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A forceful and dynamic star of stage, film and television for over six decades, Karl Malden was an Academy Award-winning actor who found fame in the 1950s and 1960s in a wide variety of character roles and the occasional lead. An exceptionally versatile performer, he could play all points on the moral compass with unwavering verisimilitude. Audiences believed him as both the lovelorn Mitch in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951) and the forthright Father Barry in "On the Waterfront" (1954) and as the lustful husband of a teenage bride in "Baby Doll" (1956) or as the tongue-in-cheek super-villain Julian Wells in "Murderers' Row" (1966). He shifted his attention to television in the 1970s and scored a sizable hit with "The Streets of San Francisco" (ABC, 1972-77) while lending his credibility to countless commercials for American Express. Well-respected by his peers in the industry, he also served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1989 to 1993.Born Mladen Sekulovich in Gary, IN on March 22, 1913, he was the son of Serbian and Czech parents and allegedly did not speak English until he entered kindergarten. Malden's father was an actor in his native Serbia, so it was...
A forceful and dynamic star of stage, film and television for over six decades, Karl Malden was an Academy Award-winning actor who found fame in the 1950s and 1960s in a wide variety of character roles and the occasional lead. An exceptionally versatile performer, he could play all points on the moral compass with unwavering verisimilitude. Audiences believed him as both the lovelorn Mitch in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951) and the forthright Father Barry in "On the Waterfront" (1954) and as the lustful husband of a teenage bride in "Baby Doll" (1956) or as the tongue-in-cheek super-villain Julian Wells in "Murderers' Row" (1966). He shifted his attention to television in the 1970s and scored a sizable hit with "The Streets of San Francisco" (ABC, 1972-77) while lending his credibility to countless commercials for American Express. Well-respected by his peers in the industry, he also served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1989 to 1993.
Born Mladen Sekulovich in Gary, IN on March 22, 1913, he was the son of Serbian and Czech parents and allegedly did not speak English until he entered kindergarten. Malden's father was an actor in his native Serbia, so it was little surprise his son developed an interest in acting as a boy through plays at their church and in his high school's drama department. A popular student, he was also athletically inclined and a top basketball player, but apparently a frequent target for wayward elbows; Malden earned his trademark nose by breaking it twice during games.
After graduating from the Emerson School for Visual and Performing Arts, Malden failed to land a basketball scholarship to Arkansas, so instead worked with his father in the infamous Gary steel mills from 1931 through 1934. He departed Indiana for the Goodman Theatre Dramatic School in 1934 and graduated in 1937 at the height of the Great Depression. While there, he adopted his stage name - Karl was taken from an uncle - and met Mona Graham, whom he would marry in 1938. Their marriage was the third longest lasting in Hollywood history, behind only actor Norman Lloyd and wife Peggy and legendary comic Bob Hope and wife Dolores.
Malden headed East for New York in 1937 and landed his first role on Broadway that year in Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy," which introduced him to the Group Theatre and director Elia Kazan, with whom he would collaborate on several memorable projects. More stage work soon followed, as did his first screen role in Garson Kanin's "They Knew What They Wanted" (1940), starring Carole Lombard. Malden's career was put on hold for military service in the Army Air Force during World War II, during which he appeared in the play and film "Winged Victory" (1944). He resumed his career in 1945 and earned excellent notices for Kazan-directed productions of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" (1947) and Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951).
His film career took off in 1951 with his reprisal of Mitch, the sad-eyed suitor of Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) opposite Marlon Brando in Kazan's film version of "A Streetcar Named Desire." His vulnerable portrayal won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and assured him a place as one of Hollywood's most dependable character actors. His versatility allowed him to tackle a wide variety of roles - from upstanding authority figures like the dogged police inspector in Alfred Hitchcock's "I Confess" (1953) and tough "waterfront priest" Father Barry (which earned him an Oscar nod) in Kazan's "On the Waterfront" (1954), to baseball star Jimmy Piersall's demanding dad in the biopic "Fear Strikes Out" (1957) and the over-possessive husband of a sexed-up teen bride in Kazan's controversial "Baby Doll" (1954). Malden also made his directorial debut through friend Richard Widmark, who starred in and produced "Time Limit" (1957), a wartime drama about an Army major (Richard Basehart) accused of collaborating with the North Koreans. He later completed the filming of the Western drama "The Hanging Tree" (1959) for director Delmer Daves.
