Karl Malden: Actor known for his gritty film roles who found wider fame in 'The Streets of San Francisco'
Saturday 04 July 2009
Character actors, by definition, rarely stand out in the Hollywood crowd, unlike leading men whose chiselled features are etched in the public's consciousness. Karl Malden was the exception.
"You know," people would say when trying to describe him. "The guy with the nose." That bulbous, battered nose, which resembled a root vegetable trying to escape out of the middle of his face (the result of being broken twice in school football matches) became as much a trademark of the man as anything else he did. Never handsome, Malden was sensible enough to realise that matinee-idol status was beyond his grasp, but felt that if he couldn't make it as an actor the way he looked, who wanted to make it anyway? If anything those craggy features endeared him to the public, reassured them. In the 1970s it was Malden and not some vacuous pretty boy star who became the TV face of American Express cards, the man who first urged America: "Don't leave home without it."
Raised in Gary, Indiana, Karl Malden was born Mladen Sekulovich in Chicago on 22 March 22 1914, the son of Yugoslavian immigrants. At an early age he showed a talent for sport, excelling in basketball and baseball at high school. He wasn't considered good enough to take part in drama classes. Malden won an athletic scholarship to Arkansas State Teachers' College, with the intention of becoming an athletic coach. But his college career lasted only three weeks following a series of football injuries and the fact that he could no longer pay his tuition fee. Returning home, in the midst of the Depression, Malden reluctantly followed his father and brother into the local steel mills that were the biggest in America outside Pittsburgh.
Fed up with the drudgery of manual labour and the realisation after working for two years that he wasn't getting anywhere, Malden desired to do something more with his life. A friend was working backstage at the Chicago Art Institute's Goodman Theatre School and Malden went along to help out, as yet with no inkling of becoming an actor, despite being a keen cinemagoer. Soon Malden was studying to become a stage hand as luckily his father knew some officials at the stage hand's union. It was at the suggestion of one of the directors that he take a small part in a production. Malden never looked back, despite the fact that on graduation in 1937 he couldn't afford the $5 fee for his diploma – an omission rectified in 1990 with the award of an honorary one.
At the urging of a local playwright Malden decided to head for New York. As usual finance was a problem so Malden worked delivering milk until he had raised enough money to make the trip. He also decided to change his name, switching the letters around in his first name, altering Mladen to Malden, and prefacing it with Karl, a name he'd always liked. Refusing to be discouraged by the lack of work Malden managed to scrape together a few roles in radio plays, but most importantly became involved with the Actor's Studio, making friendships that lasted his whole life with such soon-to-be luminaries as Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando. When Kazan became a Broadway director he and Malden were frequent collaborators, notably on his breakthrough production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.
For the 1951 film version Kazan persuaded Malden to come to Hollywood to reprise the role he had created on stage, that of the ageing bachelor who courts Blanche Dubois. Malden went on to win the Oscar that year as Best Supporting Actor. Kazan later directed Malden in the controversial Baby Doll (1956) and On The Waterfront (1954), for which Malden was Oscar nominated. On The Waterfront also reunited Malden with Marlon Brando, their friendship further forged when Brando cast Malden in his directorial début, the western One-Eyed Jacks (1961).
Malden's time in New York happily coincided with what he called "The golden age of Broadway theatre." In seven post-war years he was cast in 16 hit plays, from his debut in Golden Boy to The Desperate Hours, All My Sons by Arthur Miller to Key Largo. But by the mid-50s he had begun to realise that his future lay in Hollywood so he uprooted his family and moved to Los Angeles. There he established himself as a supporting player par excellence in films as diverse as Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Cheyenne Autumn (1964) directed by John Ford, Nevada Smith (1966) with Steve McQueen, and Patton (1970), in which he portrayed General Omar Bradley.
Never a huge star, Malden was nevertheless revered by his fellow actors. In spite of his large 6ft 2in frame and distinctive features, he was recognised for his ability to inhabit a wide range of characters, whether comedic or dramatic, and make them believable. Malden's acting was sheer grind, not flamboyant or technical, just solid, decent acting. And it was always the product of hard work. Not surprising coming from a man who grew up in the Depression. He once said. "I was raised in a family where the question always was, 'What did you do today?' And you better have done something." For his part in The Cincinnati Kid (1965) as a crooked card dealer, for example, Malden went to Las Vegas for six weeks to study with a professional card dealer and learnt to cheat when he dealt so his actions would look realistic on screen.
Malden also briefly branched out into direction with 1957's Time Limit starring Richard Widmark, and when, during the making of The Hanging Tree (1959) with Gary Cooper the director fell ill, Malden was approached to finish the film. Though he often spoke about a desire to return behind the camera Malden did not seriously pursue it and never directed again. In 1966 he did fulfil a life-long ambition to organise an actor's workshop in a college. The idea came about from his drama school days as he noticed how badly students missed hearing from practising professionals. It was an experience so rewarding and stimulating that Malden set about teaching free at least one month a year at universities around the country.
After years of co-starring roles and sterling support work behind heavyweight stars like Burt Lancaster, Sean Connery and Michael Caine, it was television that finally gave Malden the role that would make his bulbous nose famous around the world. Quite an irony, as for years he had purposely avoided the medium, and it was only the persistence of the famed producer Quinn Martin that finally made him agree to play Lieutenant Mike Stone in The Streets of San Francisco. His five-year stint on the show, from 1972-77, saw him playing opposite a young Michael Douglas, whom he had known since he was born. When the two started work on the series Kirk Douglas told his son, "If anyone can teach you how to act, it's Karl."
In more recent years Malden was active in made-for-TV movies, often being the best thing in them. In 1985 he won an Emmy for his performance in Fatal Vision as a grieving father who wants justice for his imprisoned son. But perhaps his greatest professional achievement came in 1989 when at the age of 75 Malden was elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the first actor-president since Gregory Peck 20 years before. Despite his having served six years representing actors on the Academy's board of governors, the appointment still came as a surprise. As AMPAS president Malden presided over the annual Oscar ceremony and oversaw the daily function of the Academy as a world centre of film studies, training and education. Malden took huge pride in the job and imbued it with a vitality and energy that belied his age. He held the position for five years.
Karl Malden, actor: born Chicago 22 March 1914; married 1938 Mona Greenberg (Mona Graham) (two daughters); died Los Angeles 1 July 2009.
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