‘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.