Marlon Brando? Gladwin Hill? George Glass? George Alan O’Dowd? Anonymous?
An actor’s a guy who, if you ain’t talking about him, ain’t listening.
These words are usually attributed to the Oscar-winning star Marlon Brando. Did Brando create or employ this saying? Also, was the statement aimed at a specific actor?
Quote Investigator: There is strong evidence that Marlon Brando did use and popularize this expression. But there is also evidence that he did not craft it originally.
The earliest citation located by QI was published in a profile by journalist Gladwin Hill of the prominent actor Kirk Douglas in “Collier’s” magazine in 1951. The expression of acerbic disapproval was used to describe Douglas by an unnamed acquaintance. The word “ain’t” was not part of this version. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
“He is the complete Hollywood actor,” an acquaintance remarked, “in that if you’re not talking about him, he isn’t listening. He’s incapable of participating in a conversation without shifting it around in the first five minutes to Kirk Douglas.”
By June 1955 TV impresario Ed Sullivan printed the saying in his gossip column. Sullivan noted that Marlon Brando had collected the humorous saying and was now using it. The context indicated that Brando had not created the self-deprecating remark: 2
Marlon Brando has a file of jokes about actors. He just added this one: “An actor is a guy, who, if you ain’t talking about him, ain’t listening.” He and Jean Simmons are terrif’ in “Guys and Dolls.”
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1951 July 21, Collier’s, Hollywood’s “Heavy” Heartthrob by Gladwin Hill, (Subtitle: Kirk Douglas made his name in films by playing a new kind of villain: you feel sorry for him while you despise him), Start Page 20, Quote Page 67, Column 1, The Crowell-Collier Publishing Company, Springfield, Ohio. (Unz) ↩
- 1955 June 10, The Morning Herald, Little Old New York by Ed Sullivan, Quote Page 13, Column 3, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