“Ed, the Bagel … it’s Branflakes. Call me at once. I’ve got a project I want to do with you. I have all the funding in place, distribution. Come up here, and let’s talk about getting started.”
And then, as if I didn’t know who it was, he added, “It’s Marlon.”
Is this really happening? I had been friends with Marlon Brando for years, often going up to visit him on my bike. A steep ride from the Valley floor up to Mulholland Drive that I hoped would impress him, and it usually did.
I was welcome there often, as I figured out a key desire of Marlon’s early on. Or, should I say, a key restriction.
He did not want to talk about show business.
He would quickly change the subject if you brought up acting, writing, directing, dance, puppetry, Claymation, or trained seals.
He did want to talk about plumbing, electrical, drywall, straw bale housing, wind, or solar.
Yet here he was on a recording that I had listened to twice, telling me that he had a “project that he wanted to do with me.” One for which he “already had the funding and distribution.”
I left the bike in the garage that day, as I wanted to get up there and seal the deal before he changed his mind and asked Sean Penn to play the part.
I was up at his gate in minutes from my home in Studio City. And I knew the routine. But even if I had forgotten it, there was 12-inch lettering on the garage to remind me:
STAY IN YOUR CAR & HONK YOUR HORN.
Absent the bicycle, I finally had a horn to honk, but I didn’t. For I understood the purpose of such signage. It was a sensible warning for those who might be afraid of his two massive dogs, who were now approaching. Dogs that were large enough to compete in dressage.
Your best bet with dogs like that is to quickly make yourself appear supplicant and bow down as one might do when greeting royalty, even offering your neck as a sign of good faith.
Probably not the best move out on the Serengeti if a pack of wild dogs is approaching, but it worked with Marlon’s dogs.
The dogs seemed happy to see me and gladly showed me the way. And I was always careful walking by the pool with these massive hounds. Too much roughhousing at the wrong moment, and you’d go right in the pool. And at this point in this pool’s long history, it more resembled an algae pit.
Ah, if those gunite walls could talk …
Marlon was nearly dancing as he entered from his office, and he wasted no time.
“That was quick. Where’s your helmet?”
He feigned a heart attack before shouting to the other room: “Get me Patt Morrison at the Times. Major exposé, tomorrow’s paper. Begley Bogus about Bike Riding.”
Then he turned back to me. “I’ll ruin you, then you’ll have no choice but to do this project with me.”
I let him have his fun, as it had the desired effect. We were both laughing, which we often did. When we both calmed down, he took a sip of tea and began: “Do you know how many volts an electric eel puts out?”
Hmm, wasn’t where I thought we were headed with today’s session, but I could usually supply him with an answer for such esoterica.
“Two or three hundred volts. But not a lot of current. A fraction of an amp.”
Marlon smiled. “See, this is why you’re useful. A good guess, and you’re wrong, but not too wrong. Five hundred volts at about one full amp.”
“So, five hundred watts,” I offered, putting Pete Gibbons’s class and Ohm’s law to good use again.
“I’m getting thirty or forty of them. They should be arriving next week. Maybe you and Joe can go get them, from— ” He stopped midsentence. “What’s the name of that town down the coast?”
I was getting a little lost. I knew who Joe was, Joe Brutsman, my dear friend and producer, but I wondered, and quickly asked: “Wait, what are we getting thirty or forty of from down the coast?”
“Eels,” he snapped. “Come on, the town down the coast … diving!”
“When you say down the coast,” I asked carefully, “do you mean south of Santa Monica?”
He was growing impatient over what should be an easy Google Maps search … oh, wait, it didn’t exist then. I strained to remember coastal cities. “Manhattan Beach, Long Beach … ”
“Why are you still in L.A. County? I said south,” he groaned.
“So like Huntington Beach, Seal Beach … ”
“Now you’re in Orange County … further south,” he insisted.
Marlon grew up in Nebraska. I grew up here. I could do this.
“Del Mar, La Jolla … ”
“La Jolla! That’s it! The Scripps Institute in La Jolla. They’re going to loan me twenty or thirty eels, and we can get started.” He leaned back in his chair and studied me. “Do you know what a plecostomus is?”
My friend Neil Rhodes had an aquarium, so I did know what a plecostomus was.
“It’s a suckermouth catfish. They keep the aquarium clean, by eating all the … ”
I motioned out to his swimming pool.
“Algae,” he interjected.
“Okay,” I said, trying to recap for my own clarity. “You’ve got twenty or thirty eels. The plecostomi are living off the algae.”
Marlon was lying in wait for me. “And if you get enough of those and they start to reproduce, it’ll soon be, as P.T. Barnum suggests … ” He gestured that I could have the honor.
“A sucker born every minute,” I said with great glee.
Now that we had shared not one but two big laughs together, I felt that this might be a good time to get back to his phone call. “So when you left me a message … ”
He acted like he hadn’t heard me as he spoke of a higher purpose. “We’re talking about unlimited power to every home in America, clean and renewable, and it works rain or shine … ”
But as he droned on, I finally heard those key words I had so misunderstood: “ … project with you … funding in place … distribution … ” and I realized my dream of acting with Marlon would have to wait while we saved the world with … “electric eels?”
It was time to morph my disappointment into healthy skepticism. “How do your twenty or thirty electric eels translate into usable power?” I queried.
