FROM THE START IT SOUNDED RIDICULOUS:

Find Marlon Brando. Go to Tahiti and find Marlon Brando.

Yeah? And then what?

You'll know.

I'll know?

Hmmm.

What else was I going to do? It was December. It was cold. There was promise of little. Contra-gate, snowplows, New Year's. Suicide season. I needed a mission, a real, choice mission. A quest.

Yeah, that's what I needed, a quest.

I needed to learn something; it was time. Thirty years old, divorce pending. Ready now to turn the page for the big buildup. You have to dare to be bad in this world of ours, you have to try things, you might have to fail. You do what you always do, it's guaranteed to turn out the same. After 10 years of stories, I'd learned a lot about other people, and a little about myself, but not nearly so much as I'd have liked. This time, I wanted more than a story. I wanted to bring something back in first person, to write about a difference in my life . . .

As it was, they suggested Marlon.

I took the job. Wouldn't you?

So now I'm in Papeete, searching for Marlon Brando, walking around in the rain. It is rain like I've never seen before, summer rain, monsoon, a thick, pulsing mist against a white-gray sky, a tin rhythm on a rusty roof, steady, maddening . . .

I arrived four days ago, flying from just before dusk at Dulles until just after dawn at Faaa. How many hours it took, I cannot say. Across the continent, across the equator, halfway around the world, counterclockwise. Snotty stews, grainy light, a fat man reclining his seat into my lap. Time running backward as I flew forward, yesterday arriving tomorrow, brisket and succotash arriving cold.

Since then, since landing and checking in, setting out for Marlon, everything has taken on the quality of a dream. A weird, suffocating, narcotic dream. My bones feel soft. My underwear is damp. I'm looking for a man who doesn't want to be found. I feel like I'm in a movie.

I haven't located Marlon, not exactly, not yet. But there are traces of him everywhere. Down the street, across the Boulevard Pomare, is a bar called Chaplin's. It's named for Charlie, who directed Marlon in "A Countess From Hong Kong." There's a picture of Marlon on the wall. He's astride a motorcycle, Johnny in "The Wild One." Marlon's in the bookstore down the street, too. Pieces of his life, anyway. On one shelf are eight copies of Mutiny on the Bounty, six copies of The Arrangement, by Elia Kazan. "Mutiny," you know about: Marlon, then the world, discovers Tahiti. Kazan was Marlon's director. "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Viva Zapata!," "On the Waterfront."

Even in my room, there are signs of Marlon. I turned on cable a while ago, found Bogart in "The African Queen." Bogart won the Oscar for "Queen," beating out Marlon in "Streetcar."

Later this evening, "Catch-22" is airing. Martin Sheen is in that. He is also in "Apocalypse Now," playing another guy who goes searching for Marlon, another guy who didn't know what he'd do if he found him.

It's been like this for some time now. Everywhere I look, I see Marlon. His pictures, his movies, his legacy. In a way, I guess, I did this to myself, cooked up the mania and smoked it like a drug, inhaled his spirit into my body, his thoughts into my head.

After I took the job, I set out to study Marlon. I bought a VCR. Night after night, for four solid weeks, I darkened the lights and flipped the remote, and the LCD pulsed and the reels rolled inside their plastic casings. Old moments from Hollywood returned, and Marlon moved in many guises, shadowing first my Sony monitor and, later, the screen inside my brain.

Napoleon, Fletcher Christian, the Godfather, Julius Caesar, Sky Masterson, Jor-El, an eyeball in a cave. Turned-down lips and sleek smooth jaw and high-gloss cheekbones and almond eyes and tousled hair. A brute, a fop, a dandy, a statesman, a queer, a killer, a don, a Nip, a crip, a Kraut . . .

I got kind of obsessed so I stopped going out, and I Xeroxed his pictures and taped them on the walls, and I read every book and every article, during every meal and before bed. I dropped down deep, very deep, into my own kind of Method, and in his wife I saw an old girlfriend, and in his divorce I saw my old wife, and in his art I found a meaning, and in his vision I saw one too. I saw a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor, crawl along the edge of a straight razor and survive. That was my dream. That was my nightmare. That and the others, gray dreams, half formed, fitful and flickering in the hours before dawn.

And then one day, it hit me. Marlon was James Dean before James Dean, De Niro before De Niro, Newman before Newman, Cruise before Cruise . . . He was all of it before anyone. Marlon was the template for two generations of actors, and even more, he was the template for two generations of men.

He wore jeans, he did his own thing, he did well. He was tough and sensitive, gifted and crude, he spoke French, and he used words like "ain't." He was talented, he made a lot of money, he gave to the world, he used the world for his own whims.

He was, in a sense, the ultimate man of the '80s, 30 years ahead of his time. So much of what we do today is Marlon. The way he puts on his sunglasses in "The Wild One." The way he smells his lapel rose in "The Godfather." The way he cries for Stella.

He led the way, then he disappeared, split from the whole program. The more I began to understand, the more I admired him. A tough mother. An original. He could have been head of the Screen Actors Guild, a politician, the occupant of whatever pedestal this hero-hungry world would have gladly offered. Instead, he went for himself, and we've got Rambo and Rob Lowe.

I started to think that it wouldn't be bad at all to find Marlon Brando, to ask him for some guidance on the world's behalf, to ask him what he thinks, where we should be going, what we should be doing, what is supposed to come next. We need you, Marlon Brando. That's how it formed in my mind. We need you. In the '50s, he showed us how to be young. In the '80s, we could use a little advice.

It couldn't hurt. AT THE MOMENT, I'M IN THE TERRACE BAR at the Ibis Hotel, paging through a book called Brando for Breakfast, written by Anna Kashfi Brando, one of his two ex-wives. It says here on page 120 that Marlon once knew a duck in Paris.

The rain has stopped, and sun pounds the pavement, raising steam. Ants swarm, mosquitoes buzz; I get this feeling that within the wall of plants skirting the terrace a savage spirit has awakened, and he is causing buds to form and stalks to shoot and flowers to explode. It is hard to breathe. I'm waiting for Angelina.

Beyond the terrace, a South Seas city hunkers beside the concrete docks and the lava rock shoreline. Under a row of palms, traffic swirls, a third-world motor-drone of scooter burps and diesel hums that mixes with the smells of rain and earth and flower and lies close to the asphalt, pinioned between thick clouds and high green mountains.

Mini-cars line the narrow streets, side wheels parked up on curbs. Sullen French women with hair under their arms sit in sidewalk cafe's, drinking pink Campari and writing post cards. American retirees off the cruise ship Liberte' deliberate in small groups. Two fat men on a bench share red slices of a freshly caught fish. A Tahitian pimp named Louis, a brown bulldog with thick lips, broad brow and bowed legs, paces nervously beneath an awning, three packs of cigarettes in hand.

And, 40 miles that way, due north from my table in the terrace bar at the Ibis, out the harbor and through the clouds, is Marlon's island, Tetiaroa.

It had come as a bit of a shock, this knowledge, though it wasn't hard to get. I'd been walking down Boulevard Pomare, through the rain and the crowds, trying to figure out how the hell I was going to find Marlon, what I was going to say once I did, what everybody would say if I didn't.

Before I left Washington, I'd had ideas. One involved getting to Marlon's island, sitting cross-legged on his beach in saffron robes, making him curious enough to come to me. Another involved a commando raid on Marlon's island. I'd swim ashore under a canopy of darkness. A hired speedboat, black clothes, with camera and tape recorder and extra tapes and batteries secured in the waterproof scuba bag I'd bought at Hudson Trail Outfitters in Gaithersburg.

When I bought the bag, I'd thought about buying a survival knife, too. Maybe Marlon would be in a cave up a river with an army of stoned Polynesians guarding the landing with blowguns. Who knew? All I knew was what they told Capt. Willard before his mission in "Apocalypse Now":

"You see, Willard," the general had said, "things get confused out there. Power, ideals, morality . . . there's conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I do. Walter Kurtz has reached his. Very obviously he has gone insane."

