Of all the celebrities who have passed in recent days, it’s likely that Karl Malden will receive the least amount of media attention.
True, Mr. Malden had been retired from acting from several years. And his heyday as a film and theater performer was more than 50 years ago, when he appeared such landmark productions as A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. Younger audiences knew him for his potrayal as General Omar Bradley in Patton; his 70s’ TV series (The Streets of San Francisco) or those ubiquitous commercials for American Express traveler’s cheques.
But the passage of time doesn’t diminish the exceptional caliber of Malden’s work. He was the original Mitch in Streetcar on Broadway, and won an Academy Award for his work in the film version (1954). Director Elia Kazan cast him again as Father Barry in On the Waterfront (1954) and he was the definitive General Bradley–and counterpart to George C. Scott–in Patton, released in 1970. He had other, equally memorable performances in such films as One Eyed Jacks, The Birdman of Alcatraz, and The Cincinnati Kid, among others.
Not a bad resume for the son of immigrants who grew as Mladen Sekulovich in the steel mill town of Gary, Indiana. He spoke Serbo-Croat until kindergarten. In high school, Sekulovich was a star basketball player who took his share of elbows to the face, giving him that distinctive, bulbous nose. The acting bug bit him while appearing in church plays, directed by his Serbian father. But when Mladen left the mills to become an actor, his father was stunned. He couldn’t imagine giving up a steady job for the insecurity of acting.
After a name change (and training at Chicago’s Goodman Theater), Malden made his first Broadway appearance in the late 1930s. In New York, he made the acquittance of Mr. Kazan, who would cast him in the plays and films that made him famous.
If Mr. Malden navigated his long career below the celebrity radar, it was by choice–and the fact that he didn’t behave like a star, at least by today’s standards. He was never the focus of a high-profile divorce trail; never fought with the paparazzi, or pulled a stint in rehab. Mr. Malden was married to the same woman for 70 years, served his country honorably during World War II (as an NCO in the Army Air Corps) and pursued his craft with diligence and integrity, qualities often lacking among the current crop of actors.
Malden was also willing to go against the Hollywood grain, as evidenced by an anecdote from 1999. By all accounts, he was the moving force behind an effort to award an honorary Oscar to Elia Kazan. While his reputation as a director was indisputable, Kazan was reviled by many in the film community for testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, listing communists within the entertainment industry. Mr. Kazan defended his actions until his death, earning the enmity of many of his peers.
As a governor of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, it was Mr. Malden who defied decades-old grudges (and political correctness) in proposing an honorary Oscar for his long-time friend and colleague. As he later described his speec for the Los Angeles Times:
“When I got up to talk, I suspected that there would be a big fight, but no one debated it at all,” Malden later told The Times. “I said that I’m nominating a dear friend, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s no place for politics in any art form. An award like this is about your body of work, and when it comes to a body of work, Elia Kazan deserves to be honored.
“When Malden finished speaking, The Times reported, he was greeted by a rousing burst of applause.
Thanks to Malden’s efforts, Mr. Kazan finally got his long-deserved Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1999, just four years before his death.
Here’s hoping that academy will bestow a similar honor on Karl Malden at next year’s ceremony.