genre, including the film to which it paid direct tribute – The Godfather.

Bergman, who both wrote and directed The Freshman, doesn’t believe in ranking or comparing his own work with other mob classics. “That’s for other people,” he tells us, (which is fine because we’re more than happy to rank The Freshman near the top). “There are other mob movies that are quite amusing,” the 70-year-old says. “Mafioso is terrific. Married to the Mob, the Demme movie, is really good. But to rank my own work, it’s sort of pointless. I’m happy with the movie and there’s some nice satisfaction. Some parts could have been better, some parts turned out better than I could have ever dreamed of. And that’s the nature of making movies. But it’s certainly a movie I’m proud of.”

Marlon Brando on set middle fingers
Getty Image

“Everybody is talking about the job you are doing. It’s all over town!”

Despite Brando’s harsh words, critical reception for The Freshman was mostly positive. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote that the comedy was “fitfully amusing,” while Roger Ebert declared Brando’s performance as Carmine Sabatini “a brilliant comic masterstroke.” So why, then, was Brando so quick to pan the film without giving people a chance to judge for themselves? Money, of course. And it wasn’t like the studio or producers owed him a small fortune, relatively speaking. He tried to ruin the movie over $50,000 he believed he was owed for overtime.

“The whole thing was idiotic and self-destructive on his part,” Bergman says. “Every interview after we did the movie was, ‘How come Marlon said that?’ Our feeling was, ‘Ask Marlon why he said that. Don’t ask me.’ He was sort of off his feet and he spoke with an environmental reporter from the Toronto Globe about environmental matters, and then this came up and he went off the deep end. And being that it was so negative, it got picked up in every paper in the universe.”

“Brando bad-nabbing the film was an amazing event. Watching the power that he had when he had asked for certain negotiations at the end of the movie and the producer wouldn’t give it,” explains Jon Polito, who plays slimy Department of Justice agent Chuck Greenwald who tries to manipulate young Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick). “He said, ‘If you don’t give it, I can ruin your film within three days.’ And the producer didn’t believe it and Brando went public and said, ‘I hate this film, it’s terrible, I’ll never act again, this is ruining me.’ They gave him the money, three days later, he said, ‘I love this film. I can’t wait to do the sequel.’”

But by that point, the damage was done and few people cared about the “un-bashing,” as Bergman refers to it. Even worse than influencing the audience, though, was how Brando’s remarks affected his co-stars, and especially Matthew Broderick, who was not only excited to be working with a legend like Brando, but had also formed a strong relationship with him during the filming.

“It was quite hurtful to people like Matthew Broderick,” Polito recalls. “Matthew and I flew on the same flight and I heard that he was really shocked and taken aback because he worked with Brando one day and then that night, the next day, it was in the Toronto Globe. We didn’t call it viral then, but it did go across the world. It was in the London papers… Everybody picked up this article: ‘Brando said he hates the film and will never act again.’ It was a shame because that did a pall over the whole film when it opened, because he then said, of course, ‘I’ll do the sequel,’ and people didn’t quite know what it meant. But it did put a curse over it, so when it opened people had expectations over it one way or the other. Maybe it’s great, maybe it’s the worst film in the world. And it’s neither. It’s just a wonderful strange beat.”

Broderick’s sidekick in the film, Steve Bushak, is played by Frank Whaley, who says that while he understood why Brando was causing problems, he was just as upset as Broderick was by the whole ordeal.

“It’s a different period of time: Pre-Internet,” Whaley says. “There weren’t a lot of movies coming out, so if Marlon Brando says, ‘Don’t go to see this movie, it’s lousy, it’s terrible, I’m sorry I did it,’ it’s probably going to hurt the chances for the film. It probably did. And it probably scared the studio off. Maybe they didn’t do as good a job of putting it out. But it had Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick, who at that time was a pretty big box office draw. You think they would have done more but it seemed like the studio kind of buried it. Who knows what was going on there? If that hadn’t happened or it had been a different period of time, I can’t imagine why that movie wasn’t a big hit. It was hysterically funny.”