So this is what I'd been thinking as I walked in the rain on the Boulevard Pomare. Part of me was afraid of what I'd find, what I'd do once I got there. I knew the risks, or imagined I knew them. But the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him.

Then, all of a sudden, I saw the poster. Right there, in the window of a travel agency. Three Tahitians, two girls and a boy, in native dress on a white sand beach, letting go a sea bird. TAHITI Hotel Tetiaroa Marlon Brando's Private Atoll

Hotel Tetiaroa!

I pushed on the door, threw it open, and the woman started spitting French, but I don't speak any French so I started tapping furiously on the window, pointing at the poster. "Can go? Can go? Marlon Brando?" I stuttered again and again, tapping the window, tapping furiously with my fingernail, tap tap tap!, and I was sure that at any moment a crack would form and spread and the glass would shatter into puddles on the sidewalk, and my hand would bleed and maybe music would play, just like Willard's in the movie, but I couldn't stop tapping . . . "Can go? Can go? Marlon Brando?" . . . because I couldn't believe this, a travel poster for Marlon Brando's Private Atoll. Marlon running a tourist trap. "Can go? Can go? Marlon Brando?"

"No problem," the woman said. "Cash, check or Visa?" ANGELINA IS LATE. I KNOW SHE THINKS I'M CRAZY. WHEN I first called her and said I needed help finding Marlon, she was silent a moment. Then she said, "Marlon Brando. He is lost?"

I've decided, however, that I need her. I speak neither French nor Tahitian. And there was that run-in with the local press.

It happened two days ago. I figured I'd find a journalist. The local colleague is always a good bet. He had to know about Marlon. Where he lived, where he ate, like that.

I played charades with the receptionist at Le Nouveau Journal, trying to make my purpose clear. I typed on an imaginary typewriter, did a Godfather imitation. Finally, I said the only thing I know how to say in French: "Parlez-vous anglais?"

The receptionist made a phone call. Dany Weus appeared.

Weus is a burnt, thin guy with a pointed face like a mongoose. He led me through a courtyard, up some stairs. A room with three desks. He sat down.

I looked around, crossed the room, dragged a chair over to his desk, smiled, sat. I lit his cigarette and one for myself.

"I've been sent by The Washington Post to find Marlon Brando."

"Watergate!" he screamed. "Washington Post! Watergate! Bob Woodward! You know him?"

His mouth dropped. He froze. A full minute. Then he snapped to, took out a pad and a pen. "How do you spell your name?" he asked.

I started spelling. M . . . I . . . K . . . "Waitaminute! What are you doing?"

"We make the story of you searching for Marlon Brando. We take picture of you, everything."

Whoa.

Just what I need.

Marlon picking up the newspaper and reading about my search. Marlon hates publicity, hates reporters. The last time he was interviewed was in June 1977, for a Playboy Q&A. Marlon granted the interview, he said, to "pay a debt, so to speak" to Hugh Hefner, who several years earlier had posted bond when American Indian Movement leader Russell Means was arrested.

Debt or not, Marlon had kept the Playboy reporter on hold for 17 months. He canceled three times before they finally met, and then he did his best, over five sessions in 10 days, to evade all subjects other than the plight of the American Indian.

Prior to that, on a promotion stump for "Superman," he fried Dick Cavett on network TV. Ninety minutes on Indians.

On the BBC, the interviewer asked, "Were you able to get into your costume for 'Superman'?" Marlon answered, "Well, in 1973, Wounded Knee {the protest} took place."

"I've regretted most interviews," Marlon told Playboy. And journalism being what it was, what it is, you can't help but understand. Of course, Marlon being what he was, what he is, well, that hasn't helped either.

In 1946, Marlon dictated the following biography. It appeared in the Playbill for his second Broadway play, "Truckline Cafe'."

"Born in Bangkok, Siam, the son of an etymologist now affiliated with the Field Museum in Chicago, Mr. Brando passed his early years in Calcutta, Indochina, the Mongolian Desert and Ceylon. His formal education began in Switzerland and ended in Minnesota, where he found the rigid restriction of military school too confining. After a period in which he saw himself as a potential tympanic maestro, he came to New York and studied acting."

It's been that way ever since. Marlon slings crap, the publicists and reporters catch it, gobble, regurgitate. A mythology grows. Marlon disdains it. Ignores it. Slings more crap. Gets mad. He punches out a photographer, chases a reporter off his island. The press writes about it.

Since 1950, when he appeared as a paraplegic war vet in "The Men," the first of his 31 movies, reporters have called him "The Brilliant Brat," "The Walking Hormone Factory," "The Valentino of the Bop Generation," "World's Highest-Paid Geek." They have pictured him racing around New York on a motorcycle, living like a beatnik in a flat with Wally Cox, living like a recluse, living like a Hollywood star. They have reported he wore blue jeans in public, switched from blue jeans to suits and ties, fathered at least six children by at least four different women, was seen in a restaurant holding a piece of bread and buttering his sleeve.

Reporters have approached him at parties with lines like, "You seem pretty normal," only to have Marlon walk quietly to a corner and stand on his head. They have talked him into doing interviews, only to have Marlon sit catatonic for 30 minutes, then get up and leave.

Reporters have written that he was personally responsible for $6 million of the $21 million cost overrun in the filming of "Mutiny on the Bounty." They've said he requested that his lines be written on Maria Schneider's rear during the filming of "Last Tango in Paris." They've said he dogged roles, tyrannized directors, threw temper tantrums.

They have cycled and recycled the story of his youth in Libertyville, Ill. Young Marlon Brando Jr., Bud to his family, born April 3, 1924. Cherubic only boy, youngest child of a womanizing limestone products salesman and an amateur actress with a fondness for alcohol who was credited for discovering Henry Fonda. There was the time he set his own sweater afire in an elevator in a department store; the time he brought home a bag lady during the Depression; the time he stole the clapper from the bell at military school.

They have quoted his grandma saying that "Bud is always falling for the cross-eyed girls," and an actress calling him a Don Juan: "If he's Don Juan, he's Don them all." They have uncovered nude paintings of his first fiance'e, Josanne Mariani-Berenger, daughter of a French fisherman. They have traveled around the world chasing rumors that his first wife was not really Anna Kashfi, a Hindu from Calcutta, but Joan O'Callaghan, daughter of a Welsh factory worker who was posing as a Hindu from Calcutta. They have hinted that the reason he married Mexican actress Movita was so their son would have a last name; that the reason he stayed with Movita was so their daughter would have a last name.

They have updated the public on every new twist in his 14-year court battle over the custody of his son by Kashfi/O'Callaghan; on every new romance; on Rita Moreno's overdose of sleeping pills at his Hollywood home; on a Philippine woman's paternity suit; on France Nuyen's inability to play Suzie Wong on the screen because of her depression after he dumped her.

They have called him a genius and a slob. They have written stories called "Brando: An Explosive Young Man's Fight to Be Himself," "Brando -- The Real Story," "My Friend Brando," "Idealism Is a Snare for Citizen Brando," "Brando in Search of Himself."

Said The New York Times Magazine: "Brando's riddled with paradoxes. And conflicts. And inner problems. An extraordinarily complicated Joe trying to understand himself, to come to terms with himself, to uncover his own identity."

In 1977, he told Playboy, "I'm not going to lay myself at the feet of the American public and invite them into my soul. My soul is a private place . . . People believe what they will believe . . . People will like you who never met you . . . and then people also will hate you, for reasons that have nothing to do with any real experience with you. People don't want to lose their enemies . . . Why should I talk to anyone?"

No. Merci, no. No stories in Le Nouveau Journal about my search for Marlon. I told Weus I'd call him Friday. I didn't say what year. If I was going to find Marlon, I would have to be subtle. And if I had to be subtle, I couldn't act like a journalist.

I'd have to come up with something better.

I'd have to go see Benji. BENJI'S IN EXILE.

He used to be a captain in the Philippine army. His uncle was a general. The general didn't get along too well with Ferdinand Marcos, so the whole family fled to Tahiti. Now, the general runs a grocery, and Benji works at the Ibis. He arranges cars, recommends restaurants, chats up American women and sends them on the Circle Island tour to see the Blowhole of Arahoho. He looks like someone who can get you what you need.

