Inside the Most Publicly Tragic Chapter of Marlon Brando's Scandalous Family History

Marlon Brando's son Christian going to prison for fatally shooting his half-sister Cheyenne's boyfriend at their father's house in 1990 marked an especially tragic period in the actor's life.

By Natalie Finn May 14, 2022 12:00 PMTags
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Marlon Brando had a strange life.

He was French-Polynesian-island-owning wealthy and beyond-famous, of course, having made his mark during Hollywood's golden age as the epitome of the gorgeous, sensitive, vaguely dangerous leading man, decades before he played the titular patriarch in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and firmly cemented his status as a living legend. Jack NicholsonMartin Sheen, Sean Penn, Javier Bardem and Ryan Gosling are a small sampling of the male stars who've worshiped at the altar of Brando the artist.

His gravelly voice, quirky mannerisms and brooding intensity became fodder for both loving homage and, eventually, parody. But the enigmatic actor's life also got off on an unstable foot, growing up with an alcoholic mother and emotionally remote father who split up when he was 11. The charismatic kid from Omaha, Neb., spent time in military school, where he became quite the prankster, and then made his way to New York to try his hand at acting.

He made his Broadway debut at 20 and won his first Oscar at 30, romanced countless women, including Marilyn Monroe, and over the course of five decades became a father to at least nine children.

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Brando's list of famous paramours also included Rita Moreno, who opened up in her 2013 memoir about getting pregnant toward the end of their eight-year, on-and-off relationship and almost dying from complications of an illegal abortion—after which Brando left town to film Mutiny on the Bounty and fell for his co-star Tarita Teriipaia, who became his third wife in 1962.

When he got home from the shoot, Moreno wrote, she was alone in his house one morning and swallowed some of his sleeping pills in her distress. Luckily Brando's assistant found her and she was rushed to the hospital to have her stomach pumped. The Puerto Rican star had recently finished shooting West Side Story and her Oscar win in April 1962 was still ahead of her.

"He kept disappointing me," Moreno said of Brando on the May 9 episode of Hoda Kotb's Making Space podcast, the man she called "the lust of my life" still fodder for conversation all these years later.

"But let's put things in proper perspective," she continued. "You let things happen, all right? People aren't just mean to you. If you keep letting them disappoint you and hurt you, then there's something wrong with this relationship, including yourself. So having said that, I just got disappointed for the last time. We came back together after separating. It was a very obsessive relationship."

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Brando didn't discuss his three marriages or many kids in his 1994 memoir co-written with Robert LindseySongs My Mother Taught Me, stating that the book was in part to correct all the rumors and misconceptions about him for his children's benefit, so that they "can separate the truth from the myths that others have created about me."

Missing from the narrative, however, was the most publicly tumultuous chapter of Brando's sprawling family history to date, which had unfolded a few years prior to the book's publication—and the memoir's release came just months before the episode's tragic coda.

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Christian Brando Shoots His Sister's Boyfriend

On May 16, 1990, 32-year-old Christian Brando—Marlon's eldest son and only child with his first wife, actress Anna Kashfi—shot and killed 26-year-old Dag Drollet, the boyfriend of his half-sister Cheyenne Brando, in the den of their father's home in the Hollywood Hills.

Christian maintained he was only trying to defend Cheyenne, 20, who was pregnant at the time. Drollet was "slapping around" his half-sister, Christian reportedly told detectives, admitting he shot the other man once in the head. Drollet had been staying with Cheyenne at Brando's house since they both flew into town from Tahiti about 10 days earlier. Reached by a reporter from Hard Copy, the first to inform him of his son's death, Drollet's father, Jacques, reportedly said, "He was a good boy. Now it's all over."

Brando and Tarita Teriipaia, Cheyenne's mother, were home and heard the shot but were not in the room where it happened, authorities said. "We're not sure Christian was totally sober, but it doesn't appear to be some sort of drink fest," LAPD Lt. Ron Hall told the Los Angeles Times. "There were definitely no drugs." (A test at the police station later showed his blood-alcohol level to be .19 percent.)

There were multiple guns belonging to Christian in the house, Hall said, and the weapon that killed Drollet was a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol. "Everyone, including Christian, was cooperative," the cop said.

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Meanwhile, famed attorney William Kunstler—a longtime friend of Brando's who was representing Christian (and who, incidentally, was played by Mark Rylance in The Trial of the Chicago 7)—told the Times after the shooting that Marlon called 911 and gave Drollet CPR while they waited for the ambulance.

Christian was arrested and booked on suspicion of murder. "Some of the facts I've heard just over the phone indicate it might be self-defense," Kunstler told the LA Times. "I understand there may have been a struggle for the gun, and some beating going on of Marlon's daughter...He may have been defending his sister."

