When I found out that Karl Malden died last week, I initially recalled many of my favorite roles that he played and thought about how much he would be missed.
His peaceful demise at 97 years of age doesn’t qualify as a tragedy, but even as a signpost of normal passage, there is genuine bereavement at his departure.
As an actor and persona, Malden was so steady, so permanent. It never occurred to me that there would be a world without Karl Malden. He simply had always been there in movies, television and before all that, a belwether of Broadway.
As I considered Malden’s career, it occurred to me that a seminal era in American acting is drawing towards final curtain.
Karl Malden was not only Hollywood’s version of Methuselah; he was one of the last of the original New York City Group Theatre alumni.
Lasting only a decade, the Group’s influence on American acting was enormous. In addition to introducing the works of Clifford Odets and Irwin Shaw, the Group Theatre ended up birthing the short-lived Actors Lab in Hollywood, the more famous and still thriving Actors Studio, the famous (or infamous) Method Acting and a legion of outstanding artists whose continuing work comprise a living legacy to the original core founded by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg back in 1931.
Take a look at the opening night cast of Golden Boy from 1937:
Harry Bratsburg (Harry Morgan)
Charles Crisp (Charles McGraw)
Jules Garfield (John Garfield)
Mladen Sekulovich (Karl Malden)
Of this awesome array of talent, there remains only Harry Morgan, aged 94, as the last man standing. One can only wonder what would have happened with the careers of many of this cast had they not been damaged by the Blacklist, but that is another story.
Mladen Sekulovich worked alongside his Father in the Gary, Indiana steel mills and knew that he needed something better. He parlayed $300 into a 90 day trial scholarship at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago that became a three year gig. Deciding that he wanted to be a stage actor in New York, the young actor who later changed his name to Karl Malden for professional reasons appeared in twenty four plays over two decades in the Big Apple. Most of these plays were flops, but he remained undeterred:
“Maybe other people could learn from books or classes, but I had to get up there to do it. I also felt that in order to hit a home run, you had to get up to bat. And I just wanted to get to get up to bat.”*
Malden finally “went yard” with A Streetcar Named Desire. Knowing that acting is reacting, he believed that treading the boards with Marlon Brando in Streetcar elevated his work to a higher level:
“Marlon was the first one to make it sound with every line as if it were happening for the first time… I’ve always said that when you work with a genius, you know you can’t be a great as a genius, but you are certainly going to try to push him around”*
Malden came to Hollywood in 1940 while appearing in the play Key Largo with Paul Muni and Tom Ewell. He landed a bit part in Carson Kanin’s They Knew What They Wanted but didn’t do much in films until he finally connected on stage with Streetcar. His film career gained traction as a supporting copper in Boomerang! followed by Kiss of Death. Malden tended bar for Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter and was elevated to Detective-Lieutenant in Otto Preminger’s underrated Where the Sidewalk Ends. After Streetcar was made into a movie by Warner Brothers in 1952 and Malden won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, he was firmly established as a film actor to be reckoned with. Possessing a proboscis unseen in movies since the heyday of W.C. Fields, Karl Malden willed himself to become a master character actor.
I observed Karl Malden at length while watching On the Waterfront during an elective high school film course; Naturally, I ditched other classes to watch it over and over again. His unforgettable speech as Father Barry while standing in the hold of a ship next to the body of a murdered longshoreman- “Boys, this is my Church! And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you’ve got another guess coming!” – remains one of the most seminally emotive scenes of the previous century. I appreciated him in so many other movies; Karl Malden never gave a bad performance.
I also enjoyed him on television in The Streets of San Francisco as Lt. Mike Stone (what a perfect name!) mentoring Michael Douglas for four seasons and then Richard Hatch for one. It probably wasn’t easy for a sixty-odd year old man to go running up alleys and hopping over fences for twelve hours a day over five years, but he did it and was grateful for the work. Producer Quinn Martin generously put Malden down for a quarter-percentage of the series so Streets (along with his income as a pitchman for American Express for two decades), allowed him to live much more comfortably than most actors from his era.
Most of all, I remember Karl Malden for his explosive exclamations. His visceral expressions of character were invariably expressed in declarative sentences or sentence fragments, often at high volume:
“Give me that blamed mop!” (The Gunfighter)
“Gimme a Beer!”(On The Waterfront)
“…George, you’re a pain in the neck! (Patton)
“YOU DIDN’T HAVE THE GUTS!!!! (Nevada Smith)
And of course…
Karl Malden was a universally respected man, no easy accomplishment in Hollywood. One of his estimable traits was a fierce loyalty to close friends and colleagues. He wrote Marlon Brando a note after the legendary actor’s final appearance in The Score (2001) was savaged by several critics who were repelled by Brando’s grotesque obesity:
“I don’t give a f!*# how much you weigh; you’re still the greatest actor who ever lived!”
He had a similarly close relationship with his Streetcar director, Elia Kazan. Much of Malden’s most impressive film work, Boomerang!Streetcar, On the Waterfront and Baby Doll was wraught with Kazan at the helm. .
Fast forward four decades later. As a member (and later President) of the Motion Picture Academy Board of Governors, Malden nominated Elia Kazan for a Lifetime Achievement Award, arguing that art and politics should be kept entirely separate.This precept was a logical, but unworkable tenet. Malden stuck by ‘Gadge’ Kazan during what would become an exceedingly controversial decision due to the director’s naming of his friends and colleagues during the Blacklist period. Kazan eventually received his Lifetime Award amidst much emotion. It was an admirable gesture by the actor’s actor for a friend and colleague whose work is rightfully venerated, but whose character never could be.
One of the most successful film actors in terms of quality and longevity, Karl Malden was able to look back, and pinpoint exactly why Hollywood changed and not for the better:
“I didn’t think I would ever see the day when I missed Jack Warner. And Darryl Zanuck, Louie B. Mayer, Harry Cohn. All these people who ran the business. They were competitive. Plus, they loved what they were doing. And even if they did four or five miserable movies, they always had to have one or two films with class. Because it was a business; they had to fill the theatres with something. But there was always a moment when they said, ‘We’re going to spend an extra million on this, we’re going to get every movie star we can, the best director…’ In other words, they were proud of their name, ‘Warner Brothers’. They were proud of their name, ‘20th Century Fox’. And this was their pride. MGM was proud of their musicals that they were able to do with Astaire and Gene Kelly. That was their pride. Each studio had their pride. They don’t have that today. There is no studio today… It’s a different business.”*
It’s difficult to resign oneself that an actor with so much perceptive professionalism is no longer around. It’s hard to accept a world without Karl Malden.
* Quoted with thanks from Hollywood Remembered: An Oral History of Its Golden Age by Paul Zollo.