I set the proposition. I need a translator, I say, someone to help infiltrate the natives who work on Marlon's island, someone to help with a subtle mission. Someone to help find Marlon. Soon.

"And for this someone, you want girl or boy?" Benji asks. His lip curls, then he leers.

"Well, ah, ah, um," I say. "Ah, um. I think girl would be best."

"I see," says Benji.

"If I go with a girl, it would be a good cover for me. Me there with a girl. You know. Oh, of course, separate accommodations. I'm looking for a translator, you understand. Simply a translator."

"I see," says Benji.

"And, you know, now that I think about it, it wouldn't hurt to have a beautiful girl, either. You know, Marlon loves beautiful, exotic women, and, like, well . . ."

Angelina arrives at the terrace bar an hour late. She shakes my hand tentatively, sits at the table with her knees together and her purse balanced in her lap. She wears a flower behind her ear, and a pareu, a native length of cloth. She has tied it in such a way that it looks like a gown, and she wears it with an easy elegance, a languor, a . . . well, Benji has done all right.

It is hard to know what she is thinking as I tell her of my plan. The true language of Tahiti is a silent one, conveyed with a downcast glance, a lift of the chin, a raising of the eyebrows. She smiles now and then in the velvet shadows of the sunset; she pouts, giggles, breaks my heart with the bright whites of her eyes. She seems willing enough to go on a trip and make some money. She seems to trust me. But she just can't understand. Why am I searching for Marlon Brando?

I try to explain. I can't. It started out as an assignment, but it's becoming more and more like life. Anyway, it doesn't matter. I've got reservations for two on Tetiaroa. Tomorrow, we fly. I WAKE TO A CLATTERING BREEZE BENEATH A COCONUT palm, a melody of fronds like wind chimes. The sand is soft ivory, warm to the touch, with a crust of coral like fresh ice on deep snow. Red ants skitter across a footprint, hermit crabs in painted shells motor sideways, probing with tiny claws. The vegetation is lush, a blend of vines and flowers and leaves and fruits and coconut palms that bend the water's edge, curved and vain, ripe with green nuts. The lagoon teems with fish, feeding in bands and swirls of aquamarine and amethyst and emerald. A half-mile distant, a coral reef breaks the waves, but here on the beach, only a dim echo of the roar is heard, and all is calm.

This is my second day on Marlon's island, mid-morning. I must have fallen asleep. I was up until 4 last night reading Marlon Brando: The Only Contender, by the author of Doug and Mary, Lenny, Janis and Jimi: All the Stars in Heaven. I'm still a little woozy. I rub my eyes, blink them back into focus.

Hmmm.

On the beach, 10 feet south, a most beautiful pair of breasts. Smooth, brown, tapered in repose, they rise and fall gently with breath. I lean back on one elbow, admire. Scraps of lust and poetry float across my memory, and I have an urge to reach, to touch, to feel the softness against my palms and fingertips, but I cannot.

I am searching for Marlon Brando, and the breasts are those of my translator, Angelina, a softly sculpted girl of 20 on an ivory beach in string bikini bottom who speaks English, French and Tahitian.

Angelina stirs.

I snap gaze, search blue.

Marlon discovered Tahiti in 1960, when he came here to shoot "Mutiny on the Bounty." His "Bounty" was a remake of Clark Gable's of 1935. (Gable's leading lady, Movita, became Marlon's second wife.) When he got here, Marlon stayed in an expensive bungalow, attended by beautiful vahines. He played his conga drums with the natives, met Tarita, made a movie, discovered a good thing. By then, Marlon was 37. He'd been making movies for 10 years. He was arguably the biggest star in Hollywood.

After "I Remember Mama" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" on Broadway, Marlon had gone to the coast in 1949 to film "The Men." Next came the movie version of "Streetcar," "Viva Zapata!," "Julius Caesar," "The Wild One," "On the Waterfront," "Desire'e," "Guys and Dolls," "The Teahouse of the August Moon," "Sayonara," "The Young Lions," "The Fugitive Kind" and "One-Eyed Jacks."

By the time he got to Tahiti, he had been nominated for an Oscar four times, had won once and on the way had inspired what became a whole new generation of Method actors -- leading men like James Dean, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro, who drew from the tentative mannerisms, the untrained voice, the raw emotions and the brutal reality that Marlon had brought to the screen.

It is said by some that Marlon's acting helped redefine the concepts of masculine sexuality in our culture. He played men who acted one way, felt another. He reversed the old, simple, John Wayne kind of concept that a man can be judged by his actions, that he can be held responsible.

"Because the typical Brando hero of the early Fifties was ambivalent and emotionally confused," wrote a contributing editor to Harper's magazine, "he could not summon the courage and maturity that had formerly been elements of a film hero's virility. Instead, he pro- jected a kind of teenaged eroticism, intense and unfocused, which derived emotional power from an impossible passive yearning. Frustration was the bottom line of his sexuality, the frustration of a man who cannot control his fate."

And so it was that Marlon and his sexuality became the subject of intense debate and scrutiny and replication, and so it was that people began expecting him to throw raccoons. Marlon never had much liking for denizens of Hollywood, the "funnies in satin Cadillacs" who lived in "the cultural boneyard." He once told James Dean that Dean was mentally unbalanced and ought to see a shrink. Of Frank Sinatra, Marlon said, "Frank is the kind of guy, when he dies, he's going to Heaven and give God a bad time for making him bald." The two biggest Hollywood gossip columnists of the day were Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. Marlon called them "The Fat One" and "The One With the Hat."

Marlon, obviously, was not impressed. He did things the way he wanted to do them. From the first, he bucked the system of studios and contract players. He was among the first modern actors to receive a percentage of gross earnings, to have script and casting approval, to start his own production company, to produce and direct his own film, "One-Eyed Jacks." And he was one of the first to discover what nobody else, to this day, seems able to accept: Great actors should stay actors; they only lose by trying to be more.

And lose Marlon did. As was inevitable, when his films started lagging at the box office, Hollywood began swiping back. Times were bad. He was estranged from Movita, his pregnant second wife of several months. He was named in a paternity suit by a Philippine dancer. And his first wife was still dragging him through court. Associated Press reported, on Nov. 19, 1959, that Anna Kashfi "threatened Mr. Brando with a butcher knife and threw a tricycle at him. She says he beat her, threw her to the floor and terrorized her. Each says their violent battles, which included hair pulling and spanking, were the other's faults."

At work, Marlon became more and more of an attitude problem. He brought the raccoon to the set. And rubber spiders. He tyrannized directors with script changes, arrived late, wore earplugs during takes, gained so much weight during the course of production that obtuse camera angles had to be employed by the end of filming.

Marlon began talking about hanging it up for good. He diversified -- this, too, before his time -- studying eastern religions and meditation, traveling to Southeast Asia, playing his conga drums, lending his image to political causes.

In fact, when MGM came to him in 1960 with the idea for a remake of "Mutiny on the Bounty," Marlon was more interested in promoting a film biography of Caryl Chessman, a rapist who had recently been executed in California. On the night Chessman had been put to death, Marlon stood outside the walls at San Quentin prison and mourned.

At a meeting at his Hollywood home with producer Aaron Rosenberg and director Carol Reed, Marlon pitched Chessman's life for two hours. The men listened, they shook their heads no. Then Rosenberg proposed an alternate idea. If Marlon would agree to do "Bounty," he could leave right away for Tahiti. Marlon could cast his Polynesian leading lady himself.

And so it was that Marlon came to Tahiti, and so it was that he bought his own atoll, 13 islands in a lagoon four miles across, protected by a coral reef. Half a world away from Hollywood, his wives, his problems, it was called Tetiaroa.

Tetia means "man standing alone." Roa means "far away."

It was perfect. "SLEEP WELL?"

"Yes, thank you," says Angelina, stirring from her mid-morning nap on the beach on our second day. "Did you find Marlon Brando yet?"

"Cute. Very cute," I say. "How come you like making fun of me?"

"I not make fun. I ask question."

"Oh. Okay. How about I ask you question? What ever happened to you last night? You disappeared right after dinner."