A friend of Drollet's told the Times that he had no recollection of the deceased ever being abusive toward Cheyenne.

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Marlon Brando's Hard-to-Follow Family Tree

Brando and his first wife, Anna Kashfi, had a long, bitter custody battle—one day, she slapped Brando in court in front of everybody, including reporters—over Christian after they divorced in 1959. Their son remembered the tumult vividly years later. "I've been coming through those doors since I was a kid," Christian told the LA Times in 1991, referring to being in and out of court with his warring parents.

They were only married for a few years, and "I think they married because she was pregnant," Sarah Broughton, author of the book Brando's Bride, about Kashfi, told Fox News in 2019. "At that point, it was still very scandalous for a woman to have a child without being married. And it would have been scandalous for him, too, not being married to the mother of his child. He told friends that he didn't think the marriage would last. But he really wanted a baby, so he would give it a go."

The author noted how the newspapers at the time dutifully chronicled their tumultuous custody proceedings, which lasted for years. "They were seen arguing in school and were just extremely volatile with each other," Broughton said. "[Kashfi] testified in court she had broken into his house and smashed his table. On another occasion, he had broken into a hotel room where she was staying with her son and took their child."

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First Kashfi, who died in 2015, was given custody of Christian, but what a judge called her "reliance on drugs and alcohol" and related anger issues resulted in Brando being granted full custody when the boy was 13—the age at which Christian later recalled embarking on what would be his own life-long battle with alcoholism and drug use.

Brando married Movita Castaneda in 1960 and they had two children together, son Miko in 1961 and, after the actor had married Teriipaia, daughter Rebecca in 1966.

"My family's so weird and spaced out," Christian told the LA Times in 1991, recalling summers spent working at his dad's hotel on Tetiꞌaroa, the French Polynesian atoll Brando bought in 1966, having fallen in love with the area while shooting Mutiny on the Bounty in Tahiti. "We'd have new additions all the time. Like I'd sit down at the table with all these strange people and say, 'Who are you?'"

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Though some reports from 1990 still referred to Teriipaia as Brando's wife, she had divorced him in 1972 after 10 years of marriage. Before Cheyenne was born, they had son Simon Teihotu Brando together in 1963.

Brando later had three children—daughter Ninna in 1989 and sons Myles in 1992 and Timothy in 1994—with his longtime housekeeper Maria Cristina Ruiz, and adopted his longtime assistant Caroline Barrett's daughter Petra.

"My mom was his girlfriend for seven years," Petra explained in a 2019 interview for, "and for over 25 years she was his right hand and best friend, she worked with him on location doing his dialogue and organized every aspect of his life."

In her 2005 memoir Marlon, My Love, My Suffering, published the year after he died, Teriipaia alleged that Brando had originally wanted her to get an abortion when she got pregnant with Simon, but she refused. She wrote that, despite their divorce and his many subsequent relationships and dalliances, Brando remained a dominant presence in her life for the rest of his, even when she tried to move on romantically.

"We lived terrible tragedies and we all suffered a lot," Teriipaia said in a conversation with her co-author Lionel Duroy for Paris Match when the book came out, according to Reuters. "Marlon never spoke about it. I wanted our children, all our grandchildren to know our history." 

Was it Murder?

At his arraignment, Christian pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and illegal possession of a machine gun and a silencer.

"He feels terrible about it, as anybody would," Kunstler told the LA Times (from New York, while various other attorneys represented Christian in L.A.). "It's one of those tragic circumstances that happens in families sometimes."

In the days after the shooting, investigators disputed the defense's contention that Dag had been shot while reaching for the gun during a struggle with Christian. Rather, they said, Dag had been sitting down with the TV remote in one hand and a cigarette lighter in the other when he was shot in the face, and there were no signs of a struggle.

"The TV was still on," Los Angeles Fire Capt. Tom Jefferson said. "It was flipping channels like he was still pushing the buttons."

Added LAPD Detective Andy Monsue, "There was no physical abuse ever involved."

Christian ended up spending three months in jail before being released on bail that August, Brando putting up the deed to his estate as collateral.

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Christian ended up pleading guilty to the lesser count of voluntary manslaughter in January 1991.

"This is a very emotional day for Christian," lawyer Robert Shapiro (who'd go on to be a member of O.J. Simpson's murder defense team starting in 1994) told reporters outside the courthouse. "Not only has he admitted to a manslaughter, but he admitted it to the entire world."

Brando, who had been in court on most days pertaining to the case, wasn't present for his son's plea, as he was "in no emotional position to come out today," Shapiro said.

