Karl Malden, 97

Karl Malden, 97; Oscar-Winning Character Actor Had Long, Varied Career

Academy and Emmy award-winning actor Karl Malden passed away at the age of 97. Malden was president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1989-92 and received a Screen Actors Guild award for a lifetime of achievement in 2004.
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 2, 2009

Karl Malden, 97, an Academy Award-winning actor who excelled in plainspoken, working-class roles and was memorable as the shy suitor in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and as a brave priest in "On the Waterfront," died July 1 at his home in Los Angeles. No cause of death was reported.

With his bulbous nose and thinning hair, Mr. Malden was one of the most recognizable sights in movies and on television for five decades. In the 1970s, he became known to millions of viewers as a veteran police detective who partners with a young inspector, played by Michael Douglas, in the ABC drama series "The Streets of San Francisco."

The show led to Mr. Malden's 21-year role as the trench coat-wearing pitchman for American Express who urged customers not to leave home without traveler's checks. He joked that this became his best-known part, although he appeared in more than 70 feature films and television movies and achieved a reputation as one of Hollywood's most versatile actors.

Mr. Malden was a steelworker before winning important stage roles on Broadway. He made his greatest mark in 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 Mr. Malden could tell Brando to "go to hell" without being intimidated.

Kazan directed Mr. Malden and Brando in Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire" on Broadway in 1947 and in the 1951 film version. Mr. Malden won an Oscar for his supporting role as Mitch, who romances an emotionally fragile Southern belle, the sister-in-law of Brando's character, the brutish Stanley Kowalski. Jessica Tandy played the woman onstage, and Vivien Leigh was in the film version.

Mr. Malden wrote in a memoir that casting Leigh in the film made it possible for Kazan to use the lesser-known actors from the stage play. "If Jessica had played it, I wouldn't have been in the movie, and neither would Kim Hunter [as Brando's stage wife]. Because Jessica was no star and neither was Brando. But Vivien, who after 'Gone With the Wind' was the biggest thing you ever saw -- she could carry us all."

Again working under Kazan, Mr. Malden played the dockside priest who rallies a punched-out prizefighter (Brando) to stand against a corrupt union in "On the Waterfront" (1954). Mr. Malden received another Oscar nomination for his performance. He also 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 in "On the Waterfront."

Perhaps none of Mr. Malden's films received as much publicity as "Baby Doll" (1956), based on two short plays by Williams. The film, again with Kazan directing, gave Mr. Malden a rare chance for a leading role. He played a devious Southern cotton gin operator desperate to consummate his marriage to a teenage bride (Carroll Baker). Eli Wallach plays his young rival in business and love, who ultimately cuckolds Mr. Malden's character.

The film's plot and provocative advertising -- Baker was shown sucking her thumb and sleeping in a crib -- provoked outrage among Catholic groups. Cardinal Francis J. Spellman said ticket buyers were courting sin.

Mr. Malden said 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."

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