"I not disappear," says Angelina.

"I didn't see you."

"I tired, that all," she says, and she giggles.

Tired is right, tired out, I think, but I don't say it. No sense getting mad. I hired her to infiltrate Marlon's people. I just didn't think she'd get so far so fast.

The twin-engine, 12-seater plane had broken cloud cover 5 minutes out of Tahiti, and thereafter the sky was clear, the ocean a vast cloth of wrinkled blue, curved at the horizon. After 20 minutes in the air, the plane made its approach, a full circuit of Marlon's sunny atoll, then landed on the airstrip, a patch of packed sand and concrete scissored like an off-center part through five square miles of jungle.

A dozen smiling Tahitians dressed in pareus and Hawaiian surfer shorts met the plane. The only other passengers were four members of a French film crew. They'd just finished shooting a mini-series sequel to "Mutiny on the Bounty." An older woman, Simone, led us to our bungalows, rustic dwellings of ancient design spaced randomly among coconut and pandanus and breadfruit and ironwood trees.

Angelina and I followed at the rear. Marlon's island. Here at last. As I walked, I figured we'd take it easy, check things out, be subtle . . .

Then all of a sudden, Angelina was marching toward Simone. The line stopped. Angelina and Simone talked. They giggled. Angelina pointed to me. Simone looked back. Everyone in line looked back. Then Angelina and Simone giggled again. Simone shook her head.

Angelina returned. She smiled and averted her eyes.

"Listen," I began, "from now on . . ."

"She say Marlon Brando not here."

That was yesterday. Now, this morning, I'm on the beach with my thoughts, the palms, the lagoon, the hermit crabs in painted shells, Angelina's breasts. Of course, I don't believe Simone. I've come, what, 10,000 miles? Of course she was going to say he wasn't here. You spend 10 years writing stories about people who don't want stories written about them, and you learn a few things. Marlon pays all these people to keep people like me away.

But that's to be expected. No one said it would be easy. I'll find him.

I already know a lot more than I did yesterday. Between Angelina and myself, we have found out that there are 17 employes here, and about 10 of their children visiting for the Christmas holidays. The Hotel Tetiaroa itself consists of 15 guest bungalows, which are rarely full all at once. There's a reception area, a dining room, a gift shop (T-shirts that say "Marlon Brando's Private Atoll"), a thatched lobby with a TV and a VCR, a bar on the beach called Dirty Old Bob's Bar. (Dirty Old Bob, I had heard in Papeete, is a ham radio operator in Honolulu. Marlon and he used to ratchet-jaw often.)

All the buildings are built on concrete slabs with native materials. The beds in the bungalows have mosquito nets, and the bed frames and furniture are fashioned of coco wood, cloth and twine. The walls are made of woven pandanus fronds, decorated with pieces of driftwood. Instead of bathroom sinks, there are giant clam shells with metal faucets. There is electricity, but only at certain times of the day, and only until 10 at night. Without the hum of the generator, there is just the loud soothing sound track of the tropics: the sea birds, the palms, the mosquitoes, the waves.

Bringing Angelina along was a good idea. She fit right in. She seemed to like prying into other people's lives. After the incident with Simone, I had a little talk with Angelina, and later, she'd drifted over to the picnic table near the bar where Marlon's people sat. She sat herself down, started in giggling. I left her alone with them for a while, then ambled over. She invited me to join.

The conversation was lively, and, occasionally, Angelina would translate something. Or she would say so-and-so spoke English, and I would try, but so-and-so wouldn't speak. Most of the time, I drank, offered menthol cigarettes all around, tried to smile at the appropriate time as they jabbered in French and Tahitian.

The old lady with the frizzy afro is Grandme`re. She comes from Bora Bora. Her job is taking care of Marlon. She's been with him for 20 years. She remembers once she had to take Cheyenne, Marlon's daughter by Tarita, to Aspen for a reunion of some of Marlon's kids. It was so cold she thought she would die.

Popi is white-haired and grizzled, black, a native of New Guinea. He wears five shark teeth around his neck. His real name is John. He was given the name Popi by Christian Devi Brando, Marlon's son by Anna Kashfi. Popi says that he and Devi were working to clear the airstrip one day when Devi suddenly hugged him and said, "From now on, you're my Popi."

Charles and Suzanna are from Vanuatu. They are first cousins, and they live together. Suzanna used to be a radio announcer on Vanuatu, but Charles got tired of fishing and making copra, the work of his father and his father before that. They came here five years ago. They work a few hours a day -- Suzanna running the bar, Charles doing odd jobs with the other men. They make about $500 a month each. Their rent is free. A small amount is taken for food. They will stay forever.

Matahi is from Morea. He is round-bellied and half-toothless and is married to an American woman who is at home in Papeete. He speaks English, but not so well considering he lived in the San Fernando Valley for 20 years. When "Bounty" was being filmed, he was hired as a carpenter and built sets. After the movie, he moved to California, got married, toured the country for a French airline with a Tahitian song and dance troupe. He remembers going to a party once at Marlon's house in Hollywood. There was no address given on the invitation. The instructions were to drive to a certain place and then follow the pareus that had been hung from bamboo poles.

There are several here from Bora Bora, Tarita's home island. Tarita is the mother of two of Marlon's six kids. She spends half her time on Tetiaroa, half in a house Marlon built in Papeete. Marlon also has three houses in Bora Bora. Tarita and her daughters, Cheyenne (by Marlon), Miamiti (named by Marlon for Tarita's character in "Bounty"), and Reatua, will be flying in this afternoon to celebrate Christmas.

And then there is Teri'i. He's 23, has been here two years. He got the job on Tetiaroa after meeting Marlon and Tarita's son Tehotu in the bars in Papeete.

Tehotu runs the hotel, but he is presently in California. At 26, he is roughly the same age as three of Marlon's four other sons. He loves to party, Teri'i says. He's a good surfer; he's good with girls. He prefers to be known by his mother's family name, Teriipaia, rather than by his father's.

Angelina and Teri'i took to one another instantly. I have to admit that he is something, a Polynesian Renaissance man with sculpted muscles, crafted cheekbones, a parrot tattooed on his shoulder.

Yesterday afternoon, after the giggles and the beers and the menthol cigarettes around the picnic table, Teri'i had invited Angelina for a walk along the beach. I went along, though I was pretty sure I wasn't invited.

Teri'i carried a fishing spear, six feet long, three rusty iron prongs, as he sure-footed along the sand. A few hundred yards down the beach, he stopped, waded out into the lagoon. He was still a moment, then he frowned, then he jabbed. He came back to the beach with something on the end of the spear about the size of a flattened basketball, brown and covered with spines like a porcupine. He threw it on the sand. He grunted, spoke.

Angelina translated. "Teri'i say if you step on this thing, is very bad. Baddest thing in world. It can kill."

Teri'i turned the thing over with his spear. Tiny transparent appendages wriggled like worms underneath.

"If you step," Angelina translated, "you turn over like this, stick foot on wiggly things. They suck all poison gone."

Teri'i grunted, jabbed the thing again, strode on. I shivered, hurried after him.

Next was a marijuana field. Waist-high plants here and there among the scrub. Teri'i picked a bud off one plant. Fat and green, sticky. Then he spoke in English. "Is very good! Party! Get big stoned!"

Then Teri'i jumped a coco tree and climbed 25 feet to the top. He knocked down some green drinking nuts. Teri'i presented Angelina with the tender meat from the inside of the young coconut, and I got a taste, too.

Angelina says she learned English in New Caledonia, where her family had moved when her father was stricken with gout. Later, her father's visa ran out, and they were forced to return to Tahiti. Angelina had to drop out of school and go to work in a hotel to help support the family.

One day, Angelina says, an Italian checked into the hotel, and he fell in love with her. A deep, unrequited love. He left Tahiti, returned, stayed for several months. Each night, he'd play solitaire in the lobby while she worked behind the desk. Sometimes they talked. Once she played cards with him. He kept asking her to dinner. She kept saying no.

Finally, on the eve of his departure, she accepted his invitation.

