At 76, his face is unlined, his cheeks are rosy and the familiar “don’t leave home without it” voice booms off the walls of a conference room. He still lifts weights, though they’re not nearly as heavy as in the years when he was in high school in Gary, Ind., or working--and playing basketball for the tournament team--at the local steel mill.
Now Karl Malden is into a second term as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences--a year that promises to be the busiest (and most expensive) in the Academy’s 63-year history. It’s just another notch on a career that counts more than 50 feature films, a dozen TV movies, a five-year series playing Lt. Mike Stone on “The Streets of San Francisco"--and all those TV commercials.
On Wednesday, the academy’s Center for Motion Picture Study opens at its new home, the historic Waterworks Building in Beverly Hills. The nearly $6-million center will include the Margaret Herrick Library and Academy Film Archive and will be, according to the academy, the world’s premier film research center. Its statistics are staggering: 5 million still photographs; clipping files on 60,000 films and 50,000 people; 18,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals; 5,000 scripts and over 12,000 films.
Meanwhile, Malden is helping to raise a $15-million endowment fund for the center over three years. With the first year completed, $6.8 million has been raised.
Last month the academy also reopened its refurbished movie theaters, and Malden jokes: “Isn’t that the way to go down in the history of the academy? Karl Malden spent all the academy’s money? I’ve been saying that since I took the presidency.”
Also last month, Malden went into production on “Absolute Strangers,” which will air on CBS this spring. Malden plays the father of Nancy Klein, the Long Island woman who underwent an abortion in February, 1989, to help her chances of recovery from a coma after an automobile accident. Klein’s husband Martin, an accountant, fought abortion opponents all the way to the Supreme Court in order to have the operation performed.
Malden, who broke into acting as a student at the Goodman Theater drama school in Chicago, won a best-supporting actor Oscar as Mitch, the aging bachelor, in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) and an Emmy as Freddy Kassab, the father on NBC’s “Fatal Vision” (1984).
Question: You’re an actor’s actor. . . .
Answer: That’s the kiss of death, an actor’s actor. . . . (It) means the public doesn’t know him or doesn’t care about him. You’re (supposed to play) for an audience and not for the other actors and yet I cherish and like it when the industry thinks I’m an actor’s actor. But when you’re going out looking for work, it’s a little tough.
Q: With an Oscar, an Emmy and that reputation, why did you want to be academy president?
A: I never in my life dreamed that I would be president of anything, and finally when a group got ahold of me and said “We’re going to make you president,” I said “You’re crazy. I don’t know how to run a meeting or anything.” (They) said that doesn’t matter. And to be frank there were two of us nominated. I voted for the other person.
Q: You said in a recent newsletter you “wouldn’t mind if the pace slowed down just a bit this year.”
A: It’s true; I’ve never made so many speeches in my life. I’ve never gone out and raised money for anything in my life. And now that I’m president I feel it’s my duty.
Q: I take it you see your role as an activist president?
A: I’m afraid I’m an activist. I’ll tell you why: When you commit yourself to something, you want to see something done, you want to leave something behind. . . . I didn’t start all this. Another president, Bob Wise, really started it, and Richard Kahn picked it up and yet I saw that there was an endowment fund committee which had never done anything for three years. I said, “Let’s activate it and get it started.” Bob Rehme took it over, and we’re quite proud of the fact that we’ve raised quite a bit of money. . . .
Q: Why was a new center needed?
A: Have you been down on the floor where the library was originally? We outgrew it. We have two warehouses filled with material we sometimes can’t get to. Now with it all being under one roof, it’s going to be much simpler, much easier to handle, and also we have enough room to go on for another 20, 25 years.
Q: The Beverly Hills Waterworks Building opened in 1927--the same year the academy was born. Does that have special meaning for you?
A: It certainly does. A member of the Beverly Hills board was Douglas Fairbanks, and he also started the academy. And if what we hear historically is true, it was he who said we have to build a plant to purify the water . . . and at the same time he was president of our board. So that’s the connection. An actor did it all.
Q: How is the endowment campaign going?
A: (Smiling) Have you gotten a letter from us yet to give us a little money? . . . We need the endowment to keep that library going for the rest of its life. If we invest it properly the interest off of that money will keep that library open so that no one else will have to worry, and we’ll never raise money again. This is a one-time deal.
Q: Who have been the major contributors so far?
