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King Karl

How Malden coquered the worlds of stage and screen.

April 26, 1998|Charles Champlin | Charles Champlin is the retired arts editor of The Times

Even now, when the commercials no longer run, strangers who run into Karl Malden invariably say, "I hope you didn't leave home without it" or some variation thereon. And a few years ago, going to lunch in Studio City, Malden found a parking space across Ventura Boulevard from the restaurant and, seeing no cars in either direction, crossed the street. A police car sped into view and ticketed him for jaywalking. Curiously the officer did not ask his name and when Malden examined the ticket, he discovered it was issued to Mike Stone--the detective he was then playing on the '70s ABC series "Streets of San Francisco." Malden cheerfully tore up the ticket.

It is an irony, pleasing but still ironic, that 21 years of an American Express commercial and five seasons of the series made Malden more recognizable to more people than 60 years of superior acting in theater and film, with an Academy Award for "A Streetcar Named Desire" among many other honors, and a reputation as one of the strongest and most versatile supporting actors in Hollywood.

His performance as Marlon Brando's beer-drinking, poker-playing crony in the original stage company of "Streetcar" and then in the film; his sympathetic priest, again with Brando, in "On the Waterfront"; his cuckolded husband of Carroll Baker in "Baby Doll"; the warden in "Birdman of Alcatraz"; Gen. Omar Bradley in "Patton"; and his work in dozens of other films established him as an Everyman, but one whose range moved easily up and down the levels of society and the IQ scale, from heroes to heavies and ordinary, decent guys just trying to get along.

"I figured I was never going to be a leading man," Malden says, "and it's probably spared me a lot of heartbreak."

With all the honors he has earned and the treasury of fine work he has put on film, Malden feels that his monument will be the superb library of the motion picture academy on La Cienega Boulevard in Beverly Hills. During his two terms as president of the academy, Malden and Bob Rehme, head of the Academy Foundation, raised a $12-million endowment to complete and sustain the library, which was originally built in the '20s, in the style of an Italian church, bell tower and all, to disguise the city's water works. The refurbishing was completed in January 1991.

The largest single gift from outside the industry was from American Express, and the top-floor conference room at the library is named for Malden.

No two Hollywood success stories are alike, and Malden's seems as improbable as any. The Serbs have a word for it--sudbina, or fate--Malden says in his highly readable new autobiography, "When Do I Start?" (Simon and Schuster), which he wrote with his screenwriter daughter, Carla.

Malden's father, Petar Sekulovich, a Serbian immigrant, arrived at Ellis Island on April 18, 1906, bound for San Francisco. But it was the day of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire, and his father landed in the Serbian community in Chicago instead. Malden was born there in 1913 and named Mladen Sekulovich. He spoke almost no English until the family moved to Gary, Ind., when he was 5. Starting school was hard, Malden says, because he not only couldn't spell many of the words, he didn't know what they meant.

His father drove a milk wagon for 38 years. When he graduated from horse-drawn wagon to a truck, Sekulovich was asked which he preferred. "Horse knows route. Truck don't," he said.

But his father was also a lover of theater and knowledgeable about it. He staged productions at Serbian patriotic organizations in Gary. Karl and other teenage boys were usually cast as Turkish brigands with false mustaches and beards. The elders would play the pashas. It was Malden's earliest taste of performance.

In high school, Malden began to be noticed as both an actor and an athlete, and was once briefly bounced from the basketball team for refusing to miss a performance. He was let back on the team in time to help win a championship game. He also played the lead in the high school's senior play, Shaw's "Arms and the Man."

He was promised an athletic scholarship at Arkansas College in Batesville, Ark., After hitchhiking to the campus, he lost the scholarship because he wouldn't play football as well as basketball and the school couldn't afford one-sport scholarships. (He had broken his nose twice in sports, and as he says, it was heroic to begin with.)

So he hitchhiked back to Gary and went to work in a steel mill, where he spent three years, finally at the open hearth furnaces, which paid $5 a day, the top pay.

"The furnaces are as near to hell as you can get," Malden said at lunch recently. "The doors open up and the flames shoot out. And it looks so glamorous in the movies, with the molten metal pouring into the molds. Forget it," he said, laughing scornfully, "it's hell."

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