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Actress who declined Marlon Brando's Oscar, Sacheen Littlefeather, dies aged 75
3 October 2022, 18:56
The Native American actress who declined Marlon Brando's Oscar for The Godfather has died aged 75, just two months after the Academy apologised for her treatment at the 1973 awards.
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Sacheen Littlefeather had been suffering from breast cancer.
The Academy announced her death in a tweet on Sunday night. The Hollywood Reporter cited a statement from her caretaker that said she died at noon on Sunday at her home in the Northern California city of Novato, surrounded by her loved ones.
Brando won the best actor Oscar in 1973 for his role in the Godfather but did not attend the ceremony, protesting in support of Native American rights. Littlefeather appeared at the event on Brando’s behalf.
She declined to accept the award and gave a short speech explaining the actor’s refusal was due, in part, to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry … and on television, in movie reruns.”
Just 26 years old at the time, Ms Littlefeather was booed by the audience, and later alleged that actor John Wayne had to be held back by security guards backstage to prevent him from assaulting her. Other individuals reportedly made offensive gestures.
Sacheen was blacklisted by Hollywood after the ceremony.
In August, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences issued a formal apology to Littlefeather over her treatment.
The body which oversees the Oscars described her appearance as “a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity”.
“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified. The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable. For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration,” it said.
Ms Littlefeather responded by saying: “Regarding the Academy’s apology to me, we Indians are very patient people – it’s only been 50 years! We need to keep our sense of humour about this at all times. It’s our method of survival.”
Sacheen Littlefeather, Native American civil rights activist who famously declined Marlon Brando’s 1973 Best Actor Academy Award, dies at 75. pic.twitter.com/OlpsoItlCw— The Academy (@TheAcademy) October 3, 2022
In a 2021 interview with the Guardian, the actress recounted her tough childhood.
She was born in 1946 to an Apache and Yaqui father and a white mother, who were mentally il and unable to raise her. The actress was taken away aged three and raised by her grandparents.
Ms Littlefeather recalled hitting her father with a broom as a small child, to stop him from beating her mother: “I think that’s when I really became an activist.”
Sacheen began visiting reservations in Arizona aged 17, after her father had died.
“I really had a breakthrough with other urban Indian people," she said, "getting back into our traditions, our heritage. The old people who came from different reservations taught us young people how to be Indian again. It was wonderful.”
By her early 20s the actress was working for a San Francisco radio station, heading up a local affirmative action committee for Native Americans, and studying representation on screen and in sports.
When she heard Marlon Brando speaking about Native American rights, she wrote him a letter. Months later, Brando called her and they became good friends.
In the same interview, Littlefeather – now an elder, teaching cultural knowledge to younger Native American people – said she was “very, very ill” with breast cancer:
“I’ve been on chemotherapy for quite some time, and daily antibiotics. As a result, my memory is not as good as it used to be.
"I’m very tired all the time because cancer is a full-time job: the CT scans, MRIs, laboratory blood work, medical visits, chemotherapy, infectious disease control doctors, etc, etc.
"If you’re lazy, you need not apply for cancer."
Speaking of death, she said: “I’m going to another place. I’m going to the world of my ancestors. I’m saying goodbye to you … I’ve earned the right to be my true self.”