A: Bob Hope--we’re naming the lobby of the library after him. He gave us a million dollars. Bob Wise asked him when he first started and he got it. And (the) DeMille (Trust) the Reading Room is going to be named after (Cecil B.) DeMille . . . same amount.
We started the whole thing wanting to get the industry behind it. The industry is the studios. We went to the studios and without any hesitation they all gave the same amount, so they’re all behind us. . . . I would rather not say (how much). Warners, 20th Century Fox, Columbia, Disney--help me name ‘em--Paramount, (MCA) Universal, (MGM-Pathe Communications) all the studios were right behind us. And then we went to the smaller, what we call the second-(level) producers and they all contributed. Not as much. . . And if I may say so with pride, a company that I love very much, American Express, gave us a good amount. . . .
And then the next step, we had three wonderful people who under their stationery--Michael Douglas, (Steven) Spielberg and Meryl Streep--sent letters out to people we felt were making a good amount of money in what they’re doing, and asking for $50,000. And you’d be surprised how many have come through. We felt (Douglas and Spielberg) represented producers and directors. And Michael is an actor, and Meryl an actress.
Q: What’s your pitch? What do you say?
A: “Hello, how are you? What are you doing, where are you going, you got any money, we need it.” No, I’m kidding . . . Being an actor, I deal in specifics. (Bob) Daly is now head of Warner Bros. and I walked into Daly’s office with Bob Rehme, and Daly’s office happens to be Jack Warner’s old office and I was under contract with Warners for nine years. I was in that office many times, discussing things that I didn’t want to do and that I wanted to do. . . . I started telling (Daly) things about Warner Bros. he never knew, and I can do that in every studio . . . it warms ‘em up. I was here when Louis B. Mayer was head. I was here when Zanuck hired me for films on 20th Century Fox when I used to see Betty Grable walk up and down the lot or John Hodiak or Tyrone Power, all these people and I was nobody but I saw them.
Q: You had a Broadway career; you weren’t nobody.
A: That’s why they hired me. I had a Broadway career for 20 years. I started making pictures in ’48, living in New York and coming out here for (a few) weeks and then go back. I was star-struck.
Q: Do acting offers keep coming, or are you turning things down or putting them on hold?
A: I’ve turned a lot of things down but I think I would have turned them down even if I hadn’t been here. There are some things that I just don’t fit into . . . I’m a square as you probably know; I am .
Q: You’ve been married for 52 years to the same woman, some people would say. . .
A: Yes (smiling) that’s a square. Especially in this town. And I just find some things objectionable in films today. . . . Let’s take nudity. Nudity has been in films since the time films began, except it wasn’t as specific and so blatant as it is today. They made you feel if two people went into a room and closed the door a certain way that something was going to happen. And when that door opened the next morning, you knew something happened; that’s what I call art. But to see two people in bed, supposedly, is that art?
Q: Last year we had the summer of blood and guns and guts; what do you think of that movie crop?
A: Well you said it, and the way you said it, that’s the way I feel. Summer of blood and guts and stuff.
Q: You’re president of the academy, do you ever discuss this with studio heads?
A: No, that’s not my job, and even if I weren’t president, I wouldn’t do it. It’s people’s tastes. You like that color, I like this color. The only thing is, I just wish there were an equal balance--between what we’re talking about, and what I call art and art form. See I feel the good writers, Maxwell Anderson, Clifford Odets, Elmer Rice, Robert Sherwood, Tennessee Williams, these people found a way to say what they wanted to say . . . in a very beautiful way. There were some terrible movies at that time too. I just feel that there were more of the kind of movies that I’m talking about than there are today.
Let’s take the late ‘40s and the ‘50s. Listen, I was in a couple of (the best). I think they were beautiful movies. “Streetcar Named Desire,” “On the Waterfront.” There’s a picture that deals with a sexy theme, Tennessee Williams’ “Baby Doll.” Remember “Baby Doll”? Today it would be nothing but then it was banned. We said a lot . . . but never once was it shown, never once, but you knew what they were talking about. That’s art.
Q: Of all the movies you have done, what role was the closest to you?
A: I enjoy them all--the next one I’m going to do. . . . The ones I enjoyed are the ones that I got to meet, when I played a living person like Father John (Corridan; he struggles with the name) who I stayed with for 11 days, the priest in “On the Waterfront.” Father John (Father Barry in the movie), who just died about three years ago, was born and raised in that (Brooklyn) area, a Jesuit priest.
Q: What was he like, this priest?
