Kirkland lawyer guards the brand of Marlon Brando
David Seeley acknowledges he had an unusual client: the famous actor, in the final years of his life. Oh, the stories.
Seattle Times staff reporter
For nearly 14 years, David Seeley, a Kirkland attorney, has represented school districts, defended criminals and taken on general litigation. All mainstream stuff.
But then there has been his adjoining, and, to say the least, unusual legal life.
He was Marlon Brando’s general counsel for the last four years of the superstar’s life (he died in 2004 at age 80), and now is general counsel for Brando Enterprises.
How unusual was legal life with Brando?
This is Seeley’s first in-depth interview about his client.
“It was amazing who Marlon could get on the phone at a drop of a hat. One time at his house, I looked at the speed dial on his phone — Jack Nicholson, Michael Jackson, all these famous people. And then there was my name, David Seeley,” he remembers.
For example, Seeley says Brando could dial up Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.
“Marlon wanted to take coconuts from Tetiaroa, sign them and then sell them on Amazon,” says Seeley. “One time I sat on his bed in his room while he was on speaker phone with Jeff Bezos talking about this concept.
“Brando provided them with all sort of numbers he had calculated about the value he would add to their brand, by his appearance or association with Amazon, and while Marlon was speaking he had this calculator and was doing some math at the time.”
A spokesman for Bezos declined to comment.
The coconut marketing never materialized, as happened with a number of Brando’s inspirations, such as putting electric eels in some sort of container to create electricity for his Sherman Oaks home on Mulholland Drive.
Actor Ed Begley Jr., an avid environmentalist, remembered in a New York Times story that Brando had summoned him to talk about an urgent project. Begley thought it was about a film project.
It was about electric eels.
When Mr. Begley, slightly stunned, responded that he did not think it could be done, Brando murmured, “Everything’s no with you,” according to the story.
But it wasn’t as if Brando lived his later years in some ethereal space.
The actor also was quite capable of putting together a concept that would get a bona fide U. S. patent.
Since his early acting days, Brando loved to play the bongos and congas, and there are anecdotes of him sitting in with music legends such as Tito Puente and Cal Tjader.
In 2002, he applied for and received U. S. Patent 6,812,392 B2 for a self-tightening drumhead device.
And, says Seeley, Brando was quite aware of his market value.
Seeley was there when representatives of the giant video-game company Electronic Arts came to Brando’s house. That’s where Brando was going to do a voice-over for one of the “Godfather” games.
Afterward, Brando told Seeley: “Bet you didn’t think I’d get $800,000 for an hour’s work.”
Brando had made sure the EA executives had brought over gift baskets that included red wine, cheese, bread and copious amounts of Russian caviar. Brando liked caviar.
The actor and the attorney polished those off, and Brando had someone go to the store to get even more caviar. That was a point in Brando’s life when he packed a huge amount of weight.
Brando quite well understood when business was business, even with a friend.
It was Brando who, for a Sept. 7, 2001, television special for Michael Jackson’s “30th Anniversary Celebration,” agreed to introduce his friend on stage — for $1 million.
“Marlon called me and said, ‘I need a contract. I’m not going on stage unless he indicates he’ll pay me for my services,’ ” remembers Seeley. “I scrambled and faxed it.”
Brando’s appearance didn’t make it when the special was aired. A news report said he “rambled on for a good 10 minutes about children dying around the world in various horrible ways” and was booed.
But Brando still collected the $1 million.
How Seeley came to be Brando’s attorney is, of course, also a rather unusual story.
He is 49, and before joining the Kirkland law firm of Livengood, Fitzgerald & Alskog, he had spent a decade in Vancouver, Wash., as a deputy prosecutor for Clark County.
While there, says Seeley, “Every once in a while I’d run into a woman whose son was being prosecuted for various low-level crimes, and I happened to be the deputy handling the cases. Sometimes she’d tell me that Marlon Brando wanted to know what’s happening with her son. Of course, I didn’t believe her.”
But it turned out the woman was Brando’s business manager (she no longer has anything to do with the estate) and had moved there.