“I was really disappointed,” Whaley continues. “I probably felt the same way Matthew did. I understood it, they weren’t paying him what they owed him, but I don’t know the ins-and-outs of that whole thing. They probably would have been better off just paying the guy what they owed him. He’s Marlon Brando. Matthew and I did talk about it. We both felt disappointed. I think Matthew took it personally because they were really close, he and Marlon. It’s Matthew’s movie, so he had a much bigger stake in it obviously than I did. For it to kind of tank box office-wise was not good for him at all.”

Bergman doesn’t blame Brando’s diabolical plan for his film’s poor performance. That’s not to say he wasn’t upset. “It upset everybody! It was lunacy,” he says. “Just stupid. And it upset all of us because we kept having to answer these questions about it. It was a self-destructive act. But at the end, it had nothing to do with anything.” Again, the reviews were strong and favorable, so the writer/director believed that people were more baffled than persuaded by the actor’s words.

Instead, Bergman blames studio business-as-usual for The Freshman’s poor performance, as a changing of the guard at TriStar Pictures left the film in executive limbo.

“At TriStar, it had been developed by a guy named Jeff Sagansky who later went on to run CBS, and he left,” Bergman explains. “Then Mike Medavoy took over. New executives don’t really care much about movies that other guys bring in because if they hit they’re not going to get the credit for it. Not that [Medavoy] didn’t like it, he just didn’t think it was going to make any money, so it was not a particularly brilliant campaign and they didn’t really spend a whole lot. It did nothing, but it was a great movie. So, the best thing with DVDs and all these other ways to see movies now is the initial box office run is not considered the curse that it used to be.”

The Freshman really needs that kind of resurgence,” Whaley adds. “It needs to be discovered.”

“There he is, your Komodo dragon…”

For fans of reptilian accuracy, The Freshman might have made a “Worst Of” list in 1990. After all, Clark is sent to pick up a Komodo dragon for Carmine, but experts know that he and Steve were really chasing a monitor lizard around that mall. The reason: No one involved with those scenes wanted to die. The monitor lizards were safer and some were certainly more cooperative than others, as they had several to choose from when filming those hilarious scenes that were inspired by a true story.

“There was an article in the papers years ago about some mafioso who was arrested for importing endangered species into the country,” Bergman explains. “I said, ‘Well, there’s something there.’ I don’t know what I’ll do with it, but at some point I have to use it. But to work with them was hell, because they don’t move and you can’t get them to move. We got lucky one day, too, one of them got loose in a parking lot and we have camera men running all over the place just getting bits and pieces of them running around. Basically, their inclination was to lie still, which is not very cinematic. We had different sizes of them. So, the nasty ones at least moved.”

Safe or nasty, the only thing standing between Whaley and a trip to the emergency room was an animal wrangler and a particular set of rules. But at least Whaley can look back on it now and laugh about how ridiculous it was to film with a monitor lizard.

“Matthew and I laughed… I don’t think I laughed as much before or since I did when I was working on that with him,” Whaley recalls. “There was an old and very docile one that we carried. For the ones where we’re being chased around, those are younger, more virile, if you will. They could move at very high speeds. Like most wild animals they don’t like to be jostled and carried, and they don’t want to be in a movie. Like a lot of things when you’re young, you don’t think about things like that. So they said, ‘Okay, you guys are going to pick up this dragon and carry it throughout this shopping mall,’ or whatever. We said, ‘Okay, great.’ They used the docile one for that.”

