The year was 1949, and 25-year-old Marlon Brando — “the brilliant brat,” as LIFE magazine called him following his astonishing work on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire — had finally answered the call of Hollywood. He was preparing to film his movie debut in The Men, the wrenching story of a World War II vet coping with rage and insecurity after he’s paralyzed in combat. And while it’s true that L.A. was used to next-big-thing newcomers, it was (and still is) exceedingly rare to chronicle the earliest days in the career of a movie actor of Brando’s intensity, eccentricities and electrifying talent.
LIFE photographer Ed Clark captured Brando’s explosive arrival in California, not only trailing the actor as he delved deep into “The Method” — taking to a wheelchair and leg braces to live among paraplegics at a VA hospital in Van Nuys — but also glimpsing more personal sides of Brando, the very private man.
To celebrate what would have been Brando’s birthday, here’s an amazing collection of rare photos from those early days .