The plea bargain was agreed to after Cheyenne, who gave birth to son Tuki in June 1990,, was declared mentally incompetent, and therefore unable to testify, in December by a French court in Tahiti, where she had returned to live after Drollet's death. She had attempted twice to take her own life that November.

"She was placed yesterday under conservatorship," Cheyenne's attorney Michael Nasatir told the judge in Santa Monica Superior Court after the legal development in Tahiti, per the LA Times. "She has been declared incompetent to handle her own affairs," including the care of her baby.

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Cheyenne was going to be a witness for the prosecution. She told investigators, according to court documents reported on by UPI, that her boyfriend's death "was not an accident like everyone was trying to make it out to be...It's a murder, in case you don't know it."

Her absence "pretty much changed the complexion of the case and made the plea something we could accept," Assistant District Attorney Bill Clark told reporters.

On the eve of his sentencing hearing the following month, Christian, who was facing a maximum of 16 years in prison, told the Los Angeles Times in an interview, "I'm nervous, I'm scared to death. But I'm not trying to get out of anything—I already said 'guilty.'"

"It's a tragedy and I do feel bad," the 32-year-old insisted. "If I could give my life to have him come back, I'd do it, but there's nothing I can do. I have to live with this for the rest of my life, I wake up with it and go to sleep with it."

He had been sober for nine months and going to AA meetings, he said, adding, "My whole family, except for my father, is alcoholic. I've been doing pretty good, although I miss coming home and having a few beers."

Christian, who bypassed acting and worked as a welder, said his father had been "helping me through this, supporting me as a friend...He was there for me. And who am I? I'm nobody."

He also alleged that Cheyenne had told him Drollet was abusive, but by then, he said, he was doubting whether that was true.

"I did not go into that room to kill Dag Drollet," he insisted. He barely knew him, in fact. "I just wanted to scare him," Christian said.

Marlon Brando Slams Christian's Mother, Pleads for Leniency for His Son

In emotional testimony given during Christian's sentencing hearing, Brando admitted to marrying his son's mother because she was pregnant. 

"I led a wasted life," the then-66-year-old said. "I chased a lot of women and she was very jealous." She was "probably the most beautiful woman I've ever known." But she also "came close to being as negative a person, and as cruel and unhappy a person, as I've met in this life."

The actor told the court, "Perhaps I failed as a father. The tendency is always to blame the other person. There were things I could have done differently...I did the best I could."

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His son may have had his problems, Brando said, but he wasn't some spoiled rich brat, either. "Of all my children—and I have nine—Christian is the child who from the very beginning has been the most independent," the two-time Oscar winner said. "I've offered money to Christian and he wouldn't take it...He wanted his own identity and he worked hard to get it."

From the stand Brando also tearfully apologized in French to Drollet's family.

Before being sentenced, Christian addressed the Drollets in court, "I'm sorry. It's not my family, it's me. I'm at fault in this. If I could trade places with Dag, I would."

L.A. Superior Court Judge Robert W. Thomas gave him 10 years in prison, six for the manslaughter and four for aggravating circumstances for using a gun, calling it "a tragic situation for both families, for Christian Brando."

The Tragic Aftermath

Brando released his memoir in 1994, to much fanfare, but some deep lows were still to come.

While her brother was in prison, Cheyenne died by suicide at her mother's home in Tahiti on April 16, 1995. Her son Tuki, then 4, was being raised by Drollet's parents.

EMILE GAUBERT/AFP via Getty Images

Christian was released on parole in January 1996 after serving less than five years. He died from complications of pneumonia in January 2008 at the age of 49.

Brando, who died July 1, 2004, at 80, lamented in an audio recording unearthed in the 2015 documentary Listen to Me Marlon, "Christian was burdened with emotional disorders and psychological disarray, the kind of trouble that I had in life."

The killing of Cheyenne's boyfriend on May 16, 1990, and the crime's endlessly tragic consequences figured prominently in the film, director Stevan Riley telling British GQ, "The terrible thing that happened at that house that night is the ideal intersection at which to cross-examine the themes concerning Marlon Brando's myth."

But those who loved Brando in life, warts and all, were happy to see what they felt was the real him come across after he spent his days alternately courting and shirking the spotlight, a paradox that resulted in more rumors and assumptions than anything else.

The actor's daughter Rebecca told the magazine, "He would have been proud, I hope" of the film. "He knew those tapes would be found and used in some way—he was no dummy. I feel this was his document, his diary unlocked for us to discover. He could have destroyed them if he wanted to. In a way, the film is my father coming back to us, a very personal part of his legacy."

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