Malden, Karl: Oscar-Winning Actor Dies at 97

July 1, 2009–Karl Malden, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning actor who was best known over his six-decade career for the TV series “The Streets of San Francisco” and American Express commercials, died of natural causes today at his home in Brentwood. He was 97.

Malden received an Oscar as best supporting actor in 1952 for Elia Kazan's “A Streetcar Named Desire,” in which he recreated the role he had originated on Broadway, also directed by Kazan.

Though he was nominated for each of the five seasons of “Streets of San Francisco,” Malden won the Emmy for the 1984 miniseries “Fatal Vision.”

Malden also served on the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and he served as Acad prexy from 1989-91. He was also active in the Screen Actors Guild, serving on the board in the 1960s and early 1970s.  Malden received the SAG lifetime achievement in 2003.

Stardom came to Malden after almost two decades of supporting roles on stage and screen.  Caricatures of Malden emphasized his bulbous nose (a result of football injuries in high school), his authoritative voice was probably his most distinctive characteristic, familiar to American audiences in voice-over in TV commercials.

He was born Mladen Skeulovich to Serbian immigrant parents on March 22, 1912 in Chicago, Ill. and grew up in Gary, Indiana. He joked that he had changed his name “to fit theater marquees.” He graduated from Emerson High School with a basketball scholarship to Arkansas State Teacher's College. But when his coach forbade him to appear in the school's amateur theatricals, he dropped out and toured with a semi-pro basketball team before returning to Gary to work in the local steel mills and at other odd jobs.

His father, who had been an actor in Serbia, encouraged his ambitions, though Malden originally attended the Goodman Theater Dramatic School to study as a stagehand. When a director suggested he take a small part in a production of Tolstoy's “Redemption,” Malden switched over to acting.

During the next three years at Goodman he met playwright Robert Ardrey, who wrote him a role in his play “How to Get Tough About It” and for a planned New York production of “Casey Jones.” When the play was postponed, Malden was offered a part in the Group Theater production of Clifford Odets' “Golden Boy” in which he played Chocolate Drop's manager. Also appearing in the production was a young actor Elia Kazan, for whom Malden would later work several times when Kazan turned to directing.

Malden played supporting roles on Broadway in such plays as “Key Largo,” “Sons and Soldiers,” and “Uncle Harry.” During World War II he joined the Army as a private and acted in the Army Air Force's production of “Winged Victory” by Moss Hart.

His first post-war appearance was in Kazan's production of Maxwell Anderson's “Truckline Cafe.” Kazan cast him in Arthur Miller's “All My Sons,” which was a huge success and brought Malden some of his finest notices. In the Pulitzer Prize winning “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Malden created the role of Mitch, Blanche DuBois' naive suitor.  

He won an Oscar for the 1951 screen version of “Streetcar” along with co-stars Vivien Leigh and Kim Hunter, after having previously appeared in such films as “The Gunfighter” and “Boomerang.” The Oscar led to meatier roles in such films as “Ruby Gentry,” “I Confess” and, most memorably, as a priest in Kazan's “On the Waterfront,” for which he was again nominated for an Oscar.

Other memorable screen roles were in Kazan's adaptation of Williams' “Baby Doll,” as a villain in the Marlon Brando-directed “One Eyed Jacks,” a singing role in the film version of “Gypsy” and supporting parts in “Birdman of Alcatraz,” “How the West Was Won,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” “Cheyenne Autumn,” “Patton,” and “Nuts.”

From 1972 to 1977, Malden starred as a tough police detective in the ABC drama “Streets of San Francisco,” with a young Michael Douglas playing his partner. A few years later he tried his hand at series work again in the short lived dramatic series, “Skag.”

He won an Emmy for playing a retiree who relentlessly pursues the truth of his daughter's murder in the NBC mini “Fatal Vision.” He was a frequent player in made-fors including “Word of Honor,” “With Intent to Kill,” “Call Me Anna,” “Absolute Strangers” and “They've Taken Our Children: The Chowchilla Kidnapping.”

Malden is survived by his wife, former actress Mona Greenberg. They married in 1938 and celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in December.