Karl Malden, 97; won Oscar for 'Streetcar Named Desire'

By Beth Harris
Associated Press / July 2, 2009
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LOS ANGELES - Karl Malden, the Academy Award-winning actor whose intelligent characterizations on stage and screen made him a star despite his plain looks, died yesterday, his family said. He was 97.

Mr. Malden died of natural causes surrounded by his family at his Brentwood home, they told the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. He served as the academy’s president from 1989-92.

While he tackled a variety of characters over the years, he was often seen in working-class garb or a military uniform. His authenticity in grittier roles came naturally: He was the son of a Czech mother and a Serbian father and worked for a time in the steel mills of Gary, Ind., after dropping out of college.

Mr. Malden said he got his celebrated bulbous nose when he broke it a couple of times playing basketball or football, joking that he was “the only actor in Hollywood whose nose qualifies him for handicapped parking.’’

Mr. Malden made his greatest mark on Hollywood in the early 1950s as part of a group of New York theater stars - headed by actor Marlon Brando and director Elia Kazan - who were trying to bring an unpredictable, realistic style of acting to audiences

“I hadn’t met anyone that non-actorish before, non-theater-like,’’ Kazan once said of Mr. Malden. “The minute I saw him, I knew he came from something. It turned out to be the steel mills, and it was a thing that was very important for a director, because you feel, ‘Here’s a person who can play difficult parts, rough parts, physical parts, who doesn’t get frightened easily, who’s all there when I need him.’ ’’

Kazan said Mr. Malden was a great player to have opposite Brando because he had the impression Mr. Malden could tell Brando to “go to hell’’ without being intimidated.

Kazan directed Mr. Malden and Brando in Tennessee Williams’s drama “A Streetcar Named Desire’’ on Broadway in 1947 and then in the 1951 film version. Mr. Malden won the Oscar for his supporting role as Mitch, who romances an emotionally fragile Southern belle related to Brando’s character, Stanley Kowalski. Jessica Tandy played the woman onstage and Vivien Leigh was in the film version.

Again working under Kazan, Mr. Malden was nominated for an Oscar in his role as the dockside priest who rallies a punched-out prizefighter (Brando) to stand against a corrupt union in “On the Waterfront’’ (1954). Mr. Malden brought actress Eva Marie Saint, whom he had known at an acting workshop in New York, to Kazan’s attention for what would be her movie debut and Oscar-winning role as Brando’s love interest.

Among Mr. Malden’s more than 50 film credits were: “Patton,’’ in which he played General Omar Bradley, “Pollyanna,’’ “Fear Strikes Out,’’ “The Sting II,’’ “Bombers B-52,’’ “Cheyenne Autumn,’’ and “All Fall Down.’’

One of his most controversial films was “Baby Doll’’ in 1956, in which he played a dullard husband whose child bride is exploited by a businessman. It was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency for what was termed its “carnal suggestiveness.’’ The story was by “Streetcar’’ author Tennessee Williams.

Mr. Malden pointed out that because the marriage between “Baby Doll’’ and her husband was not consummated “it was the lack of sex that got the picture banned by the Catholic Church.’’

Mr. Malden gained perhaps his greatest fame as Lieutenant Mike Stone in the 1970s television show “The Streets of San Francisco,’’ in which Michael Douglas played the veteran detective’s junior partner.

During the same period, Mr. Malden gained a lucrative 21-year sideline and a place in pop culture with his “Don’t leave home without it’’ ads for American Express.

“The Streets of San Francisco’’ earned him five Emmy nominations. He won one for his role as a murder victim’s father out to bring his former son-in-law to justice in the 1985 miniseries “Fatal Vision.’’

Mr. Malden played Barbra Streisand’s stepfather in the 1987 film “Nuts’’; Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr. in the 1988 television film “My Father, My Son;’’ and Leon Klinghoffer, the cruise ship passenger killed by terrorists in 1985, in the 1989 television film “The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro.’’

He acted sparingly in recent years, appearing in 2000 in a small role on TV’s “The West Wing.’’

In 2004, Mr. Malden received the Screen Actors Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award, telling the group in his acceptance speech that “this is the peak for me.’’

Mr. Malden first gained prominence on Broadway in the late 1930s, making his debut in “Golden Boy’’ by Clifford Odets.

Mr. Malden steadily gained more prominent roles, with time out for service in the US Army in World War II (and a role in an Army show, “Winged Victory.’’)

Among his other stage appearances were “Key Largo,’’ “Winged Victory,’’ Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,’’ “The Desperate Hours,’’ and “The Egghead.’’

Mr. Malden was known for his meticulous preparation, studying a script carefully long before he stepped into his role.

“I not only figure out my own interpretation of the role, but try to guess other approaches that the director might like,’’ he said in a 1962 Associated Press interview. “I prepare them, too. That way, I can switch in the middle of a scene with no sweat.’’

“There’s no such thing as an easy job, not if you do it right,’’ he added.

Mr. Malden was born Mladen Sekulovich in Chicago. He regretted that to become an actor he had to change his name. He insisted that Fred Gwynne’s character in “On the Waterfront’’ be named Sekulovich to honor his heritage.

The family moved to Gary, Ind., when he was small. He quit his steel job 1934 to study acting at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre “because I wasn’t getting anywhere in the mills,’’ he recalled.

“When I told my father, he said: ‘Are you crazy? You want to give up a good job in the middle of the Depression?’ Thank God for my mother. She said to give it a try.’’

Mr. Malden and his wife, Mona, a fellow acting student at the Goodman, had one of Hollywood’s longest marriages, having celebrated their 70th anniversary in December.

Besides his wife, Mr. Malden leaves his daughters Mila and Cara, three granddaughters, and four great grandchildren.

Material from the Washington Post was used in this obituary.

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