Marlon Brando? Gladwin Hill? George Glass? George Alan O’Dowd? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Performers on stage and screen are sometimes stereotyped as egocentric. Here is one formulation of that critique:
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.
An actor is a guy who, if you ain’t talking about him, he ain’t listening.—Mr. Marlon Brando.
In subsequent years the saying was reprinted in a large number of periodicals, For example, “The Knickerbocker News” of Albany, New York and “The Omaha World Herald” of Omaha, Nebraska printed the following from the Los Angeles Bureau Chief of the Associated Press: 5 6
I subscribe to the definition of an actor credited to Marlon Brando: “He’s an actor if, when you ain’t talking about him, he ain’t listening.”
In 1964 a newspaper article about the actor Lee Marvin published the adage with a different phrasing and without an ascription: 7
It is often said that an actor is a guy who never listens unless you’re talking about him. However, this doesn’t apply to Lee Marvin.
In September 1966 the columnist Mike Connolly asserted that producer George Glass had originated the expression. However, this interesting claim occurred more than 15 years after the saying had entered circulation: 8
Marlon Brando wondered out loud in a Hollywood column who it was who said “An actor is a guy who if you ain’t talking about him he ain’t listening.” We can enlighten the short-memoried one: it was producer George Glass. Glass has another newer one for Brando: “An actor’s concern for others ends where his inconvenience begins.”
In December 1966 the statement was labeled an “old saw” by a writer who disagreed with its sentiment: 9
Then there is the old saw, “An actor is a guy who if you ain’t talking about him, he ain’t listening.”
Maybe that was true a generation ago when witless performers earned millions and blew them just as quickly on wives, mansions and parties. But it is as archaic a generalization as the observation that all politicians are crooks.
In 1973 a biography of Brando titled “Marlon: Portrait of the Rebel as an Artist” by Bob Thomas was published, and the author suggested that Brando had learned of the adage from George Glass who was described as a “veteran of movie publicity” and a partner in an independent film company: 10
A short, stubby, ebullient man, he performed his craft on the basis of telling the truth. Brando was disarmed by Glass’s iconoclasm, and amused by the press agent’s definition of an actor: “The kind of a guy who if you ain’t talking about him ain’t listening.” Brando quoted the remark many times.
In 2006 the “Weekly World News” reassigned the saying to George Alan O’Dowd: 11
“An actor is a guy who, if you ain’t talking about him, he ain’t listening.” — Boy George
In conclusion, the earliest instance of the adage located by QI was printed in 1951. The remark was used to lambaste the actor Kirk Douglas, but the speaker was unidentified. By June 1955 the actor Marlon Brando was disseminating the remark, but the columnist Ed Sullivan was careful not to credit the words to Brando. Nevertheless, QI believes that Brando was the primary vector for popularization. By 1966 the publicist and producer George Glass was being credited with the remark. In addition, a 1973 biography of Brando suggested that Brando learned of the saying from Glass, but it was unclear whether Glass was the originator.
Image Notes: Publicity photographs of Kirk Douglas and Marlon Brando via Wikimedia Commons. Acting masks from Nemo at Pixabay.
(Special thanks to Stephen Goranson of Duke University who located important information in “The Observer” even when he was supplied with faulty guidance. Great thanks to Dan J. Bye of Sheffield Hallam University who identified proper information in “The Observer” when given flawed data.)
- 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) ↩
- 1955 November 13, The Observer (UK), Table Talk by Pendennis, Quote Page 7, Column 8, London, United Kingdom. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1955 December 25, The Observer (UK), Sayings of the Year, (Subtitle: Reprinted from weekly selections published in The Observer), Quote Page 2, Column 3 of article, London, United Kingdom. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1957 April 15, Knickerbocker News, Hollywood Fascinates Film Columnist, Wife by Hubbard Keavy (Associated Press), Quote Page 10A, Column 2, Albany, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1957 April 15, Omaha World Herald, ‘His Salary Won’t Cover Extravagant Love Affairs’ by Hubbard Keavy (Los Angeles Bureau Chief of Associated Press), Quote Page 10, Column 2, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1964 August 30, Sunday Advocate (Advocate), Lee Marvin Is One Star Who Listens, Quote Page 7E, Column 3, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1966 September 26, Toledo Blade, Off the Grapevine: Mike Connolly, Quote Page 3 of Peach Section (Unnumbered), Column 1, Toledo, Ohio. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1966 December 4, Buffalo Courier-Express, How Good Is an Actor? by Vernon Scott (UPI), Quote Page 24, Column 4, Buffalo, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1973, Marlon: Portrait of the Rebel as an Artist by Bob Thomas, Quote Page 55, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2006 January 16, Weekly World News, Volume 27, Number 19, Bet you didn’t know by Dorian Wagner, Quote Page 51, Column 1, Published by Weekly World News. (Google Books Full View) ↩