Was Marlon Brando’s house shot up after the 1973 Oscars? Sacheen Littlefeather says she was nearly killed

Sacheen Littlefeather said many times before her death Oct. 2 that she put herself at enormous personal risk, living as an outspoken Native American activist who did Marlon Brando’s bidding by refusing his best actor trophy at the 1973 Oscars.

With that political protest, Littlefeather helped the rebellious actor upset the American establishment by calling Hollywood out for its negative stereotyping of Indians in films and TV. That moment 50 years ago made the Bay Area activist famous, but she said she also paid “a high price.”

Sacheen Littlefeather (born Marie Louise Cruz, 1946 – 2022) on stage at AMPAS Presents An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on September 17, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images) 

Aside from claiming she was blacklisted by Hollywood, Littlefeather often said in interviews that Western star John Wayne tried to rush on stage and attack her. A review of Littlefeather’s interviews also shows that she made a less-frequent, but no-less startling claim: She was shot at and almost killed when she returned to Brando’s Los Angeles home that night.

“I nearly paid the price with my life as a result,” Littlefeather said in an oral history interview in June with Jacqueline Stewart, the president of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. “There were people who were out to get me after the fact.”

“After that, when I went back to Marlon’s house, there was an incident with people shooting at me,” Littlefeather continued. “And there were two bullets that came through the doorway of where I was standing, and I was on the other side of it. And you say, ‘Therefore, by the grace of God, go I.’”

Following Littlefeather’s death Oct. 2 from cancer at age 75, many of the stories the Salinas-born former actor told about her life and her Native American identity have come into question because they either can’t be verified or they are refuted by other people and historical records.

Littlefeather has been accused by her sisters and by Native American scholars and activists of spending the past 50 lying about being White Mountain Apache and Yaqui and of obscuring, embellishing or fabricating other biographical details. For example, she said she survived a harrowing childhood, filled with poverty, abuse and abandonment at the hands of an Indian father. In reality, her sisters say that she grew up in a loving, middle-class home in Salinas, the daughter of a White mother and a Mexican American father, whose ancestry shows no recorded ties to Native American tribes. Their claim was supported by an investigation by Native American journalist Jacqueline Keeler.

A 1957 snap shot of Geroldine Cruz shows her with her three daughters (l-r) Marie (who later become famous as Sacheen Littlefeather), Rosalind and Trudy during their days living in Salinas, Calif. (Photo courtesy Trudy Orlandi) 

With the approach of the 95th Oscars ceremony Sunday night, the gleaming new museum of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences faces questions about its commitment to historical accuracy.  Before Littlefeather’s death, the museum celebrated Littlefeather as a Native American icon and apologized to her for her treatment by the industry. Since her death, Littlefeather’s sisters, Trudy Orlandi and Rosalind Cruz, have gone public with their fraud allegations, but the museum has refused to publicly say whether it tried to verify her claims of tribal affiliation. It also refused to answer questions about whether it vetted other statements she made about her family and her activism, including whether she participated in the 1969-1971 Occupation of Alcatraz or was targeted by the FBI for blacklisting from Hollywood jobs.

The alleged shooting at Brando’s house should be counted as another one of Littlefeather’s questionable stories. For one thing, the legendary star of “The Godfather” and “On the Waterfront,” who died in 2004, never said anything about someone opening fire on his house that night. Brando’s 1994 autobiography, “Songs My Mother Taught Me” contains no mention that his home or one of his guests was the target of a drive-by shooting.

“Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me,” by Marlon Brando with Robert Lindsey 

By his own account, Brando would have had no problem calling the LAPD if he felt threatened, having done so when a female fan broke into his home. The actor also shared the dramatic memory of when he was shot at, as part of his long-time support of Native American causes. Brando said a bullet crashed a few feet above his head when he spent a few days in 1975 with a group of Menominee Indians who had taken control of an unused Catholic novitiate in Gresham, Wisconsin. With the group under siege by the National Guard, Brando had been asked to help negotiate a peaceful resolution to the standoff.