“The only thing that was frustrating was that the lizard itself was unpredictable,” co-star B.D. Wong adds. “It can’t really be trained. You just have to let it do its thing. And those are some of the best parts of the movie, where the lizard’s doing all its crazy stuff like running across the parking lot. The only thing that was terrible was that it really smelled bad. But not a smell you wouldn’t expect a lizard to have. You end up smelling bad at the end of the day because you’ve been carrying around this smelly lizard all day. That’s just how it is. It was really squirmy and you had to learn how to hold it, and they said it wouldn’t bite you, but then would always qualify what they were saying. There was always a little bit of room for someone to say, ‘Oh, well, I didn’t say it would never bite you.’”

While Wong doesn’t remember any “mishaps” with the monitor lizards during filming, Whaley vividly recalls a moment when at least one trainer lost his sense of humor. And a little more.

“It comes time to put it in the car,” he says, “I had to strap a seat belt on it, and I guess the docile one was sick, so they brought a different one and I didn’t think much about it. It was very warm, we were in Toronto this time of year and there were lots of lights on the car. These animals don’t like to be warm, they like to be in cooler, shadier elements. So, we did the scene once and pushed it into the car and it was making all these crazy noises, like hissing. The trainers said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s fine. That’s just its way, you’re fine.’ We put the seat belt on it and then get in the front, and meanwhile, the animal has gotten out of the seat belt and lodged its head, the middle of its body, underneath the driver’s seat. The director yells “Cut.” We get out of the car and we’re just hanging around talking and nobody can get it to come out. It is hellbent on staying where it’s at. It’s just pissed off, doesn’t want to be bothered anymore. Doesn’t want people touching it or picking it up. The trainers are all trying to yank it and are tapping on its back, which is supposed to make it recoil, but it won’t do it.

“Twenty minutes have passed and they’re trying to get this animal out of the car and suddenly this commotion and one of the trainers is running away from the car. He’s yelling back at the other trainers and I look over and I notice a trail of blood with this guy. Matthew and I look at each other like, what happened? They immediately said, ‘Okay, that’s lunch, go back to your rooms.’ Turns out that lizard had bit this guy and what we were told is that it had severed this guy’s thumb. It had bit this guy’s thumb off his hand.”

That’s definitely not as funny as the lizard swimming into a mall fountain and scaring children. Fortunately, Bergman doesn’t remember the story quite like that. “I don’t think he bit the thumb off anybody,” he says. “Really? It was two guys we called Jules and Jim. Jules and Jim were the wranglers for these guys, and I think one of them had a wife who got bit by one of these creatures. But I can’t swear to that.”

“That particular monitor lizard never returned to the set,” Whaley says. “I believe that monitor lizard is out of show business. I think that was his last film, and no longer working in the motion picture industry. But that is a moment I will never forget. Needless to say, from that moment forward, I was very hesitant to carry that animal, or touch any of those animals at all because they were kind of scary.”

But it might have been Polito who had the best reason of all for keeping his distance from the lizard actors.

“My brother collected lizards and things, so I know I never liked them,” he says. “Basically, they’re all cold things to me and I would say I was very rude to the Komodo dragon. I didn’t want to talk to it, I didn’t want to be around it. When we had to wait for it to do what’s it’s supposed to do, I was bored. I was rude to my co-star, the Komodo dragon. I couldn’t give a crap. It’s not like working with a dog or a child. I remember working with an alligator once, I didn’t like him either. I’m not into reptilian co-stars.”

“When you finish film school, I’d like to call you, because I know a lot of people in Hollywood.”

While it isn’t a parody of The Godfather itself, The Freshman offers a satirical take on the legacy surrounding the film. More than anything, Bergman’s film takes on the pretentiousness of film school and academia in general. Film professor Arthur Fleeber (Paul Benedict) is an instantly recognizable character. “He’s just that person who somehow thinks he’s part of the film business because he writes about it,” Bergman says. “The Godfather was the perfect film for this idea: It’s such a mythic movie and such a perfect thing for somebody to be studying. You can go in so many pretentious directions with it.”