A: I’ll give you an anecdote. The picture had started and three days later I was to start work, Father John was there, and I said, “Well tomorrow, Father John, I’m going to be you. " And he said, “I’m not worried.” I said, “Got any advice?” He said, “Yes. Just don’t make me holier than thou; make me a human being . . . I’ve seen some of those priest movies; don’t make me that way.”
He was a Jesuit priest who taught law to the longshoremen. And if you remember the picture, the scene in the hold of the ship, he wrote at least 80% of that speech. A man came to him and said, “Father John, I can’t get a chit to go to work. Now I haven’t gotten a chit in two months.” He says, “You go in there and demand a chit even if you take it out of his hands. Legally you have that right, you do it.” And the man did it, and two days later (he) was found (dead) in the East River.
Q: And that speech?
A: “ ‘God is with you no matter where you are.’ ” That’s the essence of it.
Q: Are you concerned at all about Japanese corporations buying up some of the major studios-- Matsushita buying MCA, Sony and Columbia, JVC and Largo Entertainment?
A: The only way I can answer that is to say that I was here when Jack Warner was head of a studio, Louis B. Mayer, Zanuck, Cohn . . . and I never felt I’d see the day when I say I wished they were back. The studios today are even different than they were then. And if the Japanese buy what they’re buying, so it’ll change (some more). How they’ll change, who knows? Another 10 years somebody will buy from Sony. It’s just changing, and I don’t worry about those things. And I honestly don’t think the academy should worry about those things. (Film) is an art form. We just hope, I just hope that they hold on to a kind of integrity about filmmaking--keep it at a level where people will be proud to be a part of this industry.
Q: So who owns doesn’t bother you; it’s the kind of movies that are being made?
A: That’s right. All over the world they’re making films. Some foreign films are terrific films. It’s the kind of films--not who owns the company. . . .
Q: In 1990, the announcement of “Driving Miss Daisy” as best picture was not made until 12:30 EST, which missed about 61% of the East Coast audience. . . .
A: Would you put (best film) at the beginning of the show . . . or where would you put it?
Q: At the end, but I’d tighten the show.
A: Well, now we’re going to discuss tightening. Now I’ve got you (smiles). You know I always thought until I became president that the show was supposed to last two hours. No. ABC wants between three hours and 3 hours and 20 minutes. That’s what they want. We’re putting on that show for them . . . . Everybody thinks that it’s a two-hour show that runs over an hour--it’s a three-hour show.
Q: So why not start the show an hour earlier--at 5 p.m.?
A: What about the people here? The first hour we give out best supporting actor and the best supporting actress. Figure it out for me; help me. . . . Save what for the second hour? . . . Then everything before it they’ll say is junk , we don’t have to look at it (raising voice). It’s a problem, a big problem. . . .
Q: Last year the Oscars had the smallest audience in three years--25.7 million homes, 48% of the audience. Why do you think that happened?
A: This is my personal opinion: The show (the year) before didn’t help us much (and) I think this coming year will have a terrific audience because the show last year was terrific. We had a theme--films are worldwide. And we went worldwide for the first time.
Q: What was your own Oscar night like? Did you go in a big limo like they do now?
A: I was here making a film at Warner Bros, one of the contract films. It was with Cornel Wilde, a French underground picture, I don’t know what it was.
The Oscar night was going to be held at the Pantages Theatre and I wasn’t going to go (but) someone from the office came down and says, ‘You’re going to the Oscar show . . . you go to the wardrobe and get yourself a tuxedo. You’re going .’ I drove in a rented Chevy, and when I got (there) I saw those limousines piling up in front. . . . So I went about a block away and parked the car, and I walked. I had a coat because in New York you had a coat, a topcoat and I walked in, nobody knew me and I went down, sat in my seat. I put the coat down in (the adjacent) seat and the next two people who came in were Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. So I was in good company. I knew Bogart slightly because he was on the Warner lot also. . .
I thought I’ll sit here and enjoy the show, never dreaming they’d call my name. When they (did), like everybody else for a moment you don’t know what to do, and I got up, walked to the aisle and the only thing I could think of is my coat. What the hell am I going to do with my coat? Because I knew they took you backstage. So I leaned over to Bogart, I says, “Will you look after my coat, please?”
He said, “Get up there, kid, take your Oscar.” So I got up. About a half-hour later, I see Bogart holding an Oscar, and the first thing I said to him is “What did you do with my coat?” He said in nice words, “Forget your coat, hold on to the goddamn Oscar .”