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 dealerin “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.”
He acted sporadically on radio and appeared in eight plays, but most ran for less than a month. There were long spells of unemployment, Malden recalled in his 1997 memoir, “When Do I Start?”
But there was an upside: In 1938, he married Mona Graham, an actress he had met when they were students at the Goodman School. They had two daughters, Carla and Mila, and remained together until Malden’s death.
“I’m the happiest man in the world because of my family,” Malden often said.
During World War II, he spent two years stateside in the Army Air Forces, mainly acting on Broadway in “Winged Victory,” the Moss Hart show that raised millions for emergency relief. Malden also appeared in the 1944 film version.
Back in New York after the war, Malden’s worries about restarting his stage career proved unfounded.
Kazan asked him to play a drunken sailor in Maxwell Anderson’s “Truckline Cafe,” which featured a young actor who mumbled during rehearsals: Marlon Brando.
In 1947, Malden broke through on stage playing the partner of a man (played by Ed Begley) who profits by making faulty parts for warplanes in the Arthur Miller drama “All My Sons,” directed by Kazan.
Malden followed that up with an even greater stage success: his role as Blanche DuBois’ awkward suitor in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the Kazan-directed play that turned Brando into a Broadway star.
In his memoir, Malden said Brando “brought a reality to the stage that the theater had never witnessed before.”
“Playing with Marlon consistently brought out the best in me,” Malden wrote. “I guess, in the final analysis, it is impossible to beat genius, but it can be great fun to try to match it.”
Malden played Mitch on stage for about two years, then reprised the role in the 1951 movie version, also directed by Kazan.
For his role as a tough waterfront priest in the 1954 Kazan film “On the Waterfront,” Malden received a supporting actor Oscar nomination.
The character was based on Father John Corridan, whose church was near Hell’s Kitchen on the Hudson River. Malden wore Corridan’s hat and coat in the film and spent 11 days with the priest, who told him, “Just don’t make me holier than thou; make me a human being.”
A speech Corridan had delivered on the docks provided the core of the film in which Malden’s waterfront priest encourages longshoremen to testify against union corruption.
As Malden recalled in 1991 in The Times, Corridan “was a Jesuit priest who taught law to the longshoremen. . . . 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. . . .’ And the man did, and two days later he was found in the East River,” nearly dead.
The man survived, but the next morning Corridan stood on a box on the dock and delivered the sermon that inspired Budd Schulberg’s screenplay.
“Some people think the crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up,” Malden’s priest says in the film. “Every time the mob puts the crusher on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it’s a crucifixion.”
Kazan also directed Malden in the 1956 movie “Baby Doll,” Tennessee Williams’ controversial story about the unusual marriage between a middle-aged man (Malden) and his teen bride, played by Carroll Baker.
Malden was one of the original members of the Actors Studio, formed by Kazan and others in 1948 after the Group Theater disbanded in 1941. After Kazan named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, Malden remained friends with the director.
Because of Kazan’s testimony, Malden wrote in his book, many mutual friends who turned on Kazan also refused to speak to Malden.
The actor, who claimed to have always been apolitical, wrote that he “never believed that politics had a place in art, that is to say, not in artistic relationships.”
Malden said as much in 1999 when, as a member of the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he proposed that Kazan be awarded an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement.
Film festivals, critics associations and the American Film Institute had refused to bestow similar honors on Kazan in his later years because of his House testimony.
“When I got up to talk, I suspected that there would be a big fight, but no one debated it at all,” Malden later told The Times. “I said that I’m nominating a dear friend, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s no place for politics in any art form. An award like this is about your body of work, and when it comes to a body of work, Elia Kazan deserves to be honored.”
When Malden finished speaking, The Times reported, he was greeted by a rousing burst of applause.
Malden served as president of the academy from 1989 to 1992, during which he led the effort to remodel the academy theater in Beverly Hills and helped raise an endowment fund for the academy’s Center for Motion Picture Study in the historic waterworks building in Beverly Hills.
As academy president, Malden also was required to speak at the annual Oscar-night ceremony seen by millions around the world.
There were no television cameras in 1952 when Malden accepted his best supporting actor Oscar for “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
The day of the Oscar ceremony at the Pantages Theater, he was making the B-movie “Operation Secret,” a World War II drama starring Cornel Wilde, at Warner Bros. He hadn’t even planned to attend the ceremony.
But, Malden told The Times in 1991, someone from the front office went down to the set and said, “You’re going to the Oscar show. You go to the wardrobe and get yourself a tuxedo. You’re going.”
Malden’s wife and family were home in New York, and he drove to the ceremony alone in an old green rented Chevy. Embarrassed to see the limousines pulling up to the Pantages, he parked two blocks away.
As Malden recounted, “I had a coat because in New York you had a coat -- a topcoat -- and I walked in. Nobody knew me.
He put his coat in the adjacent seat before Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall sat down. When Malden’s name was called as a winner, he asked Bogart to watch his coat.
“He said, ‘Get up there kid, take your Oscar.’ . . . . About a half-hour later, I see Bogart holding an Oscar,” for best actor in “The African Queen.”
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.’ "
In addition to his wife of 70 years and his daughters, Malden is survived by three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Times staff writer Valerie J. Nelson contributed to this report.