The actor died of lung failure at the UCLA Medical Center on Thursday at 6:30 p.m., a hospital spokeswoman said on Friday. His agents, citing Brando's long-held desire for privacy, declined to give further details.
With his broken nose and rebellious nature, Brando established a raw, naturalistic style of acting and defined American macho for a generation with such classic roles as the swaggering brute Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951), a biker gang leader in "The Wild One" (1953) and the washed-up prize fighter in "On the Waterfront" (1954).
Francis Ford Coppola, who directed Brando in 1979's "Apocalypse Now," said: "Marlon would hate the idea of people chiming in to give their comments about his death. All I'll say is that it makes me sad he's gone."
To many, Brando remained the iconic rebel he played in "The Wild One." Asked what he was rebelling against, Brando replied, "Whaddya got?"
Brando won an Academy Award for "On the Waterfront" and another for his brooding, at times mumbling, portrayal of the patriarch of a Mafia family in "The Godfather" (1972).
But Brando also railed against Hollywood throughout a stormy career. In 1973, he refused to accept his second Oscar to protest the treatment of American Indians.
In more recent years, Brando's brilliance as an actor was overshadowed by his eccentric reclusiveness, the turmoil in his family life and financial disputes.
Christian Brando, his son by his first wife, Welsh actress Anna Kashfi, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the 1990 murder of his half-sister Cheyenne's boyfriend. Cheyenne later committed suicide, in 1995, at the age of 25.
Brando, who was paid a then-staggering $4 million for his walk-on performance in 1978's "Superman," remained enmeshed in legal disputes over money up until the last weeks of his life.
He poured millions into Tetiaroa, a South Seas atoll he bought in 1966 and where he spent much of the 1980s living out a boyhood fascination with Tahiti rekindled during the shooting of "Mutiny on the Bounty."
He said he only made movies for the money. "Acting is an empty and useless profession," he said.
Still, Brando inspired a generation of screen rebels, including James Dean.
"There was a sense of excitement, of danger in his presence, but perhaps his special appeal was in a kind of simple conceit, the conceit of tough kids," wrote critic Pauline Kael of the New Yorker. "Brando represented a contemporary version of the free American."
THE UNIVERSAL ACTOR
Brando was born on April 3, 1924, in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of a travelling salesman and an actress who coached a local drama group. He was sent to a Minnesota military academy but was soon expelled.
He headed to New York, where his two sisters were studying art and drama. There he studied acting with famed teacher Stella Adler and the Actors' Studio.
"Marlon never really had to learn how to act. He knew," Adler once said. "Right from the start he was a universal actor. Nothing human was foreign to him."
In 1946, critics voted Brando as Broadway's most promising actor for his role as a returning World War II veteran in the flop "Truckline Cafe."
Brando broke his nose in backstage horseplay and gained a reputation for being moody. Auditioning for a Noel Coward comedy, Brando tossed the script aside, saying, "Don't you know there are people in the world starving?"
In 1947, playwright Tennessee Williams approved casting Brando for the stage production of "A Streetcar Named Desire." He reprised the role for Elia Kazan's big-screen version four years later, earning the first of eight Oscar nominations.
'I COULD HAVE BEEN SOMEBODY'
His first Oscar win came for "On the Waterfront," in which Brando played a one-time boxer, Terry Malloy, who turns against his friends and brother in a corrupt union.
In one of the most memorable scenes in cinema, Malloy tells his brother, played by Rod Steiger, "You don't understand. I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody, instead of a bum -- which is what I am."
Brando, who chafed at having to memorise dialogue, wrote in his 1994 autobiography that he improvised his lines in that famous scene and later relied on cue-cards.
Brando was notorious for his out-sized appetites for both women and food. ("I've had far too many affairs to think of myself as a normal, rational man.") He consumed ice cream by the quart and in later years his weight ballooned and he struggled with pneumonia.
In the 1960s, Brando became active in the civil rights movement, especially for American Indians. He sent Indian actress Sacheen Littlefeather to the Academy Award's platform in 1973 to describe the plight of Indians.
Critics both hailed and panned his performances in "Last Tango in Paris" (1972) and "Apocalypse Now," but Brando was also legendary for being one of his own toughest critics.
"To this day, I can't say what 'Last Tango in Paris' was about," he said. He also claimed to have talked director Coppola into marginalizing his role as the enigmatic Col. Kurtz in order to heighten the mystery.
"What I'd really wanted from the beginning was to find a way to make my part smaller so that I wouldn't have to work as hard," he said.
In the 1990s, Brando emerged from a decade hiatus to take small roles in minor films, often for large fees.
Just last month, Brando completed voice work for the character of an old lady in an upcoming animated film titled "Big Bug Man," his agent said.
Brando was married three times to Kashfi, Mexican actress Movita Castenada, and Tahitian Tarita Teriipia.
"He's full of deep hostilities, longings, feelings of distrust," director Kazan once said of him, "But his outer front is gentle and nice."
By Kevin Krolicki