Malden remained busy throughout the 1960s in a array of diverse roles, including the strict warden who butts heads with convict Burt Lancaster in "The Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962) and a stern settler opposed to James Stewart romancing his daughter (Malden's "Baby Doll" co-star Carroll Baker) in the epic Western, "How The West Was Won" (1962). More nuanced characters included a former outlaw-turned-sheriff in Marlon Brando's directorial debut "One Eyed Jacks" (1961), Steve McQueen's morally uncertain pal in "The Cincinnati Kid" (1966), and as Rosalind Russell's agent and romantic partner in "Gypsy" (1962), which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. There were also a few offbeat turns during the decade, most notably in the Dean Martin spy spoof "Murderers' Row," which cast him as Matt Helm's metal-nosed nemesis, and as a Southern millionaire with designs on stewardess Lois Nettleton in "Come Fly with Me" (1963).
Malden offered strong support as WWII General Omar Bradley to George C. Scott's "Patton" (1970), and balanced his time in the early years of the decade between American projects like Blake Edwards' ill-fated "Wild Rovers" (1971) and Italian films for directors like Dario Argento in "Cat O'Nine Tails" (1971), which cast him as a blind man attempting to uncover a killer's identity. Though he had been a frequent guest star on television during the 1950s, he had not committed to a series until 1972, when he was cast as veteran detective Mike Stone in the Quinn Martin-produced "The Streets of San Francisco." Malden was nominated for four Emmys and a Golden Globe for his performance. The show itself earned critical and viewer acclaim for its location shooting, automobile chases, gritty plots, and the father-son relationship between Malden and Michael Douglas as his younger partner. Their chemistry together was so strong that the show's ratings plummeted after Douglas departed, following the success of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), which he had produced. However, Douglas never forgot the man who mentored him, often paying tribute to him whenever given the chance. Malden would go on to borrow Detective Stone's trench coat and fedora for a series of terse TV spots for American Express, uttering the unforgettable catchphrase, "Don't leave home without it." The line quickly entered the national consciousness and became fodder for all manner of parodies, most notably by Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" (NBC, 1962- ). Malden would remain as the company's television spokesman for over 20 years.
Malden returned briefly to features for two dreadful disaster films - "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure" (1979) and "Meteor" (1979), which cast him as a NASA chief battling a colossal runaway asteroid - before settling into a string of well-received television movies. He gave series work another shot with "Skag" (NBC, 1980), a short-lived drama based on the Emmy-nominated TV movie of the same name about a Polish steel worker (Malden) who attempts to hold his family together after suffering a stroke. Other excellent made-for-TV features included "Miracle On Ice" (1981), which cast Malden as Herb Brooks, coach of the 1980 American Olympic hockey team who ultimately beat the Russian team against all odds; "Fatal Vision" (1984), with Malden in an Emmy-winning turn as Freddy Kassab, who attempts to prove that his daughter was murdered by her husband, Green Beret doctor Jeffrey McDonald; and "The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro" (1987), for which Malden played the ill-fated Leon Klinghoffer, who was murdered by terrorists aboard an ocean liner and shoved overboard. There were also a few film roles, including an unsympathetic turn as Barbra Streisand's abusive father in "Nuts" (1987).
Malden's output slowed considerably in the 1990s. He appeared as actress Patty Duke's doctor in the biopic "Call Me Anna" (1990) and reprised Mike Stone for the inevitable TV movie revival "Back to the Streets of San Francisco" (1992). The following year, he began his five-year term as the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and penned his autobiography, Where Do I Start? in 1997. Two years later, he found himself at the center of a Hollywood controversy when he championed a special Oscar for director Elia Kazan. The award was viewed as undeserved by many in the motion picture industry because of Kazan's role in naming alleged communists working in Hollywood before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1950s. Malden remained unmoved, citing Kazan's artistic contributions to the community, and arranged for Robert De Niro to present the award after Marlon Brando refused to appear at the ceremony in protest.
Malden's last on-screen performance to date came in a 2000 episode of "The West Wing" (NBC, 1999-2006). He spent much of the new millennium receiving awards and accolades from a variety of organizations, including a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2004. Malden also served as a member of the United States Postal Service's Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, which reviewed recommendations for postage stamps. For his contributions in this area, a postal station in Los Angeles was named after him in 2005. After a long life in the spotlight, the 97-year-old actor died at his Brentwood home on July 1, 2009, reportedly from natural causes.
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