Karl Malden (1912-2009)
Karl Malden was a character actor with the gravity and charisma, although not the face, of a leading man. He had a long career first appearing as an actor on Broadway in 1937, then several decades as a top supporting movie actor and finally making the successful transition to television drama in the 1970's crime series, 'The Streets of San Francisco'. In the 1980's he became well known as the face of American Express advising us all "Don't leave home without it".
He embodies a no-nonsense Midwestern panache little seen in today's bland movieland. Yet there always seems to be something precariously simmering behind his stolid demeanor, even when he's playing a patented stand-up guy, which, it turns out, isn't that often.
Karl Malden was born Mladen Sekulovich in Chicago, Illinois of Czech and Serbian parents in March 1912, the eldest of three brothers. In high school he excelled at basketball and broke his nose twice while playing, which resulted in his unmissable bulbous nose.
From 1931 to 1934 he worked in the steel mills, following his father,but then after attending the Goodman Theater Dramatic School he decided to follow his instincts and pursue an acting career. He moved to New York and made his Broadway debut in 1937 where he came to the attention of the young Director, Elia Kazan.
Under Kazan's direction, Malden's Broadway career really took off in plays like 'All My Sons' by Arthur Miller and 'A Streetcar Named Desire' by Tennessee Williams. After duty in the 8th Air Force during World War II he again immersed himself in his work and made the transition to movies. He made his debut in 'They Knew What They Wanted' in 1940 and had larger roles in 'The Gunfighter' and 'Halls of Montezuma' in 1950. Then in 1951 he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his career-defining performance as Mitch in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'.
He became a regular Hollywood character actor and appeared in many movies over the next two decades including 'On the Waterfront' in 1954, 'Baby Doll' in 1956, 'Birdman of Alcatraz' and 'How the West Was Won' both in 1962, 'The Cincinnati Kid' in 1965, and 'Patton' in 1970, playing General Omar Bradley.
He could play the avuncular with the best of them too, as a police detective in his biggest mid-career hit, TV's reliable cop show 'The Streets of San Francisco' from 1972 to 1976, which benefitted from his obvious rapport with his co-star, the young Michael Douglas. Such mutable intensity is the Method actor in him, no doubt; But along with an underlying whimsy and watchful intelligence, Method acting is what makes Malden so indelible a presence in every role he takes.
Malden's last screen appearance was his iconic guest spot as priest and presidential confessor, Father Thomas Cavanaugh in an episode of TV's White House drama 'The West Wing' in 2000.
Offscreen, he was elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1988, a title he held for five years.
Malden married Mona Greenberg in December, 1938, and their marriage of over 70 years was one of the longest in Hollywood's history. They had two daughters, Mila and Carla.
After being in failing health for several years Karl Malden died at his home in Los Angeles on July 1, 2009. He was 97 years old.
Karl Malden Academy AwardsOne Win:
Best Supporting Actor ... A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Supporting Actor ... On the Waterfront (1954)