Thursday, July 9, 2009

Karl Malden


Malden was well-respected as a solid character actor. Born to immigrant parents, he spoke Serbian until entering public school, where he became a basketball star and repeatedly broke his nose. Who could have guessed? He fought in World War II, and was an early member of The Group Theatre.

Malden is remembered for a wide variety of roles over a career spanning 7 decades. He spent five years in the 1970s co-starring in the TV detective drama The Streets of San Fransisco, which launched Michael Douglas's acting career, and for which Malden received four Emmy nominations. He returned to television many times, including a starring role in the TV film The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro (1989), the true story of a cruise ship hijacked by Palestinian terrorists in 1985. In the film, he played Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish retiree who was murdered and dumped, with his wheelchair, into the Mediterranean. His final screen appearance was a well-regarded cameo in the first season of The West Wing, in which he played the president's priest.

His extensive film career included On the Waterfront, Baby Doll, How the West Was Won, Pollyanna, The Cincinnati Kid, The Birdman of Alcatraz, and Patton. On stage, his performance in the original cast of Arthur Miller's All My Sons led to the role which put him on the map, Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire. He held his own opposite the iconic performance of Marlon Brando, and, along with Brando and Kim Hunter, he recreated that seminal performance for the film version. He won the Oscar.

In addition to his dramatic work, Malden was for many years the commanding voice of American Express Financial Services, warning, "Don't leave home without it," which became a national catchphrase. He appeared in only one musical, playing poor, put-upon Herbie, opposite Rosalind Russell's Mama Rose, in the film adaptation of Gypsy in 1962. Drop by this week's Friday Dance Party to see how that worked out...

Karl Malden died last week at the age of 97.