Marlon Brando Was An Unexpected Innovator In Another Artistic Industry

Marlon Brando is undoubtedly best known for his acting prowess. After all, the Hollywood star won two Academy Awards, and two Golden Globe Awards and is famous for his iconic roles in films such as "The Godfather" and "A Streetcar Named Desire." However, the actor was a man of many talents, and, as Brando got older, he began to apply his creative abilities in ways other than just on the big screen.

According to NPR, one of these practical expressions of creativity took on the form of inventing things. In fact, patent attorney Kevin Costanza, who worked with the "Sayonara" star, recalled how Brando developed shoes to use in the pool that increased friction and lead to a better underwater workout. Costanza also revealed that Brando appeared to have an endless number of ideas and that he was an avid reader of "Scientific American." But while Brando may have had lots of interests, there was one particular passion that spurred him to contact Costanza in the hope of obtaining a specific patent.

Brando's obsession with an unusual instrument

The item that most inspired Brando's imagination was none other than the conga drum. He set out on a mission to find a way of tuning the instrument easier. Normally, the drumhead is fixed with five or six bolts around the top and each has to be adjusted individually with a wrench in order to get the correct pitch (per Rhythm Notes). 

However, Brando developed a system where the bolts would be linked to one another so that the entire instrument could be tuned at once by adjusting a single lever. In 2002, he received the first of what would be four patents related to his improved conga drum. A description of his device shows just how forward-thinking the actor was. For example, one iteration included using a motor to tune the drum so that no elbow grease was needed, per The Atlantic.

"It's a pretty far-out invention," admits Grammy-winning Latin percussionist Poncho Sanchez. According to NPR, Sanchez helped Brando with the design and revealed that it had been a years-long process to develop the drum. 

The sad end of the conga creativity

However, while Brando's patent may have been a clever one, it didn't have a chance to catch on before his death in 2004. "I know he was very excited about it," confessed estate executor Avra Douglas. "He had really high hopes, he was passionate about it" (via NPR). Unfortunately, Brando's invention had one major drawback: cost. Though the design made the process of tuning the conga drum substantially easier, it also made it more expensive for companies to manufacture, and no firm was willing to take a chance on purchasing a patent to create a more costly drum. 

At present, only one of Brando's prototypes remains. The other instruments and patents have been lost or destroyed since Brando's passing. However, there is a happy ending to the story. When Douglas found the remaining drum, he contacted Sanchez so that the musician could play Brando's creation at last. "I got a call from my friend DJ Felix Contreras that they had found the drum in a storage space and he wanted me to try it. There were all these pictures of Marlon in there, old contracts, a bird cage. This was Marlon Brando's [stuff]! It was like being in his garage," noted Sanchez in an interview with LA Weekly.

Sanchez wasn't the only person glad to see the drum in use. "[Brando] would have been thrilled to see Poncho playing it," Douglas confessed (via NPR).