He cried.

She fell in love.

Her Italian friend, as she calls him, has been here again recently. He flew in when he heard about Angelina's gynecological surgery. She's recovering now, and her friend's back in London. Soon, he'll send for her. She'll finish her education. They'll get married.

Or something like that.

Anyway, after the coconuts, on the walk back to the bungalow, Angelina stopped translating, and she and Teri'i switched languages; the rolled r's and throaty tones of French were replaced with the guttural singsong of Tahitian. They walked together, elbows almost touching. I walked six paces behind. They acted like I wasn't there.

Damn. Even if this was a story, not life, I couldn't help feeling that Teri'i had snaked me. Not that I had any claim, but hell, we'd just gotten there, I hadn't even had my chance. I could tell I had lost, and there was no comfort in the fact that I had lost to the better man. Or at least to a man better suited to Paradise.

I walked, sulked. Presently, I felt myself shrug. Who cared? I wanted Marlon. That's what I'd come for. Work first, R&R later. Let Teri'i have her. Maybe it would help.

Then I remembered. I smiled.

Gynecological problems. Did they have those in Paradise? "COME ON MARLON. COME ON, MAN. SHOW yourself. I know you're here, Marlon. Come on, Marlon . . ."

Hacking through the jungle on Marlon's island, beating back brush with a driftwood machete. I have a pack on my back, I'm wrapped tight, walking a step at a time on the balls of my feet, chanting under my breath to Marlon. He's close, real close. I can feel him sucking me in, repelling me even as I move closer. Something rustles the brush. I freeze. Behind me, no, left.

A clearing. A cat. Old tom, half an ear.

He sits, stares, weirds me out. A sign, maybe, or a sentinel.

I was too young for Vietnam, but this is what it was like, I know it now, just like "Apocalypse Now," a mission through a jungle, a quarry I cannot see, a reason that has become too confused to understand. Like war, like love, the desire within me is strong, burns in my head like the midday sun. Odds? There are no odds anymore. I'm on point, I'm close, walking a path that snakes through the days and weeks of my mission like a main circuit cable plugged straight into Marlon. I want him. I need him. I have to see him and I will, I will find him.

The jungle is all weirdness and sounds, a thick, primitive, evil thing, lewdly fertile and engorged. Plants with eight-foot leaves, vines like arms, roots like legs; a coconut falls 20 feet away and my heart stops. I think of heads.

I had set out two hours ago. Past the tourist bungalows, past the beach-front huts where Marlon's people live, across the flaming airstrip in the heat of day and into the breathless jungle.

At random I followed tractor treads, gauged their age by the hardness and the wetness of the print. I found the landfill, an empty pit dug in the sand, the cement foundation of a grand-looking house that was never finished. I found a wire on a tree and followed it half a mile into the brush, tree to tree, until it stopped, ran down to the ground and connected to a transformer in the middle of a clearing. The ground was soft, but it didn't seem like anything was buried underneath. I made a note to come back later with a shovel. Underground complex?

I'd discovered the tools earlier, before entering the jungle, in a large work shed near the bungalows, along with the generator, some old bicycles, an old trail bike, a huge land mover. There were some doors in a corridor behind the concrete work area. I got a thick screwdriver and found a bathroom behind one door, some books in a shelf behind another.

They were Marlon's books, all right. The Encyclopedia Americana. How to Be Rich, by J. Paul Getty. A Sioux Chronicle, by George E. Hyde. Tao, The Three Treasures, by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Ham Antenna Construction Projects. His cassettes, too. "Stress Management Training Program," "Biofeedback Relaxation Training."

Manuals on everything. Hydroponics, solar energy, refrigeration, birds. In the beginning, Marlon had a lot of plans for his island. He said he wanted to bring new-age technology to Tahiti, to find ways of helping modern men blend with the environment, of helping primitive man coexist with it. Little got done. It cost too much, most likely.

There is evidence of the burden in his choice of roles during the '60s -- dogs like "The Ugly American," "Bedtime Story," "Morituri," "The Chase," "The Appaloosa," "A Countess From Hong Kong," "The Night of the Following Day," "Candy." Today, you can't even get them on video.

"I need money, I make a film," Marlon said during that period. It was obvious.

At the end of another trail through the jungle, I found old stones arranged in a rectangle, 10 feet long, three feet wide. The ruins of a marae, a Polynesian place of worship, an outdoor temple for offerings, dances, rituals.

In antiquity, Tetiaroa was owned by the royal family, the Pomares. It was a summer residence, a site of religious festivals, a fashionable watering place for chiefs from the north end of Tahiti. They came by sailing canoe, repaired to shady groves, ate lightly of fish and coconut, recovered from war and from the ravages of fermented ava. Some say virgins were sacrificed in maraes like this one, some say it was people who broke taboo; some say there was cannibalism, some say the cannibalism was limited to the eating of an enemy's eye. Whatever. There is a weird feeling about the place, a palpable force, a vibration. Forget it. Push on . . .

Two more hours, the jungle breaks on the far side of the island. My skin burns, my whole body throbs with welts and bites. To the left is a clearing. A house.

It is vaguely Japanese -- square pavilions, with a crude boardwalk connecting the pavilions into a large rectangular compound. A cool breeze blows through ironwood trees, and the fine long needles whisper and sway. There is no one around.

The pavilions are mostly wood, the walls are large sheets of plexiglass in frames that can be raised. Everything is nailed shut. There is a pavilion with a stove and a sink, one with a low table for eating, one with empty shelves. Seven pavilions in all, they stretch perhaps 200 feet on the long side of the rectangle. The last room, beach-front, has a bed, a mosquito net, four chairs, a desk.

The frames around the windows in this pavilion are screwed, nailed, padlocked, secured with 2-by-4s. All the windows but one are opaque. I wipe a circle with my hand. A large can of bug spray, a jar of Nescafe' instant coffee, a wooden salad bowl, a refrigerator, toothpicks in a shot glass. Some tools piled on the floor, a bird cage covered with a towel. Driftwood, an African fright mask, strings of worry beads, the bleached skull of an animal, two fly swatters hanging from wooden beams and struts that support the roof. Near the bed, two scarred conga drums.

Congas.

Hmmm.

Congas!

Marlon plays congas!

This is it. This is it!

Marlon's room. Marlon's things. I have found Marlon's things!

I pull out a pad, take notes. Marble desk top . . . flowered blue tablecloth . . . shell necklaces . . . hoovering each detail like a line of drug, buzzed beyond belief. So long. So far. Now I am here. Only a half-inch of plexiglass, some wood, some nails, some screws separate me from Marlon Brando's possessions. Things he has touched, things he has used. God, imagine what could be in those two small metal file cabinets! What could be in that desk! . . . Petal brand facial tissue (white) . . . three forks . . . a coffee cup . . . magazines . . . Popular Science, May 1985: Goodbye records and tape! Here comes the laser disc revolution! . . . Scientific American, March 1985! . . .

And then . . .

I didn't even notice.

On the magazines.

Little labels.

MARLON BRANDO

----- MULHOLLAND DR.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA 90210

I am overcome with something and I jump off the porch, tear back through the jungle on a dead run in the direction of the work shed. His address, his address, I've got his address, and now I want more, I want more, I want a crowbar.

I pull up hard at the edge of the jungle. Go to shed across the clearing. Search the benches, the floor, the shelves. A big closet. There, at the bottom. Rusty, three feet long. A crowbar.

Feel the weight. Shift it hand to hand . . .

Wait.

Wait.

What am I doing?

No, no. Whoa.

I ain't gonna do it.

I ain't gonna do it.

Calm down.

Marlon isn't here.

Marlon is not here!

Those magazines. They're a year and a half old. His place is shut tight. There is nowhere else on the island for him to be. I've looked everywhere. I've searched in grids. On the way in, the plane had buzzed low over the entire atoll before landing. We were not more than 50 feet above the 13 islands in the atoll. I would have seen something if there was anything to see. A clearing, a roof, something irregular in the unrelenting tangle.

Simone was telling the truth. Marlon's not here. Tehotu is in California for Christmas, Teri'i had told Angelina. They're probably at Marlon's house in Beverly Hills. At Marlon's house.