In 2000, as Seeley was beginning private practice, the woman called and told him, “I was impressed with your work [as prosecutor]. You treated me fairly. Marlon wants to meet with you.”
“I thought it was a total joke,” says Seeley.
Then Seeley had his assistant call the Los Angeles phone number given him. Soon, Brando’s unmistakable voice was on the line, and the next day, Seeley was taking a flight there, along with Seattle patent attorney Kevin Costanza, whom he found on short notice.
Brando had told Seeley to bring along a patent expert for his drumhead-tightening idea.
“He did not like L.A. lawyers, said that they charged too much. And he thought they’d immediately advertise that they represented him,” says Seeley.
Inside Brando’s home, Seeley remembers, “Marlon comes down the hall wearing a big bathrobe. He put his feet up on a coffee table. Frannie, his Bullmastiff, this huge dog, was running in and out. The dog would often lay his head on my lap and slobber all over, and Marlon just watched and gauged my reaction. It was pretty clear the first meeting was a little bit of a test.”
Seeley obviously passed.
Over the next four years, he’d visit personally with Brando at least five times, staying at a guesthouse and meeting with the actor after the noon hour when he’d get up.
And he became used to phone calls from Brando three or four times a week, including late at night at home.
“Any time the phone rang after 10 p.m. at home, I knew it was Marlon,” says Seeley. “I think to some degree he was lonely and a little isolated late in his life.”
They’d talk about religion, relationships, Brando’s love for French Polynesia, various projects that Brando floated.
When in 2003, as controversy surrounded Michael Jackson after a TV documentary in which he told of sleepovers by children, Brando had an idea.
“Marlon wanted to conduct an interview with Michael about the topic and sell the rights to a major channel,” says Seeley. “It would have been interesting to watch Brando interview Jackson. Thankfully, the idea never really got any legs.”
No talk of film career
There were certain things Seeley knew were off-limits.
“Brando never discussed any of his movies or his thoughts on acting or fame,” he says. “This went along with no autographs or picture requests.”
What Seeley does have in his office is a wall full of licensed Brando merchandise; literally, there are hundreds of Brando items, most often his “Godfather” persona, and also his biker “The Wild One.”
Bobbleheads, figurines, T-shirts, shot glasses, beer mugs, posters, leather jackets, blankets, Champagne, slippers.
When Brando died, his estate was worth $26.4 million, says Seeley. It currently takes care of eight children that Brando designated in his will (some by him, some adopted).
The Brando name reaches worldwide.
To protect the “brand” in the Brando name, Seeley sues those who use it without permission, or sends out cease-and-desist letters over using his likeness.
In 2011, there was undisclosed settlement with the Harley-Davidson over its use of “The Brando” line of boots similar to what the actor wore in his 1953 movie, “The Wild One.”
And then there was the settlement in 2011 with a furniture company over its “Brando” leather chair, and one earlier this year with Madonna over her using Brando’s image when performing her song “Vogue” in concert.
Sometimes, says Seeley, Brando would talk to would-be investors about lending his name to a venture, just to see how much they’d pay, “how crazy people were, but most of the time he never really was serious.”
One person he did take seriously was a South Pacific resort developer named Dick Bailey, says Seeley.
Tetiaroa had never left Brando’s thoughts even though he hadn’t visited since 1990.
In his 1994 autobiography, “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” he wrote, “My mind is always soothed when I imagine myself sitting on my South Sea island at night.”
It was with Bailey, says Seeley, that Brando discussed piping naturally chilled waters from the ocean and using them for air conditioning.
In 2005, Brando’s estate negotiated a 99-year lease with Bailey for development of a luxury “eco-resort” that will open in 2014.
“The Brando” will be expensive.
All-inclusive rates for the 35 villas will range from $4,100 a day for a one-bedroom to more than $12,000 a day for a three-bedroom.
But, as per the actor’s wishes, it does have ocean water piped in for air conditioning.
How long can the Brando brand last?
“We hope for a very long time,” says Seeley.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @ErikLacitis