“You said yourself … five hundred watts per eel!” he reminded me.
I was not about to surrender easily. “That’s five hundred watts measured right at the tail for a fraction of a second. How do you intend— ”
He breathed a deep and weary sigh. “Here we go!”
I was undeterred. “How do you intend to harness said power? Harness being an appropriate term in this setting. Is each eel going to wear a little harness, like a cartoon sea horse, wires twisted in the first five minutes?”
He lived for this kind of back-and-forth. “Would you please stop. There’s no wires going to the eel! You put an anode and a cathode in the water … ” He demonstrated with two spoons and his herbal tea, then added: “Stop being such a child.”
“Okay, let’s look at it from a child’s perspective. You’re not going to have enough current to light up a child’s lightbulb project at a science fair, even if you have a hundred eels,” I scoffed.
“You’re always so negative,” he said after a moment.
Oops. I had finally gone too far and offended him.
“Like an anode?” I offered, trying to lighten the mood, as we both needed to turn down the heat. It worked. At least we were both smiling again.
To that end, I agreed to contact my dear friends Bob and Bill Meistrell, identical twins who had worked on “Sea Hunt” with Lloyd Bridges and were expert in all matters aquatic.
The truth is, Marlon was actually the holder of many patents and was never short on bold new ideas. He was quite skillful on the congas, and he held a patent for one-touch tuning on the drum head. Like a timpani drum, but for the conga.
And he had lots of ideas and several patents on energy-related matters.
One day, months after the electric eel brainstorm, he asked if I still had my wind turbine in the California desert, part of a larger wind farm.
“Yeah. I’ve had it since 1985. I’m still getting checks every quarter,” I boasted.
“Mm-hm,” he said, and then added after inspecting his nails briefly: “How would you like to increase the efficiency of said wind turbine by … one hundred percent?” He let that sink in as he studied me.
“That’s quite a bump,” I responded. “How do you propose to do that?”
“Gimme a piece of paper,” he said, pointing. I handed him a sheet from a small stack on the coffee table.
He drew a quick sketch of my wind turbine, now dwarfed by what could only described as a huge kitchen funnel, or a metallic cornucopia, or wait … was it an ear trumpet?
“I’m sorry, what’s the scale here, in relation to my wind turbine? Is that funnel thing in the foreground?” I asked.
“No, it’s to scale,” he countered. “What’s the problem?”
I suddenly felt like Anjelica Huston in “Spinal Tap” as she points out the confusion over the Stonehenge measurements.
“Can you grab that ruler?” I asked in the nicest voice I could manage. He reached behind him and presented me one.
“That’s what I was afraid of,” I continued as I measured. “In your drawing, you have my tower height drawn to be a full … two inches, and your device is four inches. Since my tower is in fact 75 feet tall … that would put your device, and I’m sorry to take all the fun out of funnel, but it puts your height at 150 feet.”
He tried to interject. I went on. “Made out of what, by the way?”
“Space-age polymers,” he offered.
“A fortune,” I explained, “no matter what the materials. And the Audubon Society’s going to shut you down as you suck up every bird in the Pacific Flyway and feed them through your Cuisinart.”
He tried to stop me. “Why is— ”
I went on. “I saved the best for last. Irrespective of those other problems, my turbine, and the concrete pad it sits on, is only designed for a certain range of wind. They shut them down when the wind gets too strong. This thing,” I said, returning his drawing, “would turn it to shrapnel.”
He liked it when you challenged him, but I was afraid I had gone too far again.
After studying me, as one would an ancient rune, he finally asked, “Why is it always no with you?”
But everything was not always no with me. There was an invention of his that made up for all the eels and funnels.
Deep ocean water cooling.
It’s widely known that Marlon had an island property in Tahiti that he purchased while filming “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
Marlon and his friend Dr. Craven solved a problem that has plagued many island resorts for some time. Electricity is often super expensive there. Most of it is generated by diesel fuel that is brought in on diesel ships over long distances … you get the idea.
Suddenly a kilowatt-hour can wind up north of 50 cents. For those of you who don’t look at your electric bill … that’s a lot.
But there’s a huge opportunity for saving substantial sums of money, since two-thirds of said resort electric bill is used to cool the guests and the employees, and to refrigerate the food that is served to all.
What if you perform all three tasks with the water that is right there at your shore?
Enter deep ocean water cooling. A pipe is run down to a fairly modest depth of 500 feet. The temperature at that depth is around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Which is cool enough to do most of the work in cooling said people and poi.
The water is returned to the same depth from which it was taken, and only a few degrees warmer, so it’s not scalding any ocean creatures.
And it only uses a modest amount of electricity, because it is using the siphon effect. Or more like a funicular. The weight of the water being pulled up is offset by the weight of the water descending.
This promising technology is in use today.
And I’m forever honored and grateful that he and his family asked me to be on the board of the Tetiaroa Society, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the environment at Marlon’s island of the same name, and around the world.
To that end, the Brando resort was built to the highest environmental standard possible and, as of this writing, is hosting a global sustainability conference in the hope of finding new and inventive ways to address some of the most pressing environmental problems that we face today.
Excerpted from “To the Temple of Tranquility … And Step on It!: A Memoir,” by Ed Begley Jr. Copyright © 2023. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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