Okay. I know where he is. I am with Marlon's people. He will hear of it. He will know I am searching for him. Break into his place, he'll know that, too, probably before the sun falls. No. I must play a different game. Subtle. Smart. Human.

I replace the crowbar, head back toward the bungalows. I'd told Angelina before I left to meet Tarita's plane. I'll see what she found out. I'll talk to her and decide what's next. I'll formulate. I'll make a plan. I'll get to him, no problem. Now I know where he is.

At the bungalow, there's a note on the door, stuck between the fronds.

Mr. Sager (Mike):

I have taken the 3:00 plane back to Papeete.

Good luck finding Marlon!

FAAEVA, Angelina.

P.S. You can give my salary to Benji. He will see that I get it. "YOU EVER SEE HIS MOVIES, TERI'I? MOVIES. You know, 'Apocalypse Now,' 'Superman,' 'Godfather' . . ."

" 'Godfather'!"

" 'Godfather'?"

"Oui, Le Pe`re."

"Is good for you? 'Godfather'?" I ask.

"Okay. I no like movie," Teri'i says. "Is too much bad. No good for the eyes. I like look sunset."

"It is beautiful here, isn't it?"

"Yes. And sea. All day color change. Is not only one sea, is many seas. Here is very good for me," he says, pressing his fist to his heart, sweeping it outward.

I never spoke again of Angelina, and neither did Teri'i. It didn't seem important. It was as if she had never been here, a footprint on the beach that the wind had blown away. She was forgotten, at least in speech. But it still nagged. Why did she leave?

The music was good in Teri'i's bungalow, 95-Rock from Papeete on a boom box that took six D batteries to run. In the days that followed, I came often to his bungalow, and we became friends. Maybe he felt bad about Angelina, but I doubt it. Probably, it was more simple than that. I liked him, I was nice to him. He liked me, he was nice to me. That is the way Tahitians are. They are not people of theory, they are people of heart. What needn't make a difference doesn't have to. What seems right is what is.

Teri'i's place was on the beach, plywood and thatch with a millionaire's view. I'd show up, and we'd sit on crates and stare at the horizon, or we'd giggle and try to talk trash. Most times, we ran out of vocabulary. And sometimes, when that happened, it hurt, for there were things I wanted to say.

Being there with Teri'i in his bungalow, and with Charles and Popi and Serge and the others who came to hang out, I learned to do as they did; to empty my mind completely, to forget about yesterday or tomorrow. I learned why Tahitians don't have need of a word of apology; and I learned the deep peace of dreamless sleep, the richness of the glow of the dawn.

And, in time, I found myself doing as Teri'i did, as all the rest of them did. I found myself saying, "Here is very good," and then nodding my head yes, pressing my fist to heart, sweeping it outward.

Thanks to Angelina, I knew the names of all Marlon's people. I played soccer in bare feet on the beach with the other guys, and lolled in the warm, salty lagoon afterward, floating as they did, like a hippo, arms out and feet just touching the soft sand on the bottom, water just below my nose. I learned how to spot a fish by the ripple of the water, how to navigate an outrigger canoe through the shallows by the depth chart of the different hues.

I got very brown, and with my shaved, tanned head and earring, new guests thought I was an employe of some sort, a weird one of Marlon's people. They came over, smiled tentatively as tourists do, asked, "Where's the good fishing?"

I said what Teri'i had said to me. "Good fish everywhere, just throw in line."

At night, when the generator was off and the guests were asleep, there were a million stars, and Marlon's people would sit around the picnic table singing. I hummed along, and after a few days, Matahi taught me how to play the songs on guitar. Once in a while, they'd let me sit in, and as I strummed I felt part of something warm, something old, something very right.

I met Tarita, but I didn't come on like a journalist. I told her my first name, greeted her not as Marlon's wife, not as a movie star, but as any other of Marlon's people. I did watch her closely, from afar, admiring her still-beautiful face, her still-lithe figure, seeing now and then in my mind the scene in "Bounty" when she dances so sensuously for Marlon.

Tarita had been a waitress when she was picked from a group of 16 native girls for the movie part of Maimiti, daughter of the chief, wife of Mr. Christian. After arriving in Tahiti to choose his leading lady for "Bounty," Marlon had set up shop in a hotel in Papeete, brought each of the girls into his second-story room and threatened to jump out the window. Tarita got the part because she giggled the least when he threatened.

Her career ended with "Bounty," and she resumed the simple life of her youth. On Tetiaroa, she spends much of her time gardening. She fishes a lot, too, usually with Grandme`re, sometimes with all three of her daughters. They were a sight out there in the lagoon, the five of them, all topless except Grandme`re, throwing hooks baited with squid over the side, pulling up huge fish. I got in the habit, when she went out fishing, of watching the lagoon for the return of her boat. When she dropped anchor, I'd be there, coincidentally, to help drag the catch ashore.

The second time I helped, she smiled. She said I was nice. "Not like any other guest."

I thought a lot about meeting Marlon, about how the two of us would get along once we met. If this was his place, then I knew I'd like him. Perhaps he'd like me, too. Maybe, I mused, I would write his biography. He'd set me up on my own island. That one, there, across the lagoon.

I hadn't found Marlon, not yet, but I had found something of him, an important something. A man who would do this -- buy an island, people it, shelter them with goodness and nature, create a small peaceful nation in the midst of the widest of oceans -- this was a man worth finding.

It was time to go to L.A. "MR. SAGER, ISN'T IT?" SAYS CYNTHIA. "WHAT CAN WE DO FOR you?"

I had flown back to Papeete after a week on Tetiaroa, leaving to hugs and even songs from Marlon's people, feeling that it was time to go, knowing I'd be back.

The next day, I went to see Cynthia at the Bureau de Tetiaroa, at Faaa Airport. Cynthia is a former airline stewardess, originally from Maui, Hawaii. She runs all of Marlon's Tahitian interests. She speaks with Marlon often, it is said. In fact, according to Teri'i, she had just returned from Los Angeles.

"Well," I say, pulling up a chair, reaching into my pocket. "Let's start with this." I give her my card.

"You're a journalist?" The tone in her voice. She might have said, "You're a child molester?"

"Listen. I'm not going to ask you any questions . . ."

"Good, because I can't answer any."

"I just want to tell you something. Okay? Please?"

And so it is that I deliver the most impassioned speech in a life of impassioned speeches, starting with, "Cynthia, I'm not a scoop slob running around looking for a quote. I don't give a damn about actors or movies . . ."

I tell Cynthia about my assignment, my preparation, my obsession. I tell her about watching all the movies, reading all the books and the magazines, feeling how Marlon felt, hiring Angelina, going to Tetiaroa, helping Tarita with her fish and her plants.

Then I tell her all about the mess America is in. Urine testing, the banning of Alice in Wonderland, Rambo, College Republicans, Tom Cruise, demographics, no-smoking sections in restaurants. Loss of freedoms, right-wing fascists, Contra-gate, all the rest.

And then I say:

"Cynthia, let me tell you what I think. Going to Marlon's island, reading about him, learning about his life, I have come to think of Marlon as a visionary. A visionary, Cynthia. He was one of the first actors to produce and direct. He was one of the first to get percentage of gross. He was one of the first to study eastern religion, and he went to Southeast Asia before anybody even knew about the war. He gave up one of the starring roles in 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' because Martin Luther King Jr. had just died. Did you know that, Cynthia? He cared so much about civil rights, and when King died he was too broken up to work.

"Marlon has bought an island and established his own country, a paradise. The United Islands of Brando. He has sat alone for years and taken the time to read and learn and think. He's got ideas. He's got foresight. He's got . . . let me put it this way, Cynthia: America needs Marlon. We need to ask him what comes next.

"I want to talk to him about this. I don't want to talk acting. I think acting is stupid, I think Hollywood is a cultural boneyard. All those idiots running around in satin Cadillacs. Forget all that. Forget it! I want to talk about how to make the world a better place. I want Marlon's opinion. The Washington Post wants Marlon's opinion.

