Sacheen Littlefeather: 5 Things To Know About Late Actress Who Declined Marlon Brando’s Oscar

The activist and actress passed away on Sunday, nearly 50 years after her famed Academy Awards speech, where she declined Marlon Brando's Best Actor award for 'The Godfather.'

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Image Credit: Rob Latour/Shutterstock

Sacheen Littlefeather died at age 75 on Sunday, October 2. The actress’s passing was announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences. A cause of death was not shared. While Sacheen’s acting career was brief, she will always hold an important place in film history for her speech on behalf of Marlon Brando, where she declined his award for Best Actor at the 45th Annual Oscars. Find out more about the late actress here.

Sacheen holding up her lengthy speech at the 1973 Academy Awards. (Shutterstock)

1. Sacheen Is Most Well-Known For Her 1973 Academy Awards Speech

Sacheen became nationally known when she went on stage after Marlon won the Best Actor award for The Godfather. When she walked to the podium, she put up her hand to decline the Oscar, as Roger Moore tried to hand it to her, and proceeded to give a speech declining the award. “I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech, which I cannot share with you presently because of time, but I will be glad to share with the press afterward, that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” she said. “The reasons for this being: are the treatment of Native Americans today by the film industry—excuse me—and on television in movie reruns and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee. I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening, and that we will in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando.”

During Sacheen’s speech, the audience could be heard both booing and applauding her turning down the award. It’s been reported that John Wayne was held back by security guards as Sacheen made the speech, per The GuardianDespite the claims, it’s also been disputed as to whether this event actually happened, via The Los Angeles TimesFollowing the Award Show, Sacheen’s lengthy speech was published by The New York Times.

Sacheen looked back on the moment in an August interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “You know, I never stood up onstage in 1973 for any kind of accolades. I only stood there because my ancestors were with me, and I spoke the truth,” she said.

2. The Academy Apologized For How She Was Treated In June

After almost 50 years, The Academy announced that it would formally apologize to Sacheen for how she was treated in August. She called the apology “long overdue” in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. A letter signed by Academy President David Rubin was released both commending the activist for her bravery but also promising that the Academy would continue to work toward inclusivity. “The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified.  The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable.  For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged,” he wrote. “Today, nearly 50 years later, and with the guidance of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance, we are firm in our commitment to ensuring indigenous voices—the original storytellers—are visible, respected contributors to the global film community.”

Sacheen being interviewed for a PBS documentary. (Shutterstock)

3. She Appeared In Only 7 Movies

While Sacheen is most well-known for the Oscar moment, her film career was very brief. Of her seven movie roles, two of them were uncredited. Two of her most well-known roles came after the 1973 speech, where she appeared in The Trial Of Billy Jack (1974) and Johnny Firecloud (1975), per IMDb. Her final performance was in 1978’s Shoot The Sun Down. 

4. She Was A Native American Activist

Besides her film career, Sacheen has been very active in speaking out on Native American issues. Her website said that she was “very active” in the Bay Area, and that she occupied Alcatraz “to protest civil rights violations against the Indian people.” She was also a founder of the American Indian AIDS Institute in California, per Indian Country Today.

Following the Academy Awards, Sacheen became an activist for a number of Native American causes. (Rob Latour/Shutterstock)

5. She Announced That She’d Been Diagnosed With Breast Cancer In 2018

While Sacheen’s cause of death has not been made public, the actress did announce that she had been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in March 2018, per The Wrap. She shared that the cancer had metastasized in January 2021. “I have metastasized breast cancer that has gone into my right lung, stage four, terminal…I look at every day as a gift of life. As I look back on my life, I look at it with pride that I did something that may have made a difference,” she said in a Facebook post.

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