The role of Rambo III’s chief villain Colonel Zaysen was originally offered to screen legend Marlon Brando, but why did he pass? Rambo III from 1988 is arguably the weakest entry in the franchise and was briefly the most expensive movie ever made, costing over $60 million to produce. While the sequel featured some impressive action sequences, its threadbare storyline and lack of compelling characters proved disappointing to audiences and stalled the series for 20 years. While the movie ended up grossing almost $200 million worldwide, it was still considered a financial letdown due to its inflated budget.
Audiences had high hopes for the third installment of John J’s adventures but by the time the end credits rolled it was apparent that Rambo had run out of steam. First Blood had been a brooding and thoughtful film on the nature of war and the effect it has on the individual, and while Rambo: First Blood II greatly dialed up the carnage, it also addressed important points about the legacy of the Vietnam War. While Rambo III touched on the Soviet-Afghan war at a time when even the news was barely covering it, there wasn’t much of a message other than, “Don’t mess with Rambo!”
Rambo III was also lacking in the bad guy department, with Marc de Jonge’s Colonel Alexi Zaysen being little more than a one-dimensional pantomime villain. This is no fault of the late performer either since the character is given little dimension other than sniveling or pompous. The sequel nearly took a very different route with the character, as production comedy Caralco originally offered the role to Marlon Brando. Recently a letter and a copy of the script sent from the film’s producer Mario Kassar to Brando has surfaced on eBay, which features some personal notes from the actor.
In the letter, Kassar confesses to having taken “the liberty of highlighting those scenes that belong to the character of the Soviet Colonel.” He also comments he hopes the role is to Brando’s liking and welcomes any suggestions he might have. At the time of being offered Rambo III, Brando hadn’t appeared in a film since 1980’s The Formula, and his notes confirm he at least read the script and gave it some thought. He ultimately passed, however, and while there’s no official reason why there are a few possibilities. His portrayal of Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is harrowing, complex and a timeless reminder of the insanity of war, so perhaps Brando had concerns about tarnishing the legacy of one of his best-known characters by playing another Colonel whose character would have appeared insubstantial in comparison. Perhaps he didn’t want to break his lengthy sabbatical for a violent Rambo sequel or, and this feels like the most likely reason, he asked for a large fee the producers weren’t willing to pay, especially given how expensive the movie was stacking up to be.
Marlon Brando would later come out of self-imposed retirement for 1989’s A Dry White Season, a drama involving Apartied in South Africa; Brando forewent his usual hefty salary for scale to be part of the movie, and he was later nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for it. It would have been extremely engaging to see what chemistry he and Stallone would have shared had he elected to make Rambo III, particularly since Stallone was once hailed as the “new Brando” following Rocky’s success. Throughout Rambo III, Zaysen is painted as a killing machine devoid of emotion or humanity, but even when he surrounds Rambo with an entire army at the climax, he lacks any real tangible menace. Brando could have really injected some life into the role and have a least give the character some dimension, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.