Oscar winner Karl Malden dies at 97

Won best supporting actor for 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

Karl Malden, who vaulted to movie prominence by winning an Academy Award for best supporting actor in "A Streetcar Named Desire" but who is perhaps best known for his lead role on 1970s TV series "The Streets of San Francisco," died Wednesday of natural causes at home in Brentwood. He was 97.

With his craggy face and bulbous nose -- he liked to say he had "an open-hearth face" -- Malden didn't possess matinee-idol looks, but he projected a familiarity and a fire that made him identifiable as an average guy who could rise to the occasion. Audiences respected him for his down-to-earth, lunchpail style.

His collaborations with Marlon Brando and director Elia Kazan, both lifelong friends, resulted in his "Streetcar" Oscar for playing Brando's pal Mitch and a supporting actor nomination three years later for his portrayal of Father Barry, who counsels Brando's character to stand up to the dock racketeers in "On the Waterfront."

Shifting from films, where he established himself as a durable character actor, he earned four Emmy nominations for his role as Lt. Mike Stone on the 1972-77 ABC drama "The Streets of San Francisco," where he mentored his young co-star Michael Douglas.

Just last month, Malden appeared via videotape at the AFI's Life Achievement dinner celebrating Douglas. Testifying to his affection for the younger actor, he said: "I wish Michael could have been my son. I'm so proud of him."

Malden won another Emmy in 1985 for his portrayal of a murder victim's anguished father in the miniseries "Fatal Vision."

He became a successful pitchman for American Express, appearing in frequent commercials in which he popularized the company's motto, "Don't leave home without it."

Malden also became the public face of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, serving three terms as its president from 1989-92, and was a longtime member of the its board of governors. He was instrumental in establishing the Academy Library, now located on La Cienega Boulevard.

The Academy paid tribute to Malden's career in 1998, with such friends as Hume Cronyn, Kim Hunter, Eli Wallach and Richard Widmark on hand.

Malden performed in more than 50 motion pictures and was particularly active in the '60s, when he played in a wide range of films including "Baby Doll," "One-Eyed Jacks," "Birdman of Alcatraz," "Gypsy," "The Cincinnati Kid" and "Patton." He subsequently performed in such fare as "Meteor," "The Sting II," "Billy Galvin" and "Nuts."

In 2004, he was honored with SAG's Life Achievement Award.

Malden was born Mladen Sekulovich on March 22, 1912, in Chicago to a Serbian father and Czech mother, Petar and Minnie Sekulovich. Raised in Gary, Ind., where his father worked as a milkman, he foresaw a life in the steel mills but dreamed of being an athletic coach.

He was introduced to the theater by his father, who was the director of productions at the Serbian Orthodox Church.

After a three-year stint in the steel mills, where he worked in the furnaces, Malden sought greener pastures and attended Arkansas State Teachers College and then moved to Chicago's Goodman Theater, when he was offered a scholarship.

There, he met his future wife, fellow student Mona Greenberg. They celebrated their 70th anniversary in December.

Moving to New York, Malden joined the now-famous Group Theater, where he met up with such rising actors as Brando and Widmark.

He made his Broadway debut in Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy," where he came to know Kazan, who cast him in the 1947 stage production of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" and, later that year," the original stage production of "A Streetcar Named Desire."    

That production launched careers: Not only was it a breakthrough for Malden but Brando, who also staggered theatergoers with his ripe performance as Stanley Kowalski while it anointed Tennessee Williams as one of America's leading playwrights.

With the accolades from "Streetcar" under his belt, Malden followed up with other New York stage performances including "Key Largo," "Uncle Harry," "Desperate Hours" and "Desire Under the Elms."

Malden made his motion picture debut in Garson Kanin's romantic drama "They Knew What They Wanted" in 1940. When he was drafted into World War II, Malden continued to nurture his interest in acting, appearing with Martin Ritt in George Cukor's "Winged Victory," staged by Moss Hart for the Army Air Force Emergency Relief Fund. After the war, he went on to act in "13 Rue Madeleine," "Boomerang" and "Kiss of Death."

In 1959, Malden moved his family, which had grown to include daughters Mila and Carla, to Los Angeles to pursue his film career.

He also directed two films, 1957's "Time Limit," and 1959's "The Hanging Tree," which he partially helmed after director Delmer Daves fell ill.

He looked back on his career in his 1997 memoir "When Do I Start?" which he co-authored with his two daughters.

Malden last appeared on TV in a 2000 episode of "The West Wing," addressing the death penalty in the episode "Take This Sabbath Day," in which he played the president's boyhood parish priest.

Malden is survived by his wife, daughters, their husbands, three granddaughters and four great-grandchildren.

Details of funeral services are pending.
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