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Oscar-winning actor Karl Malden dies at 97

Malden starred in TV's 'The Streets of San Francisco' and made famous the American Express catchphrase 'Don't leave home without it.' He appeared in more than 50 films over his long career.

July 02, 2009|Dennis McLellan

Karl Malden, a versatile Oscar-winning actor who built a six-decade Hollywood career playing heroes and heavies -- and, often, relatable ordinary men -- yet who was certain he was best known as a commercial pitchman for American Express, has died. He was 97.

Malden died Wednesday of natural causes at his Brentwood home, said Mila Doerner, a daughter.

He received his Academy Award for playing Mitch in the 1951 film "A Streetcar Named Desire," a role he originated on Broadway. Two decades later, he starred in the 1970s TV series "The Streets of San Francisco" with Michael Douglas, then in his late 20s.

In a statement to The Times, Douglas called Malden a "mentor" whom he "admired and loved" deeply.

For more than 20 years, Malden was the spokesman for American Express travelers checks who turned "Don't leave home without them" into a national catchphrase in a series of commercials that debuted in 1973.

In a company that has become known for its celebrity spokespeople, Malden "was one of the first and most memorable," Joanna Lambert, a company vice president, told The Times in an e-mail.

Johnny Carson spoofed Malden's sober-faced ads on "The Tonight Show," and Malden often recalled that people were always throwing a version of the tagline -- "Don't leave home without it" -- back at him.

With his unglamorous mug -- Malden had broken his bulbous nose twice playing sports as a teenager -- the former Indiana steel-mill worker realized early on the course his acting career would take.

"I never thought I was salable," Malden recalled in a 2004 interview. "I learned in my second year of drama school that I was not a leading man -- I was a character actor. So I thought, I'd better be the best character actor around."

In a movie career that flourished in the 1950s and '60s, Malden played a variety of roles in more than 50 films, including the sympathetic priest in "On the Waterfront," the resentful husband in "Baby Doll," the warden in "Birdman of Alcatraz," the pioneer patriarch in "How the West Was Won," Madame Rose's suitor in "Gypsy," the card dealer in "The Cincinnati Kid" and Gen. Omar Bradley in "Patton."

The variety of the roles established Malden, former Times film critic Charles Champlin once wrote, "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."

Eva Marie Saint, who worked with him in 1954's "On the Waterfront" and became a good friend, called Malden "a consummate actor."

He "never changed, he always became the character. If you watch his work, he never falls, there's never a false move," she told The Times on Wednesday.

Malden was a longtime holdout on television roles until he agreed to play Lt. Mike Stone on the ABC police drama "The Streets of San Francisco." It ran from 1972 to 1977 and earned him four consecutive Emmy nominations.

He won his sole Emmy for portraying a man who begins to suspect that his daughter was murdered by her husband in the fact-based 1984 miniseries "Fatal Vision."

Although he could find his American Express fame "frustrating," the commercials gave him an actor's luxury: financial independence.

"I don't have to jump at anything and everything that comes my way," he said in 1989.

He was born Mladen Sekulovich in Chicago on March 22, 1912, the son of an immigrant mother from the nation that later became Czechoslovakia and a Serbian father, who was a milkman.

Malden spoke little English until his family moved from their Serbian enclave in Chicago to the steel-mill town of Gary, Ind., when he was 5.

Malden's father staged Serbian plays at church and in Serbian organizations in Gary. As a teenager, Malden often appeared in them and in plays in high school. He also played high school basketball.

After graduating in 1931, he spent three years working in a steel mill before deciding to enroll in the Goodman School of Drama at the Art Institute of Chicago.

At the school, he underwent strenuous training to rid himself of the remains of his Slavic accent. Malden also helped build scenery, took acting classes and appeared in plays.

The most important thing he learned, he later recalled, "was to enjoy working on a part."

After graduating from Goodman in 1937, he was too broke to pay $5 for his diploma. He worked briefly as a milkman in Gary, then headed for New York with $175 in savings.

In Manhattan, he met Harold Clurman and Elia Kazan of the Group Theater, a legendary repertory company, and debuted on Broadway in 1937 as a fight manager in a company production of Clifford Odet's "Golden Boy."

Kazan, who would play a prominent role in Malden's stage and film career, urged young Mladen Sekulovich to change his name. The actor devised his stage name by taking his maternal grandfather's first name and turning "Mladen" into "Malden."

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