Bergman seemingly found just the right actor for each role, from Brando as Carmine and Broderick as Clark to Penelope Ann Miller as Tina Sabatini and Maximilian Schell as Larry London. There’s not a weak performance to be found, and Brando’s presence both elevates the rest of the cast, and helped attract them to the project in the first place. Aside from a supporting role in A Dry White Season in 1989, Brando hadn’t acted since 1980, which makes it seem like it would have been a long shot to land him. Fortunately, he was a huge fan of Bergman’s 1979 comedy The In-Laws.

“Easy” is how the director describes the process of convincing Brando to take the role. “He read the script and he loved it, so he said, ‘I’ll do it.’ It was extraordinarily uncomplicated. And of course, once he said he would do it, we could get anybody we wanted to play anybody. That was the easiest casting experience of my entire life. I mean, Matthew was very hard to get then. He had done Ferris Bueller – he was the hottest actor of his age and he turned pretty much everything down. Once we verified that Marlon was, in fact, doing the movie, he was in. It was a delightful casting experience.”

Bergman didn’t write the role of Carmine with any actor in mind, let alone Brando, so had the legend not been such an easy sell, The Freshman could have cast Joe Mantegna or Al Pacino as Carmine and Robert Downey, Jr. as Clark. And when the director says that he could have had “anybody” for this film, he’s not exaggerating. Because Brando was on board, Laurence Olivier wanted to play Larry London, so long as Bergman was willing to move the production to England. Just thinking about that could give a real-life Fleeber some serious goosebumps, but Schell excels as the eccentric chef of the Fabulous Gourmet Club. Bergman was elated to re-write his script for Brando, and he still refers to it as a “miracle” that the man who played Don Vito Corleone was so willing to make this the perfect parody.

“It was quite wonderful,” Bergman says of working with Brando. “It really was. It was a fantastic experience. He summoned us to Tahiti to talk about the script and we talked about everything but the script, basically. He was an extraordinarily complicated, self-destructive person. Very bright and clearly a genius. In the 17th century he could have been burned as a witch. He just did things in front of your eyes you couldn’t believe. The way he physicalized his acting, it was just extraordinary. At one point, about two-thirds of the way through the shoot, his daughter got badly hurt in an auto accident. Luckily we had done most of his work before then because he wasn’t the same after that. He was really shaken and guilt-ridden about that. Because she wanted to come to Toronto to be with him and he said, ‘Don’t come here.’ She racked up her car in L.A. and he just was a mess after that. And his work was not as good. But you can’t notice it. It was mostly near the end of the movie. In his big scenes he was just cooking, he was really on fire.”

Whaley shares the sentiment, as he says the script took a back seat to the fact that he’d be in a film with one of his acting heroes. Of course it helped that the script left him “really laughing out loud” because of the “crazy and absurd” characters, but really this was about working with an icon, especially in a role that was so unique and special.

“I think it took a lot of balls for Brando to do that, to take that iconic character and spin it around like that,” Whaley says. “It’s a testament to the kind of guy he was. It was kind of ahead of its time. Those types of parodies are sort of commonplace now, but in that time frame, it was really kind of unique that he would do that. That he would take something as sacred as Don Corleone and do a parody of it. When I saw it, I was probably as amazed as anyone else. It was very funny, but the thing about Brando is, the reason it is so effective in the film, is because he doesn’t make a parody of it, he kind of just does Don Corleone.”

It goes without saying that Brando was larger than life and that everyone from his co-stars to the crew marveled at the sight of this celebrated actor. At the time, Wong was an up-and-coming actor, having only appeared in two other films and several TV shows. For The Freshman, he admits that he was a “fish out of water” while playing Larry’s assistant Edward, and when it came to Brando’s presence on the set, Wong “stayed out of the way” and simply did his job. But there was no ignoring The Man.

