Karl Malden, one of Hollywood's strongest and most versatile supporting actors, who won an Oscar playing his Broadway-originated role as Mitch in "A Streetcar Named Desire," died today. He was 97.
Malden starred in the 1970s TV series "The Streets of San Francisco" and was the longtime American Express traveler's-check spokesman, warning travelers to not leave home without it. He died of natural causes at his home in Brentwood, said his daughter Mila Doerner.
With his unglamorous mug -- he broke 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 was so incredibly lucky," Malden once told The Times. "I knew I wasn't a leading man. Take a look at this face." But, he vowed as a young man, he wasn't going to let his looks hamper his ambition to succeed as an actor.
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 outlaw-turned-sheriff in "One-Eyed Jacks," the pioneer patriarch in "How the West Was Won," Madame Rose's suitor in "Gypsy," the card dealerin "The Cincinnati Kid" and Gen. Omar Bradley in "Patton."
His varied performances 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."
Malden was a longtime holdout to television until he agreed to play Lt. Mike Stone on the ABC police drama "The Streets of San Francisco," with Michael Douglas. The series, which ran from 1972 to 1977, earned Malden four consecutive Emmy nominations as lead actor in a drama series.
When he finally won his sole Emmy, it was for outstanding supporting actor in a limited series or special, as a man who begins to suspect that his daughter was murdered by her husband in the fact-based 1984 miniseries "Fatal Vision."
Malden also starred in "Skag," a short-lived 1980 NBC dramatic series in which he played a Serbian family man and union foreman at a Pittsburgh steel mill.
But for all his movie and television roles, it was primarily the series of American Express traveler's-check commercials Malden made between 1973 and 1994 that gave him his greatest public recognition. (Even Johnny Carson, complete with fake proboscis, dark suit and short-brimmed fedora, spoofed Malden's sober-faced commercials on " The Tonight Show.")
"After 50 years of doing all those other things in the business, wherever I go, the one thing people will say to me is, 'Don't leave home without it,' " Malden said in 1989. "What am I going to say? It's kind of frustrating in a way, but at the same time, American Express has been very good to me, and it's given me independence. I don't have to jump at anything and everything that comes my way."
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 delivered milk for 38 years.
Malden spoke little English until after his family moved from their Serbian enclave in Chicago to the steel-mill community of Gary, Ind., when he was 5.
Malden's father was a theater lover who staged Serbian plays in the church and in Serbian patriotic organizations in Gary. As a teenager, Malden played heavies -- usually Turks, complete with a big, black mustache -- in his father's productions.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times