Karl Malden, Oscar Winner, Dies At 97

Character Actor Best Known For Working-class Roles In Stage, Film And Television

July 02, 2009|By The Washington Post

Karl Malden, an Academy Award-winning actor who excelled in plain-spoken, working-class roles, including the awkward Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire and a brave priest in On the Waterfront, died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles. No cause of death was immediately disclosed. He was 97.

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

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

Mr. Malden was a steel worker before winning important stage roles on Broadway. He 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

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

Mr. Kazan directed the two 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 Mr. Brando's character, Stanley Kowalski. Jessica Tandy played the woman onstage and Vivien Leigh was in the film version.

Again working under Mr. Kazan, Mr. Malden was nominated for an Oscar in his role as the dockside priest who rallies a punched-out prizefighter (Mr. 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 Mr. Kazan's attention for what would be her movie debut.

Perhaps none of Mr. Malden's films received as much publicity as Baby Doll (1956), based on two short plays by Tennessee Williams. The film, again with Mr. 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.

Along with the plotline, the film's provocative advertising showing Baker sucking her thumb and sleeping in a crib provoked outrage among Catholic groups.

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 Mr. 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 the injuries left him resigned to never playing a romantic leading man.

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

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 preacher in Disney's Pollyanna (1960); a sheriff who whips Mr. Brando in One-Eyed Jacks (1961); and an inflexible warden in The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) with Burt Lancaster as his prisoner.

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

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

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