"Cynthia, I'm here. I know Marlon is in Los Angeles. I want to see him. I'll fly tomorrow. I'll see him for five minutes, or I'll listen for as long as he wants to talk. Tell him that, Cynthia, tell him that for me. Tell him . . ."

The phone rings.

Damn.

I had her going. Her eyes were wide, and she was nodding her head like a puppet. Of course she thinks Marlon is a visionary. She's been working for him for 15 years. And, truth be told, I believe it, too.

Cynthia jabbers in French. My name is mentioned. What's going on? Is that him on the phone? I know he has a network, but . . .

Cynthia hangs up.

She smiles.

She beams.

"That was Tarita. She was calling about something else, but I told her you were here and what you said. She said you were a really nice person. She couldn't believe you were a journalist! Isn't that funny?

"She said I should call Marlon for you. When are you leaving for L.A.?" "YES?" SAYS THE VOICE IN THE METAL BOX. "WHAT DO YOU want?"

"Package for Mr. Brando," I say, looking nonchalant, waving at the three different cameras set to my right and to my left and over there, near a tree behind the 10-foot iron fence guarding Marlon's canyon compound.

I am in L.A., and if my mission is starting to feel at all like the movie, at all like "Apocalypse Now," then this is the Kno Long bridge, the last outpost that Capt. Willard passes on his way up the river to find Kurtz. All the flares and lights, the psychedelic music, the stoned-out soldiers. Too much going on, no one in charge. That's L.A. Obscenely expensive cars, palm trees with no coconuts. It is cold, 50 degrees, and raining. The sky is brown at the edges. At night from the hot tub I can count all five stars in the sky.

First thing upon arrival, I did as Cynthia instructed. I called Marlon's assistant, Pat Quinn.

Pat was in "Alice's Restaurant." She's been with Marlon for 20 years. I did my speech again, and she ate it up. She gushed. She was so glad I liked Marlon's island. She'd heard all about me. Cynthia had called. She'd talk to Marlon today, she said.

He'd call, she said.

For three days, each ring of the phone was another needle in my brain, and I was back to the straight, hard reality of 78 different cable channels and not a show I wanted to see.

Each day I drove up into the hills and coasted past Marlon's house, perched atop Mulholland, atop Benedict Canyon, a rich view of the valley and the mountains to the north. I stared up at the sharp concertina wire that is wrapped around his fence. Come on, Marlon. Come on. Call, Marlon. Call.

Then I hurried back. I didn't want to miss the call.

For another day and a half I left messages for Pat. Then, late one night, she answered the phone herself.

"How you doing, Pat?" I was friendly, nonchalant.

"I can't converse with you!" she shrieked.

"What about Marlon. What about . . ."

"I can't converse with you!"

She slammed the phone. I slammed it back.

In the ensuing days, I tried other things. I called Marlon's other assistant, Aiko. I called a woman in L.A. that I'd met on Tetiaroa. She'd been there resting. She used to work for Quincy Jones. Quincy had been to Tetiaroa. He is friends with Marlon. No go. A friend's father knew someone who knew someone who once had Marlon to dinner. He worked that angle. I called Marlon's bookkeepers, Brown and Kraft.

And I called Cynthia. She was glad to hear from me. I told her what had happened with Pat. She said she didn't know what to think.

Then she paused a moment, as if deliberating. Then she said, "Well, you know, Marlon's got a lot of problems right now. All the new tax laws, that stuff, he's been meeting with accountants, day and night, trying to solve his problems. That's why Tehotu is there. He's helping Marlon get some other things done that have been bothering him."

I thanked Cynthia. She wished me luck.

I wasn't giving up, not yet. I was offering Marlon a good product; an opportunity to speak his mind. If accounting had him down, politics would get him going. It would be good therapy. We could work together, write a good story about something important, something that mattered to Marlon. Okay, okay, the biography and the island would have to wait. Obviously, he wasn't in the mood for that. But that didn't matter. Right now, all that mattered was meeting Marlon. I wanted to look him in the eye, to hear his voice, to see him walk across a room. I wanted to smile and raise eyebrows, play a few Tahitian tunes, anything.

And so it was that I went to Radio Shack and bought a tape recorder, then drove up to Mulholland, parked overlooking a canyon. I lit a cigarette, started the tape. I felt out of breath. My voice quavered.

"Marlon Brando," I began.

"Please forgive this further intrusion, but I just hung up from Pat Quinn. She said she could not converse with me. I don't understand.

"Sir, in the two months I have spent learning about you, visiting Tetiaroa, meeting your extended family, experiencing my own solitude, I have become involved, fascinated and respectful. I flatter only the facts in concluding that you are a man with vision.

"What I am offering is this. A 10,000-word article in The Washington Post Sunday Magazine. One million copies of the magazine are distributed each week. You can direct the subject matter. Any cause or concern. The choice is yours.

"You have, I guess, gotten reports from your people concerning my handling of this assignment. As you know, I took no pictures of your family. I did not intrude. I conducted myself as a decent human being.

"I know you want to be left alone. But I also know that you care about many things, and that you care about doing good. Together, I think, we can do a little good for the world. The choice is up to you. If you say no, I will respect that. I will give up, eventually.

"Will you please answer?"

When I finished, I put the tape recorder, along with some of my clips -- the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament, columns I had written against urine testing, demographics, use of wealth for things instead of for ideas -- into a large Ziploc baggie. I chose the baggie because I could seal it, and because Marlon could see that there wasn't a bomb inside. I hoped it would make him curious, this little dog-and-pony show in a Zip-loc bag. Maybe he would listen. SO NOW I AM AT MARLON'S GATE. I'VE TOLD THE VOICE IN the box that I have a package for Marlon.

After an interval, the voice says, "Drive slow and stay to the left."

The gate creaks open. There's a red sign advertising security inside. "Armed Response," it says.

Marlon's compound is dense with foliage. There's a fenced-in area 100 feet up the driveway, and as I drive slowly past in my red Suzuki jeep, two giant dogs throw themselves at the gate and howl.

The road forks, I stay left. A line of shrubs is blocking the driveway. Suddenly, the shrubs swing open. An asphalt parking area. I pull in. There's a Jeep Wagoneer and a gold Mercedes 380, and three little houses, low-slung, cement, nothing fancy, painted light orangey brown, and a common in between.

A sign in the driveway says, "Stay in Car. Attack Dogs on Premises."

After a few seconds, someone comes walking toward me. He's got a Doberman on a leash. He's wearing a white T-shirt. He looks exactly like Stanley Kowalski, exactly like Terry Malloy, exactly like Marlon's picture on the cover of Marlon Brando: The Only Contender. I can't believe it. The resemblance.

"Tehotu! What's happening!"

The kid is stunned.

I introduce myself to Marlon's son.

"Oh, yeah," he says, and shakes my hand. "Cynthia said you'd be coming."

"Teri'i told me to say hello," I say. "He wants to know when you're coming back. Christ, I can't believe you missed New Year's Eve down there, I hear it's a real party. Oh, and I'm supposed to tell you that Charles . . ."

I am yammering away like a fool, but I can't help it. Jesus Christ, this kid looks like Marlon. Turned-down lip and sleek smooth jaw and high-gloss cheekbones and almond eyes and tousled hair. Christ, he is Marlon with a tan, a young Marlon in his prime, Marlon when he was turning Hollywood upside down, long before the wives and the press and the crap that drove him away from the world. Standing before me, he is a vision of the

Marlon that I've lived with in my mind, asleep and awake for six long weeks. Here, right here, right before me.

I regain my composure, shut my mouth. I hand Tehotu the baggie with the recorder and the clips.

"Listen," I say. "Tell your dad {your dad!} that if he thinks I'm a jerk and he doesn't want to talk to me, I'll go away. But ask him please to answer. Have him say something. Just something. You know . . . well, ask him to please call."

Tehotu smiles.

I think of the beach and the stars and the lagoon. I smile, raise an eyebrow, giggle.

"He's out right now, but he'll be back soon," Tehotu says, and then he smiles again. "I'm sure he won't think you're a jerk." THREE MORE DAYS.

