How Marlon Brando was Almost the Monster in Death Line

Cult film director Gary Sherman remembers casting his signature 1972 horror masterpiece Death Line

In the early 1970s, young Chicago-based commercial filmmaker Gary Sherman found himself in London and inexplicably getting complete creative control over a fully-funded British horror film that he co-wrote and directed. That movie was 1972’s Death Line, one of the most remarkable, revolting and ultimately emotionally affecting genre movies not only of its decade, but of all time.

Inspired by the story of notorious cannibalistic Scottish highwayman Sawney Bean, the horrifying fate of The Donner Party and the creation of the London Underground, Death Line (released in the U.S. as Raw Meat) tells the bone-chilling tale of the sole surviving descendant of a cave-in during those long-ago early tunnel digs who, after being born and raised cannibalizing the dead, has emerged from under the subway tracks and is now dragging hapless British commuters into his moldering, blood and bone draped lair while frantically searching for a new mate to carry on his diseased lineage.

A clear precursor to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Pete Walker’s Frightmare, Death Line sports a solid and often darkly hilarious performance by the great Donald Pleasence as a Police Inspector trying to get to the bottom of the mystery and a cameo by the legendary Christopher Lee. Starring as “the monster” was actor Hugh Armstrong and while one cannot imagine any actor doing a better job, it’s a little known fact that Sherman almost cast Hollywood legend Marlon Brando in the role.

With Blue Underground prepping to release the film totally uncut in a 2K scan on Blu-ray on June 27th, we spoke at length to Sherman about the making of the movie. In this excerpt he discusses not only how he landed Lee – then the biggest actor in the genre due to his run as Dracula – to appear in the film but the tale on how Brando flirted with fictional cannibalism in the sewers and subway tunnels of London. How did Christopher Lee end up in Death Line?

Gary Sherman:  First of all, (producer) Paul  (Maslansky) was very close friends with Christopher Lee, and Christopher was over at Paul’s flat, having dinner with him and said, “What are you doing?”  And Paul told him, and he said, “Oh, let me read the script.”  So, Christopher reads the script and says, “I’ll be in this movie, if I don’t have to wear teeth.”

CS:  Of course.  At that point he was just sick of all that, for sure.

Sherman:  Yeah. It was right at the point that Christopher announced that he was never going to wear the teeth again. Anyways, there, actually, there was this connection with, you know, with MI-5 in the original script, but there wasn’t a character representing him, I thought.  You know what?   I’m getting a little ahead of myself.  When I wrote the script, I had Donald Pleasence in mind for Inspector Calhoun.  And so, I ended up flying to New York.  Donald was on Broadway doing Man in the Glass Booth. And, so, he was just about to close that and coming back to London, but we wanted to lock him in, so I flew to New York, gave Donald the script, and he read it, and he loved it, and said, “Oh!  Man!  I wanna do this.  Nobody offers me comedy.  And even though it’s a scary movie, you know, my part is all comedy. And I love it. And I love the juxtaposition of the comedy against the horror.”  So, we signed Donald.  So, when Paul was having dinner with Chris Lee, because Chris, at the time, was the most expensive actor in Europe because of Dracula.  And, you know, the Hammer films. And there was no way, I mean, what Chris used to get paid for a movie was more than our whole budget.

CS: Right.

Sherman:  So, Chris said, “If I don’t have to wear the teeth and I can do a scene with Donald Pleasence, I will do this for scale.”  So…  I wrote that scene. (Laughs).

CS:  That’s amazing.

Death Line

Sherman:  So, anyhow… so, now we had Donald Pleasence and Chris Lee and Norm Rossington.  And Jay Cantor, who had been Marlon Brando’s agent, throughout his entire career says, “God, I wonder if Marlon would want to play the monster? He’s in Paris right now, working with Bertolucci on some crazy movie.  So, let me call Marlon, and let me send him the script, and see if he wants to do it!”  And so, Jay does.  And Marlon, who, Jay says, “Marlon loves make-up. He loves putting the make-up on!”  Because, you know, he had that idea, when Francis wanted him for Godfather, and nobody at Paramount wanted him in Godfather…he went and he came up with that whole idea of stuffing his mouth with Kleenex and he went in and blew them away.

CS:  Right.

Sherman:  And so, I know he loves doing that kind of stuff.  So, anyways, Marlon agreed to do it.

Marlon Brando in 1972's The Nightcomers
Marlon Brando in 1972’s The Nightcomers

CS:  Well he’d also just done a horror film with Michael Winner prior to this, 1972’s The Nightcomers.

Sherman: Yeah, which Jay and Laddie (Alan Ladd Jr.) had produced.

CS:  Oh, well, there you go.  Okay.

Sherman:  It was Jay Cantor, Alan Ladd Jr. and Elliot Kastner who did The Nightcomers.  I mean, there were no two people closer than Jay Cantor and Marlon Brando.  And, so, anyways, then, at the eleventh hour, Marlon’s son, Christian, comes down with pneumonia in Los Angeles and is, like, on a critical list.  So, Marlon has to jump on a plane and goes back to Los Angeles, and we lost Marlon. Which, I mean, we weren’t going to advertise the fact- I mean the whole idea was, is that Marlon is gonna do it and we were never gonna tell any-  we were not gonna put his name on the movie, and it was just kind of gonna get leaked out that, “Maybe that’s Marlon Brando” (Laughs).


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