There’s also no reference of a shooting at Brando’s house in three other Brando biographies. In all those books, Brando’s autobiography included, Littlefeather gets scant mention, aside from what’s been well established about her moment at the Academy Awards.

Littlefeather was a 26-year-old model and aspiring actor living in San Francisco when she and Brando became friends through their shared interest in Native American causes. Littlefeather told two different accounts about how she and Brando met. In a little-known 2010 interview with the Native Times, she said she met the actor in Washington, D.C., when she was giving a presentation to the Federal Communications Commission on race and minorities. The more popular account Littlefeather has told, including to the Academy Museum, is that she reached out to the actor after becoming friendly with “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola, her Pacific Heights neighbor.

Marlon Brando starred as Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.” (Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures/TNS) 

Brando, who didn’t think much of the “hoopla” surrounding awards for actors, decided to stage a protest at the Oscars, saying it was “absurd” to celebrate “an industry that had systematically misrepresented and maligned American Indians for six decades,” as he said in his book. Brando also wanted to call attention to the 1973 occupation protest at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. He asked “his friend” Littlefeather to be his proxy, providing the “first opportunity in history for an American Indian to speak to 60 million people – a little payback for years of defamation by Hollywood.”

As Brando and others have recounted, Oscars producer Howard Koch refused to let Littlefeather read Brando’s entire eight-page speech and threatened Littlefeather, wearing a buckskin dress, with arrest. She was limited to 60 seconds and received praise for her poised handling of the situation. Brando said, “It made me proud of her.”

That’s it from Brando on his friendship with Littlefeather and on her Oscars moment.

Meanwhile, Littlefeather spoke about the Oscars any chance she got over the years. She also repeated the allegation that Wayne, known for his racist views, wanted to rush on stage and pull her off, including in the interview the Academy Museum has posted on its YouTube channel. Littlefeather admitted in that interview that she didn’t see Wayne off-stage, supposedly raising a ruckus. She said she only “heard the commotion,” but she continued to share the story, apparently to bolster her narrative that she faced persecution throughout her life.

“I handled it very calmly,” Littlefeather told Stewart. “(People) had absolutely no idea, none, of what my experience was, what I went through as a result of the naïveté and total ignorance. And now I’m here to tell my story the way that it was, from my point of view, from my experience.”

Littlefeather also told her story about being shot at on at least one other occasion. In a 1997 interview for a PBS documentary on the Alcatraz occupation, she said: “I’m still alive today, but I went through quite a siege. A lot of my friends were killed at Wounded Knee.” Littlefeather apparently was referring to the two Native Americans who died and one who went missing in the occupation. “I really was broken-hearted when I lost a lot of my friends in the Indian movement. I had bullets going past me in doorways,” she said.

It’s not likely that anyone will be able to prove one way or another whether Littlefeather faced gunfire that night at Brando’s house. But one story Littlefeather told about that night has been debunked. Film historian and critic Farran Nehme published a thoroughly researched analysis of Wayne’s alleged attempted attack, in which he was said to have been restrained by six security men. Nehme noted the Oscars stage wasn’t even configured that night to allow the Wayne to be back stage. Nehme also said that Wayne, then 65, was in poor health due to lung cancer surgery several years earlier. He died in 1979.

Nehme described the six security men story as an urban legend that gained traction in Hollywood, probably because it sounded like it could be true. Perhaps Littlefeather felt the same way about what she said about being shot at: It sounded like it could be true, so she shared it with Stewart. But as has turned out to be the case with Littlefeather, she wasn’t always consistent, leaving out the gunshots when she talked to the The Guardian in 2021 about what happened after her speech. “After talking to the press, she went straight back to Brando’s house where they sat together and watched the reactions to the event on television,” The Guardian said.

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