Oscar-Winning Actor Had Long, Varied Film and TV Career

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."

Mr. Malden directed one film, "Time Limit" (1957), about a Korean War court-martial and starring his friend Richard Widmark. The movie received positive reviews, but Mr. Malden said he disliked the office politics required of a director and happily returned to a busy schedule of character roles, including in the 1962 musical "Gypsy" and the 1964 John Ford western "Cheyenne Autumn."

Mladen George Sekulovich, the son of Serbian immigrant laborers, was born March 22, 1912, in Chicago and raised in Gary, Ind. He changed his name in the late 1930s at Kazan's urging, but Mr. Malden said he felt so guilty that he tried to insert the name Sekulovich wherever possible on film, whether on an office nameplate or shouted out to a fellow TV detective in "The Streets of San Francisco."

Mr. Malden excelled in drama and athletics in high school. He twice broke his nose playing basketball, and he was resigned to never playing a romantic leading man.

"God knows I didn't have a pretty face to help me get parts, so in order to stay in this profession, I realized early on that I'd better know my business," he wrote in a 1997 memoir, "When Do I Start?" "I strived to be number one in the number two parts I was destined to get."

He saved up $300 quickly by accepting the most dangerous jobs at steel mills and then talked his way into a scholarship at Chicago's Goodman Theatre Dramatic School in 1934.

He came to New York in 1937 and won a tryout with the Group Theater, then casting Clifford Odets's drama "Golden Boy." It was through the show, in which he played a boxing manager, that Mr. Malden met Kazan.

Mr. Malden spent the next decade working steadily onstage. During World War II, he was assigned by the Army to entertain troops in the Moss Hart show "Winged Victory." He won wide acclaim after the war in Kazan's 1947 staging of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," playing a man seeking revenge against a war profiteer.

Then came "Streetcar," which propelled him to the front rank of character actors and led to his long Hollywood career. In Hollywood, Mr. Malden was cast as policemen in many of his early films, including Kazan's "Boomerang!" (1947) and Alfred Hitchcock's "I Confess" (1953).

He was particularly memorable as the cruel father of baseball player Jim Piersall (played by Anthony Perkins) in "Fear Strikes Out" (1957), the fire-and-brimstone minister in Disney's "Pollyanna" (1960), a sheriff who whips outlaw Brando in "One-Eyed Jacks" (1961) and an inflexible warden in "The Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962), with Burt Lancaster as his famous prisoner.

In "Patton" (1970), Mr. Malden played Gen. Omar Bradley to George C. Scott's glory-seeking Gen. George S. Patton Jr.

Mr. Malden said he wanted to "really let go" at Scott in one scene in which Patton overstepped his authority, but he was told by Bradley, the film's technical adviser, to play the scene calmly.

Why would you react calmly, Mr. Malden asked Bradley.

"Because I've got one more star on my shoulder than he has," Bradley said.

One of Mr. Malden's favorite parts was in "Hotel," a 1967 film based on an Arthur Hailey novel. In playing a hotel thief named Keycase, Mr. Malden said he relished the challenge of making "something with no dialogue come to life."

He was nominated four times for an Emmy for "The Streets of San Francisco," and he won for outstanding supporting actor in a limited series or a special for "Fatal Vision" (1984), in which he played the father-in-law of a murderer. He continued to take occasional film and television parts, among them Barbra Streisand's father in "Nuts" (1987) and a priest in an episode of "The West Wing."

From 1989 to 1992, he was president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and helped raise millions of dollars to build a library and film research center. In 2004, he received a Screen Actors Guild award for a lifetime of achievement.

Survivors include his wife of 70 years, former actress Mona Graham; two daughters, Mila and Carla; three granddaughters; and four great-grandchildren.

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