He had a six-decade career, and played every role from Academy Award-winning characters to advertising pitchman and author. Everyone knows his face: those distinctly non-matinee-idol looks, that strangely prominent proboscis (he broke his nose twice playing basketball in high school), those warm and expressive eyes. The man behind that face is Karl Malden.
A Serbian immigrant who couldn’t speak a word of English until he got to kindergarten, Malden was born Mladen Sekulovich in Gary, Indianaa world far removed from Hollywood. Gary was a steel town, and when a young man finished school in Gary, he went to work in the steel mills. Malden worked in the steel mills in Gary for three years until finally, in 1934 when, fed up with the drudgery of manual labor, he took a Depression-era gamble and left the mills to follow a pipe dream. After a brief stint at the Arkansas State Teacher’s College, he enrolled at the Goodman Theater Dramatic School and never looked back. Three years later he headed to New York to seek his fortune.
Malden quickly became involved with the Group Theater, a radical organization of actors and directors who were changing the face of Broadway. Malden’s own unforgettable face was shortly in the spotlight when he made his Broadway debut in 1937. His performance caused a stir, and caught the attention of fledgling director Elia Kazan. With Kazan directing, Malden blazed a trail across the Broadway boards in shows like “All my Sons” by Arthur Miller, and “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams.
Just as Malden was finding professional success, he met up with an old classmate from the Goodman School, Mona Greenberg, and his personal life became even sweeter. The two married and eventually had two daughters, although they were separated briefly when Malden enlisted for World War II service with the Army Air Force from 1943 through 1945.
Malden returned from his tour of duty unharmed and immediately went back to work. His brief hiatus had not halted his career. From the “Golden Era” of Broadway, he made a transition to the movies, making his first screen appearance in “They Knew What They Wanted” in 1940. Job offers from Hollywood came rolling in and in 1951 Malden won the Oscar for his performance as Mitch in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Malden was proving himself to be a complex character actor, at his best and most disturbing with roles that either carried great moral weight or none at all, such as Father Corrigan in “On the Waterfront” (1954) or the Southern lecher Archie Lee in “Baby Doll” (1956). He also turned in a memorable performance in John Ford’s “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964) as Captain Wessels. The film, which wound up being Ford’s last, was shot in Monument Valley.
In the 1970’s, however, Malden found the medium that would launch him into superstardom: television. As Detective Lieutenant Mike Stone in “The Streets of San Francisco” (1972-1977), co-starring with a young Michael Douglas, Malden came into millions of American homes every week. He also became the pitchman for American Express, a position he held for twenty-one years.
The crowning achievement of Malden’s career, however, came in 1988 when he was elected President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a title he held for five years.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Malden wrote his memoir in 1997, “When Do I Start?: A Memoir.” How was this incredibly versatile talent able to offer us so much? Malden described it best when he said, “I’m a workaholic. I love every movie I’ve been in, even the bad ones, every TV series, every play, because I love to work. It’s what keeps me going.”