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Brando’s pirate novel to hit bookstores

‘Fan-Tan’ features hero strikingly akin to late actor
/ Source: The Associated Press

Marlon Brando makes a posthumous appearance not in movie theaters but in the nation’s book stores this month as co-author of “Fan-Tan,” an adventure about a dashing, early 20th-century pirate.

Due out Sept. 15, the 256-page book’s jacket resembles the cover of a 1930s pulp magazine: an Asian woman in a blood-red, silk gown fills half the space; a seaman resembling Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen” takes up the background.

The novel has already won praise from Publishers Weekly, which said in a review: “Throw in a typhoon, a double-cross, a scorching sex scene, hand-to-hand combat and a mad break for freedom, and enthralled readers will be swinging from the rigging along with the rest of the pirates in this rollicking high-seas saga.”

The story is centered on pirate Annie (for Anatole) Doultry. While serving a six-month sentence in a Hong Kong jail, Doultry saves the life of a fellow prisoner. Upon release, Doultry finds his deed has won the favor of an underworld figure, the glamorous and hugely wealthy pirate, Madame Lai Choi San, who invites him to join the hijacking of a silver-laden British ship. He can’t resist her charms or the adventure and he is plunged into battles, typhoons and sex.

The book’s journey from pen to publisher was as circuitous as Doultry’s voyages. It began in the late 1970s, when Brando was absurdly overweight and angry at the Hollywood system, taking occasional acting jobs with million-dollar paychecks to help support his family and his Tahitian real estate.

No longer inspired by acting, he turned to screenwriting and began “Fan-Tan,” the title taken from the Chinese gambling game. The hero was strikingly akin to Brando: Both were middle-aged, overweight, mischievous and fond of Asian women.

Co-writer committed suicideAs with many of Brando’s later-life schemes, he reached an impasse and realized he needed help. Enter another enigmatic figure, Donald Cammell. Brando and Cammell (pronounced camel) had a lot in common: outrageous lifestyle, artistic temperament and a love of Asian women.

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The handsome son of an aristocratic Scottish family, Cammell had studied painting, alcohol and drugs in Florence, Italy. He turned to film and directed 1970’s over-the-top “Performance,” starring James Fox and Mick Jagger, which drew mixed reviews and an X rating.

Brando admired Cammell’s film work and invited him to help write “Fan-Tan.” They collaborated intensely, spending eight months on Tetiaroa, Brando’s island in Tahiti. Brando was so disenchanted with the Hollywood system he refused to submit the treatment to the studios. In 1982, Sonny Mehta, then at Pan Books in London, gave the authors $100,000 to convert the treatment into a novel.

The pair had a falling out, and Brando returned the advance, paying Cammell’s half. After Cammell’s 1986 film, “The Wild Side,” failed to find a distributor, he committed suicide at 62.

Following Brando’s death at 80 last year, Cammell’s widow, China Kong, resurrected the manuscript, and it was bought by Mehta, now editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf. He assigned a Knopf regular, film historian David Thomson, to edit “Fan-Tan” and write the last chapter, which had only been outlined by Brando, and an epilogue.

“The character of Annie Doultry is plainly a self-portrait of Brando,” the London-born writer said in an interview from his home in San Francisco. “There are transcripts of conferences he and Cammell had, and Brando did a lot of improvising, playing the Annie Doultry character. Plainly he saw this as a part that he might play in a movie himself.”

Thomson, 64, worked from the manuscript provided by Cammell’s widow, eliminating repetition and “filling in gaps of the story.”

Longtime Brando friend and associate George Englund agrees that the actor saw himself as the Annie Doultry character. Englund, who directed Brando in “The Ugly American,” has an original “Fan-Tan” manuscript annotated by Brando. Last year, he published a reminiscence of his years with the actor.

“‘Fan-Tan’ was like another project of Marlon’s,” Englund, 79, said from his Palm Springs home.

“Some years ago, he had the idea about playing a CIA agent being called back to duty because of his special knowledge. He even had a retired CIA agent who worked with him. Ultimately, it was the same problem: He didn’t have the discipline to get it all the way there.”

Could there be a movie in “Fan-Tan”?

As of now, Knopf knows of no film offers, and it’s probable that studios are waiting to see if “Fan-Tan” becomes a best seller. The publisher has scheduled a first printing of 75,000 copies.

At-sea epics have long been considered costly to film, but that should be no concern in today’s world of computer-generated special effects and other moneysaving technologies. Certainly “Master and Commander” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” proved worthy of their investments.

But what actor could play Doultry, a role written by and patterned after the great Marlon Brando himself?