Rain, cable TV. Sherman Oaks, Calif.

No call.

I am a jerk!

The hell with Marlon Brando. The hell with searching for Marlon Brando. He doesn't deserve a story. He doesn't deserve to be alive. I don't care if he talks to me or not. What do I have to ask him anyway? What could he possibly have to say of any relevance at all? He's an actor! Who cares? Why the hell should I waste my time searching for . . .

Okay.

One more try.

One more try.

One more try and that's it.

I buy some bagels, some coffee, two newspapers and a pair of binoculars. I drive up to Mulholland. I park at a curve. I stake out Marlon.

I didn't want to have to do this. This is exactly what I've tried not to be. A scoop slob looking for a quote, a tidbit to take home and put in the first paragraph of a regurgitated story about Marlon Brando's life. A doggie bag to warm in the microwave.

But I accepted the job. Go find Marlon Brando. I've traveled 18,000 miles. I've spent a lot of money. Everyone thought I was going to fail, and when I get home, I'm going to have to look them in their faces. Marlon said in "Last Tango" that in order to live your life, you have to look first into the maw of death. In order to be a journalist, maybe sometimes you have to look first into yourself. You have to get a quote.

Birds soar the canyons, Mercedes-Benzes and Jaguars and BMWs screech around the curves on Mulholland Drive. People stare into the window of my red Suzuki jeep. They see a guy with a black Nikon cap and sunglasses and binoculars on a stakeout. I know what they are thinking. Something like what I'm thinking about myself.

Four hours pass.

Then, movement.

Up there, a break in the trees. Three hundred yards away, a porch in Marlon's compound.

I raise the binoculars.

Tehotu. He's carrying a saw and a board.

Then, Marlon.

Marlon Brando.

Him.

Focus.

Marlon is fat. He looks tired and worried. He is bald on top with a fringe of white hair around the sides. He is wearing a blue bathrobe. He points here, points there, appears distracted.

It has been 13 years now since he made "Godfather" and earned his second Oscar, which he refused to accept, and about $21 million in salary and percentages, which he did accept. After that came "Last Tango in Paris," "The Missouri Breaks," "Superman," "Apocalypse Now" and "The Formula." For the last three, he made more than $10 million for less than 30 minutes onscreen.

Since 1977, Marlon has said nothing to the press. "I'm not going to lay myself at the feet of the American public and invite them into my soul. My soul is a private place," he told Playboy.

Through the binoculars, I see Marlon, but I see nothing of the Brat, the Slob, the Valentino of the Bop Generation, the Walking Hormone Factory, the man standing alone far away, the visionary. I see nothing of Terry Malloy, of Stanley Kowalski, of Fletcher Christian . . . Christ, he was beautiful then. Christ, he was good. Good enough to change Hollywood forever. Go to the movies now, you see him. Newman, Redford, Nicholson, Pacino, Hoffman, Cruise, Penn . . . before all of them, there was Brando.

Now, here is Marlon.

An old guy. Fat, bald, blue bathrobe.

It begins to rain.

I key the Suzuki, it putters to life. I drive toward Marlon's gate.

For six weeks now I've been searching. I Xeroxed his pictures and taped them to my walls. I read every book and every article, during every meal and before bedtime. I dropped down deep, very deep, into my own kind of Method, and in his wife I saw an old girlfriend, and in his divorce I saw an old wife, and in his art I found a meaning, and in his vision I saw one, too. I walked his ivory beaches and floated in his blue lagoon. I picked out a place for my own bungalow on a lonely atoll in the middle of the South Pacific, and I knew that someday I'd return.

And over the weeks I realized that Marlon was the template for two generations of men, the ultimate man of the '80s, 30 years before his time. He'd shown us how to be young, then he'd split the whole program. And I started thinking that maybe it wouldn't be bad at all to find Marlon, on the world's behalf, to ask him what he thinks, where we should be going, what we should be doing, what it is that is supposed to come next. We need you, Marlon Brando. That's how it formed in my mind. We need you. In the '50s, he showed us how to be young. In the '80s, we could use a little advice. It couldn't hurt.

Now, I am pulling into Marlon's driveway. I edge up even with the little metal box. There's a button to ring. One button to Marlon. Quote city. Pay dirt.

Behind the iron gate, a car rounds the bend, descending the hill from Marlon's compound. It's heading straight for me, an old import, a Toyota or something. It stops. A hand reaches out of the window. The gate opens. The car rolls forward, stops. The door opens. A woman. She's fortyish, Japanese. It's Aiko, Marlon's other personal assistant. After Pat had told me she "couldn't converse," I'd called Aiko maybe 13 times. She never returned my calls.

Aiko walks through the gate, toward the mailbox. She doesn't even look at me, sitting behind the wheel of the Suzuki. It's like I don't exist. She just walks to the mailbox, opens it, starts taking out some mail.

"Aiko?"

She turns.

"I'm Mike Sager."

"Oh, yes, Mr. Sager. How are you today?"

How are you today? "Fine," I say. "Listen, I wonder -- "

She cuts me off. "We got your package," she says sweetly, and then she smiles. "We forwarded it to Marlon, to his next stop, wherever it is he's going. I'm sure he'll get back to you on the matter soon."

Forwarded it? She's lying to my face! I've just seen Marlon, fat and bald in a blue bathrobe. He's up there on the porch. "Wherever it is he's going." Give me a break. I look at Aiko, then I look over toward the iron gate. It's open. My Suzuki is idling. I could run to the jeep, floor it, spew gravel. I could be in Marlon's compound in a few seconds. I could get to Marlon. It would probably take the police 15 minutes to get there. By then I could get a quote, at least. Then I could get arrested. I'd have an ending for my story. I'd have an ending with Marlon. Or maybe I'd have a beginning. Maybe Marlon would be impressed with such a ballsy move. Maybe we'd become friends before the cops got there. After all, I'd carried Tarita's fish. I hadn't taken pictures of his daughter. I'd shown myself to be a good human being. "That's okay, Officer. Mr. Sager will be staying . . ."

On the other hand, maybe he'd shoot me.

I think of "Apocalypse Now." Before Capt. Willard goes up the river, the general tries to prepare him. "You see, Willard," the general says, "things get confused out there. Power, ideals, morality . . . there's a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil."

Capt. Willard, of course, was a soldier. A hired gun, an assassin. He had a job to do. He did it.

Me, I'm a journalist. It's a strange profession, not unlike Willard's, though I don't kill anyone. What I do is scrape people's insides, pull out their guts, display them on a page. I tell them it's the people's right to know, and I stick my foot in the door. I dog them, I posture, I say what they want to hear. I get my story, just like Willard gets his man.

This time, I'd wanted it to be different. I'd junked the journalist technique, gone for good human being. I'd figured I could show myself to Marlon as a man worthy of meeting, and somewhere along the line, things got confused, and I came to believe that I was.

Marlon knew better, of course. All the dog-and-pony shows in all the Ziploc baggies in the world would not have changed his mind. I thought I was being a person. But Marlon knows I'm just another reporter looking for a story. Six weeks ago, I didn't care one iota about Marlon. Then I got the assignment, then I decided I wanted to meet him, then I decided on the approach. Good Human Being. Aiko knows this. That's why she's lying to my face, and that's why she seems to be enjoying herself so greatly. Because my face isn't my face. It is the face of all journalists, of all the scoop slobs who have stalked and staked out Marlon for 30 years. I am searching for Marlon, trying to get my story. That is the reason I have come. There is no other.

From the start it sounded ridiculous. Find Marlon Brando. Go to Tahiti and find Marlon Brando.

Yeah? And then what?

You'll know.

I'll know?

Hmmm.

I look at my Suzuki, at Aiko's Toyota, at the open iron gate, at the rows of sharp concertina ringing the compound. I want a quote, but Marlon wants to be left alone. If I really was a good human being, I'd leave him alone.

"Ah, listen, Aiko. I have to be leaving town. I have another story to do. Here's my card. When Marlon gets to wherever he's going, he can reach me at this number."

I walk back to the Suzuki, put it in reverse, back out, drive away. I take the next plane home. ::