“Marlon Brando was the center of the movie, and whenever he walked in the room, it was very reverential,” Wong says. “It was always very quiet and he would come into the room and everyone would stop talking. And when I say the room, he would come onto the set where there are like a couple hundred people and everyone would just stop talking. It was really amazing. He had a very off-the-wall kind of personality, and that was really fun and a little bit scary because it was rather unpredictable. Not as an actor, I don’t know what it’s like working with him as a director or anything like that. But as a person you’re just getting to meet, there was a lot of an ‘I’m not sure where this person is coming from’ kind of thing.”

Brando had a reputation for being difficult, and stories from the set of The Freshman recall him showing up when he wanted with no concern for everyone else’s time. He could be hours late and everyone else just had to roll with it, and then he’d retreat back into his reclusive darkness and ignore the rest of the actors. Whaley admits there were issues with tardiness toward the end of filming, and that’s what led to the disagreement with the studio, but if there were any problems with the other actors, Brando must have been playing favorites. Broderick has said in the past that he spent his free time listening to Brando tell stories in his trailer, while even the newcomer Wong eventually received a lesson in how to sharpen knives from the film’s star.

“We were in a scene in the kitchen, and there was all this kitchen paraphernalia around,” Wong recalls. “For whatever reason, he showed me how to sharpen a knife. I don’t remember if he asked me, ‘Do you know how to sharpen a knife?’ or what it was. I was, like many people there, happy to have any interaction with him and happy to have any interaction that was initiated by him and not myself. So, when he struck up this conversation, I was open to it. He showed me how to use the wet-stone that’s in the form of a rod that has a handle on it.”

Perhaps the stories were an act of revenge from studio executives who didn’t appreciate the star bombing their film, or maybe it was just a dark cloud that followed Brando around. Whatever the circumstance, it doesn’t seem to be true in the case of The Freshman, considering how much this man seemed to appreciate working with Bergman on this unique project.

“Everybody says Brando comes in for weeks of work and then goes away,” Polito says. “He was on that shoot forever. He loved the idea of doing this film, I guess, because he was there. I was there at least three to four weeks in Toronto and he was there. But things were happening in his life. He had to fly to Hawaii one week and that put off shooting. And that was the most important shooting. It was going to be the ice skating sequence, which was an amazing sequence because he was 65 or 66 then, he was a heavy man, and he skates on that ice. Let me tell you, we were all watching him and he fell, I would say, 20 times during that shoot. He really fell and had to be picked up and set up again because he wanted it to look like he was a great skater, but he wasn’t. It was a wonderful thing to watch him perform this.”

Bergman doesn’t rank his own films, so we can’t expect him to rank a favorite moment, but he has some that stand out. For starters, there were the little things that Brando did to set himself apart from other actors.

“I certainly love the scene where he visits Matthew in the dorm room,” Bergman recalls. “Marlon thought it was going to be cut from the movie. And, in fact, the studio wanted me to cut the scene because they said it really didn’t have anything to do with the movie. But I knew they were nuts. So, we shot it anyhow. Marlon didn’t want to say, ‘So this is college? I didn’t miss much.’ He just wanted to look around the room, so I said, ‘Let’s shoot it that way, then shoot it my way.’ I knew I’d choose my way because I knew it was a great line. But he’s physically so inventive. When he’s sitting there sort of spinning his hat around in his lap, that little gesture just killed me. It’s both commanding and shy at the same time. I thought it was just great.”

The film’s dorm scenes were shot in Toronto, so, early on, Brando had his fellow actors join him for dinner at the house that he rented so they could get acquainted. Whaley remembers getting nervous just being in the same room as Brando, who sat at a large round table with his guests and told them stories. The oddest thing to Whaley was that Brando, who was a very large man, didn’t eat much. “I’d expect that he would be eating like Henry VIII, but he wasn’t,” Whaley says. “He was just nibbling on a salad.” As for their on-set moments, Whaley says the hardest part of working with Brando was his inability to learn his lines. This clearly sounds like a huge pain for the other actors, but Brando had a simple solution.

