King Karl

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."

He realized at last that acting was his only possible hope of escaping from hell. He'd saved a little more than $300 in his three years, and, with no introductions or references, went to the Goodman Theater in Chicago and he said he wanted to be there and to act.

Doctor Gnesin, a Russian emigre who then ran the school, evidently knew madness or true grit when he saw it. He told Malden that if he was willing to gamble on himself and spend his $300 on the first-term tuition--and if he did well--Gnesin would put him on a full scholarship for the rest of the two-year program.

Malden, remembering the furnaces, swallowed hard but took the gamble. He had enough left to commute to Gary for a while (60 cents each way). When he missed the last train he slept in the station, then, broke in the school's basement. Then he was able to share cost-free a hotel room with a better-heeled fellow actor, Jimmy Russo. At one point, to keep eating, he stole sandwiches from lunch bags, favoring the excellent fare carried by Ralph Alswang, later a highly regarded Broadway designer. When Alswang's mother found out what Malden had been forced to do, she said, "If I'd known, I'd have packed an extra sandwich."

At the Goodman, he still had traces of a Slavic accent and underwent strenuous training to get rid of it. "After a while," he has said, "there were these clipped British tones coming out of an open hearth face."

When he finished at the Goodman in 1936, the commercial theater did not open its arms to welcome him. He was so broke he couldn't afford $5 for his diploma--and never got it. He went back to Gary and drove a milk wagon, as his father had. Then an acquaintance from the Goodman, Robert Ardrey, author of "The Territorial Imperative," called him to New York where a play of his, "Casey Jones," was going to be produced. (Ardrey's sister had studied at the Goodman and he had seen Malden act.)

In New York Malden bunked in with Jimmy Russo again, who was seeking his own fortune and making endless rounds of casting offices. From his milk delivery wages, Malden had a stash this time of $175, but even at 1936 prices, that would not fund a long stay in Manhattan. The plans to produce Ardrey's play fell through; Malden's first call at a casting office produced a "Nothing for you" in tones of smug indifference.

But Ardrey introduced Malden to Harold Clurman and Elia Kazan at the then and later famous Group Theater. There Malden was taken on at a small stipend, studied with Clurman and was cast in "Golden Boy," which became his Broadway debut in 1937.

It was Kazan who urged him to change his name. "It sounds Jewish," Kazan said, "and some of us are Jews, but the Group isn't a Jewish theater." So Karl rearranged Mladen into Malden and took his mother's father's first name.

Malden was well reviewed in his small part in "Golden Boy," but found himself having to head back to Gary to earn some money that summer. He was back in New York in the fall. But, as he says in the autobiography, the next years "were a mess . . . a period of chaos and confusion." He was cast in eight plays, none of which lasted a month. He married Mona Graham, an actress he met at the Goodman and they moved so often he has trouble remembering when they lived where. (They celebrated their 59th anniversary in December.) For their wedding dinner they found they had 80 cents between them and went to a Chock Full O' Nuts coffee shop.

His life, he says, was an endless round of fruitless calls at casting offices. It seemed possible that he and Mona could go back to the Goodman and teach, and the idea of a 9-to-5 job, any 9-to-5 job, began to feel seductively attractive. But in the end the dry period at its most dispiriting simply confirmed how soul-deep his commitment to acting is. He knew he couldn't be happy doing anything else.

"Just like the writer facing the blank page," Malden says, "the actor starts fresh every single time. It is an arduous, painful and often demoralizing process. We suffer through those feelings to get to the moment where it all clicks. But in the meantime we feed on the hope that that moment exists out there, somewhere."

The early years gave him his enduring philosophy as an actor: that it was never the money that mattered, it was the part. "I've always believed there isn't a part I couldn't learn something from." Malden never played coy or hard to hire. His customary response is "When do I start?," which, the more Malden and Carla thought about it, seemed the perfect, apt title.

Three years after the Broadway debut, he went to Hollywood to make his film debut in "They Knew What They Wanted." Following his Air Force service (he appeared in "Winged Victory"), Kazan in 1947 cast Malden in "Streetcar," which gave his stage and screen career a momentum it has never lost, although the arc of any actor's career has its share of blips.

After years of commuting to Hollywood, the Maldens finally moved west to stay in 1960, and he began the string of performances that secured his reputation in a range of films as different as "Gypsy" and John Ford's "Cheyenne Autumn."

Daughter Carla says: "As I learned more about my father's struggles, I began to realize that his is an American dream story."

And even as Hollywood success stories go, it does seem a long, unlikely road from an ethnic enclave on the Chicago West Side, where English was rarely heard, to the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, facing the cameras and introducing the Oscar show to a billion watchers, as Malden did in 1990 as president of the motion picture academy.

That night, waiting in the wings, Malden said he felt as nervous as he had before his debut in "Golden Boy." He still worried about flubbing a line in a speech he'd rehearsed a thousand times. But this time, he said, "I was no longer afraid I didn't belong there."

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