Karl Malden, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning character actor who was best known over his six-decade career as the star of TV series “The Streets of San Francisco” and a series of American Express commercials, died of natural causes Wednesday at his home in Brentwood, Calif. He was 97.
Tall and heavyset, Malden was highly regarded for his versatility. He excelled at roles with an Everyman quality such as Mitch, the naive suitor of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He originated the role on Broadway and won a supporting actor Oscar for Elia Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation.
Though he was nominated for each of the five seasons of “Streets of San Francisco,” in which he starred opposite a young Michael Douglas, Malden won his Emmy for the 1984 miniseries “Fatal Vision.”
Douglas considered Malden to be his “true mentor” as an actor. Douglas made a point of saluting his longtime friend, calling him a “caring, thorough and generous teacher” while accepting the AFI Life Achievement Award on June 11.
“Karl more than anyone got me to understand that an actor is just one of a whole team that makes a TV series or movie work,” Douglas said. “Thanks to him, I learned about the dichotomy of standing alone in a craft where one must collaborate.”
Well respected in the entertainment community, Malden also served on the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and he was Acad prexy from 1989-91. He was also active in the Screen Actors Guild, serving on the board in the 1960s and early ’70s. Malden was feted with SAG’s lifetime achievement kudo in 2004.
Stardom came to Malden after almost two decades of supporting roles on stage and screen. As drama critic Herbert Mitgang once observed in the New York Times, “Malden represents the serious actor who had triumphed over what was once considered the greatest handicap — lack of glamour.”
Although loving caricatures of Malden emphasized his bulbous nose (which was the result of several football injuries in high school), his authoritative yet soothing voice was probably his most distinctive and unmistakable characteristic, familiar to American audiences in voiceover in countless TV commercials. As pitchman for American Express Travelers Cheques, he established the indelible catchphrase “Don’t leave home without it.”
Malden was born Mladen Sekulovich to Serbian immigrant parents in Chicago and grew up in Gary, Ind. He joked that he had changed his name “to fit theater marquees.”
He graduated high school with a basketball scholarship to Arkansas State Teachers College. But when his coach forbade him to appear in the school’s amateur theatricals, he dropped out and toured with a semi-pro basketball team before returning to Gary to work in the local steel mills and at other odd jobs.
His father, who had been an actor and director in Serbia, encouraged his ambitions, though Malden originally attended the Goodman Theater Dramatic School to study as a stagehand. When a director suggested he take a small part in a production of Tolstoy’s “Redemption,” Malden switched over to acting.
Malden met his future wife, Mona Greenberg, at Goodman. The two appeared together in numerous productions during their time at the school. The couple married in 1938 and celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in December.
During his years at Goodman, he met playwright Robert Ardrey, who wrote him a role in his play “How to Get Tough About It.” When the play was postponed, Malden was offered a part in the 1937 Group Theater production of Clifford Odets’ “Golden Boy,” in which he played Chocolate Drop’s manager. Also appearing in the production was a young actor, Elia Kazan, for whom Malden would later work several times when Kazan turned to directing.
Over the next decade, Malden played supporting roles on Broadway in such plays as “Key Largo,” “Sons and Soldiers,” and “Uncle Harry.” During WWII he joined the Army as a private and acted in the Army Air Force’s production of “Winged Victory,” by Moss Hart.
His first post-war appearance was in Kazan’s poorly received production of Maxwell Anderson’s “Truckline Cafe.” Kazan cast him in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” which was a huge success and brought Malden some of his finest notices, and in “Streetcar.”
He won an Oscar for the 1951 screen version of “Streetcar” along with co-stars Vivien Leigh and Kim Hunter, after having previously appeared in such films as “The Gunfighter” and “Boomerang.” The Oscar led to meatier roles in such films as “Ruby Gentry,” “I Confess” and, most memorably, as a priest in Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” for which he was again nominated for an Oscar. During this period, Malden developed lifelong friendships with Kazan, as well as with his “Streetcar” and “Waterfront” co-star Marlon Brando.
Although Kazan became a polarizing figure in Hollywood after he cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s, Malden never wavered in his public support of the helmer, and he was a prime force behind the Acad’s decision to award Kazan a life achievement Oscar in 1999.
Malden moved to Los Angeles in 1959, but he never abandoned the stage, returning to New York for a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” and Joseph Hayes’ “The Desperate Hours.”
Other memorable screen roles were in Kazan’s adaptation of playwright Williams’ “Baby Doll,” as a villain in the Marlon Brando-directed “One Eyed Jacks,” a singing role in the film version of “Gypsy” and supporting parts in “Birdman of Alcatraz,” “How the West Was Won,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” “Cheyenne Autumn,” “Patton” and “Nuts.”
From 1972-77, Malden starred as a tough police detective in “Streets of San Francisco,” with Douglas playing his youthful partner. After “Streets,” Malden starred in the short-lived 1980 NBC drama series “Skag.” He was in high demand for a range of roles in telepics and series in the 1980s and ’90s; he logged a guest shot in 2000 as a priest in an episode of “The West Wing.” He won his Emmy for playing a retiree who relentlessly pursues the truth of his daughter’s murder in the NBC mini “Fatal Vision.”
During his tenure as AMPAS prexy, Malden was instrumental in helping to relocate the Acad’s Margaret Herrick Library to its present spot as part of the Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study in Beverly Hills. Malden also devoted time in his later years to teaching acting classes at various campuses around the country.
In 1997 Malden penned his autobiography, “When Do I Start?” The actor was proud of having a West Los Angeles post office named after him in 2005, a tribute by the U.S. Postal Service in recognition of his contributions to the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, which helps suggest philatelic designs.
In addition to his wife, Malden is survived by two daughters, three granddaughters and four great-grandchildren.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)