“When we filmed the scenes that I had with him,” Whaley says, “I remember that he couldn’t remember any lines, so he had to wear an ear piece which went directly to his assistant, who read him his lines off-screen, and that was very strange because there was a slight delay. But he kind of worked it in. It was amazing, again, that I was on that set and I was so young and happy to be in any movie at all. But standing on a movie set in a scene with a camera in front of me saying lines opposite Marlon Brando, it’s still hard for me to believe. Exciting.”

In some scenes, Brando didn’t even need an ear piece. He just did what he thought was right for the moment and if it worked, it worked.

“The scene in which Marlon tells Matthew that one thing that makes him so happy is that he knows that Matthew is going to marry his daughter,” Bergman explains of his other favorite moment. “Marlon did this one take — most of which is in the movie, in which he starts describing his daughter’s reaction. ‘You should hear her go on, “daddy, daddy, daddy,”’ and he became like this young girl. He did the scene and added to it and it was absolutely extraordinary. He was sitting there and I could barely say ‘cut’ because I was watching the movie. I knew that was going to be in the movie, it was such a transcendent moment. A pin dropped and I finally said, ‘Cut,’ because I had to at some point and I just walked over to him and kissed him on the cheek. He said, ‘I know, that was good.’ We were all just stunned with how brilliant it was. It was so amazing. The whole set just lifted their eyes. That was a great, great moment. You couldn’t touch it, it was just so brilliant.”

If it didn’t work, well, that might have made Bergman’s job a little tougher.

“The end was the big competition,” Polito explains. “Maximilian Schell was on the set, the wonderful B.D. Wong was on the set. Matthew was on the set. It was a big setup that I’m going to run in and I’m still playing the part of an FBI guy, but we find out I’m a crook. ‘Put your hands up!’ Brando grabbed Matthew Broderick when I came in. He has to say, ‘Get away or I’ll shoot him.’ He started improvising, he said, ‘Put the motherfucking gun down, motherfuckers. I’m going to kill this fucking guy.’ He just started cursing so much and we are all watching this thing and he’s grabbing Matthew Broderick and there’s a cut at the end. Andrew said, ‘Marlon, it’s a G-rated film.’ And Brando said, ‘I’m sorry, I just went with my impulse.’ He turned to me and said, ‘You don’t mind, do you, Jon?’ I said, ‘No, go right ahead.’ [Laughs.] The first thing I got to say in this film to Marlon Brando was, ‘Go ahead, go with your impulses, Marlon.’ It was wonderful.”

Polito also recalls one of Brando’s other quirks that he used for both The Godfather and The Freshman. “When Brando gets shot, he says, ‘Bang.’ They put the camera on him and they shoot at him, but of course they say, ‘Marlon, you’re being shot at.’ He said, ‘Bang!’ and he starts to fall. ‘You can’t say ‘Bang,’ Marlon, we can hear you saying ‘Bang.’’ And he said, ‘We’ll fix it in post.’ I heard a story from someone who was there and had been on The Godfather that he said ‘Bang’ in The Godfather. He actually does what a kid does, when he gets shot he says, ‘Bang!’ I thought that was pretty funny.”

When it came to getting what he needed out of the eccentric star, however, Bergman also realized that he could resort to the same tactics that a parent might use with a child. A reward system was all the director needed to ensure that his actor would deliver the perfect performance in scene after scene.

“When I was directing, I used to chew a lot of Bazooka bubble gum,” Bergman says. “It was a nervous habit. I would keep chewing gum. Marlon sees this bunch of gum I have in my little director’s bag and he said, ‘Can I have one?’ And I said, ‘Give me a good take and I’ll give you a piece of gum,’ like you did with a trained gorilla. We shoot the scene and he nails it. The minute that it’s over, he walks over with his hand outstretched like an animal. It was just so funny and so perfect. It was the first thing he did when he shot the scene. Looking for his gum. This is Marlon Brando.”