From Oscar® winner to "Don't leave home without it" American Express pitchman - Karl Malden's Hollywood career has been long and varied. He began his career on stage in 1937 and over sixty years later, Malden was still going strong, with a 2000 appearance on TV's The West Wing. In the intervening years, Malden not only won an Oscar®, but also an Emmy, a SAG lifetime achievement award, as well as several Golden Globe nominations. He starred in a hit TV series and worked with an impressive list of Hollywood greats, from actors like Marlon Brando and Burt Lancaster to directors such as Elia Kazan and John Ford.
He was born Mladen Sekulovich on March 22, 1912 in Chicago. Malden's mother was Czech and his father Serbian. Raised in Gary, Indiana, Malden spoke Serbian as a child - and never learned English until he was in kindergarten. His father often produced plays at the local church. Malden appeared in many of these productions, including a stage version of Jack and the Beanstalk. In high school, he participated in drama and basketball. According to his autobiography, it was on the court that Malden's trademark nose was shaped; he apparently broke it twice while playing basketball.
After school, Malden, like many in his hometown, took a job in a steel factory. But in 1934, he left the factory, hoping to find more meaningful work. He attended the Arkansas State Teacher's College for a short time before enrolling at Chicago's Goodman Dramatic School. After graduation, Malden headed for New York where he joined the Group Theatre. Founded in 1931, the Group Theatre taught the groundbreaking Stanislavski method of acting. Here, Malden would make his Broadway debut in 1937's Golden Boy. One of his co-stars in the play, and another Group Theatre regular, was Elia Kazan.
Malden made his screen debut with a small part in 1940's They Knew What They Wanted. World War II would soon interrupt, putting his career aspirations on hold. During the war, Malden served as a noncommissioned officer in the 8th Air Force. He did make one wartime film, the star-filled recruiting drama Winged Victory(1944). The film led to a brief contract with Fox and Malden made several post-war movies for the studio including the spy thriller 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), Kiss of Death (1947), a crime drama with Victor Mature and Richard Widmark, and Boomerang! (1947), which starred Dana Andrews and was directed by old friend Kazan.
The same year, Kazan would cast Malden in two Broadway productions - first in Arthur Miller's All My Sons and then in Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire. Most of the Streetcar cast, including Malden, made the jump to the big screen in 1951 for a film adaptation of the play. For his role as Mitch, Malden was awarded the Best Supporting Actor Oscar®. A Streetcar Named Desire also won Oscar®s for Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), Best Supporting Actress (Kim Hunter), and Best Art Direction, as well as receiving eight more nominations. The film marked a definite turning point in Malden's career. After his Oscar® win, the roles started coming more quickly - and they were leading roles.
Malden's next big film (again with Kazan and Brando), came in 1954 with On the Waterfront. He would again be Oscar® nominated for his portrayal of Father Barry, the meddling, yet sympathetic priest. Malden rounded out the 50s with strong performances in films like: Baby Doll (1956), where he played a man married to a teenager; Fear Strikes Out (1957) a baseball biopic starring Anthony Perkins; and The Hanging Tree (1959), a Gary Cooper western that cast Malden as the villain. He also found time to direct his only film, the Korean War drama Time Limit (1957).
The 60s were equally busy for Malden. He teamed with Brando again in the revisionist western One-Eyed Jacks(1961). He played warden to Burt Lancaster's lifetime prisoner in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and he was Natalie Wood's agent in Gypsy (1962). He also appeared in John Ford's last western, Cheyenne Autumn(1964); a turn opposite Steve McQueen and Edward G. Robinson in the poker classic The Cincinnati Kid(1965); and a co-starring role in Billion Dollar Brain (1967) with Michael Caine.
By the '70s, roles were proving a little scarce for Malden though he did kick off the decade with a bang, playing Omar Bradley to George C. Scott's Patton (1970). In 1972, he took a job in television as Detective Mike Stone on The Streets of San Francisco. He was teamed with a then unknown Michael Douglas. The series ran five seasons (from 1972 - 1977) on ABC. Malden was Emmy nominated four times as Best Actor for The Streets of San Francisco but he never won (Malden's only Emmy win would come in 1985 for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Special for Fatal Vision ).
Malden served as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1989 - 1992. And in 2003, he received the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. It was presented by his old television co-star Michael Douglas. Upon receiving the award, Malden remarked, "I am thrilled to be honored by the Screen Actors Guild because I've been with it for such a long time. The Screen Actors Guild is sort of a highfalutin name for a union, and this union was always wonderful to work for. For the rank-and-file of the union to honor me is the best compliment I can receive."
by Stephanie Thames