Karl Malden And His
The Actor Once Known Just As Much For His Iconic Credit Card Commercials As The Roles He Played, Bathed In The Warm Waters Of The SIlver Age In Hollywood
1977 publicity photo of Karl Malden.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
Feb. 29, 2016 — That famous schnozz – like a small mass of unshaped modeling clay – reaches your eyes first. It dominates the face of Karl Malden, and, taken together with his other features, seems to telegraph in an instant several verities about the man: his ordinariness, good cheer and natural candor. In fact, talking to Malden back in 1998 about his recently published autobiography, winning an Oscar, or working with Marlon Brando, was like chatting up your neighbor over the back fence during a break raking the fall leaves. It was easy and informative.
Although consigned by his looks to supporting roles as best friend, father confessor or the occasional heavy, Malden, over the span of 50 years, had shown the world how indelibly he could etch those characters. A Streetcar Named Desire, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in 1951, On the Waterfront, Baby Doll and Patton as G.I. General Omar Bradley are just a few movies that wouldn’t be nearly as good without Malden lurking in support, to say nothing of his role as Lt. Mike Stone during five seasons of The Streets of San Francisco on television.
“Nonsense!” Malden said with genuine self-effacement over coffee and Danish at a small hotel off Sunset Blvd. just down the slope from the Getty Center that hulked over the landscape for miles like a giant white colossus. “Honest, upright and honorable is the way I’ve been described. Just watch me screw up right now.”
Perhaps it was the face allied to the distinctive baritone; maybe it was the long track record of memorable movies or Malden’s 21 years of: “… don’t leave home without it” American Express Card commercials, but a flicker of recognition slowly came into the eyes of our busboy, a young Mexican kid to whom ESL classes were obviously what he could pick up from diners between setting out the ice water and clearing the dessert dishes. He was beaming as he approached us for a coffee refill.
To us, that meta-moment served as an effective reminder of the true measure of fame that American pop culture provides – the kind that pervades (more now than then) everyday life and every ethnicity. Malden knew that as he furtively smiled one of those unspoken “I-know-you-know-I’m-somebody” acknowledgements.
“Una tajeta American Express, no salga sin ella.”
Everything was understood without a word, English or otherwise, being spoken.
It was disconcerting then, to hear that Malden received only three calls for movie work the year before we met with him. One of them, The Long Kiss Goodnight, starring Geena Davis, Malden termed: “Terrible!”
“I don’t belong in the movies they’re making today,” Malden said. He was dressed that day in a blue windbreaker and Tommy Hilfiger shirt with its wreathy coat-of-arms shield. “They’ve kind of passed me by, but I don’t care. I used to do two or three films a year and then the five years on Streets of San Francisco. But, as Ecclesiastes says: ‘To everything there is a season.’ That’s it, my friends, either enjoy it or die miserable. I’m not going to die miserable.”
Far from it. Along with his daughter, Carla, Malden took advantage of his enforced hiatus and wrote an autobiography, When Do I Start? which Simon and Schuster published the year we met him.
“When I found that suddenly I had nothing to do, it was untenable. My dad used to ask me at the dinner table, ‘What did you do today, son?’
Sometimes I would say nothing and he’d say: ‘Well, that’s one day shot to hell, isn’t it?’”
Working every day for three or four hours over the previous two years, Malden and his daughter shaped the richly anecdotal book.
“To write a book with a family member is amazing,” he said. “They laugh and cry right along with you – and they learn.”
What Carla learned, if she didn’t already know, was all about the underpinnings that made Malden such a staunch everyman in many of his movies. In his best work, Malden seemed to be shot through with the same kind of steel he helped pour in the mills around Gary, Indiana where he grew up. “I learned a lot about life there,” he said. “Richard Widmark says we’re all ditch diggers, all actors go out there and dig a ditch. Sometimes it’s deep and sometimes it’s shallow, but we keep digging that ditch.”
“I think the best that can be said about me is that I never shirked my duty whether it was in a steel mill or in a movie. I think I came ready to work. That’s it.”
Although Malden cut his teeth theatrically with the Group Theater in New York (Golden Boy was his Broadway debut), audiences rarely saw the Method behind the acting. It seemed as effortless and natural as breathing. “During that time I began to hear phrases like, ‘What’s the beat of the scene? Where’s the spine?’ I didn’t know what the hell anybody was talking about, but gradually I came to understand.”
Malden came to understand so well that one day director Elia Kazan approached and asked him to read for a part in a gothic southern drama just completed by Tennessee Williams called A Streetcar Named Desire.
“When Kazan gave me the play to read, my wife and I were living in New York in a one-room apartment. I read the play while she ironed some clothes. I then asked her to read it. We both felt it was the greatest play either of us had ever read – and I’ve read a lot of plays. It was pure poetry.”
Malden worked with both Jessica Tandy who originated the role of “Blanche DuBois” on Broadway and Vivian Leigh who portrayed her in the 1951 film version. “Vivian, sadly, had many of the tragic qualities of Blanche,” Malden said softly. “Jessica was a sensational actress; one of the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever met in the theater. Marlon and I have talked about this. Everyone says Vivian was the greatest Blanche, but Kazan could control the film by cutting it and putting the emphasis where he wanted it – on Blanche – if he wanted. It’s an unfair comparison.
“Besides,” he continued, “No one noticed anything else when Marlon came on stage, I don’t care who was in the scene. He changed the style of acting in American with his role as ‘Stanley Kowalski.’”
According to Malden, Brando’s untapped abilities as a director were every bit as prodigious as his acting gifts. In his single directorial effort, Brando directed the 1961 Western, One-Eyed Jacks, co-starring Malden as a corrupt sheriff.
“The industry lost a great director when they didn’t give him another movie to do,” Malden lamented. “Marlon had something that I didn’t have as a director. He couldn’t be pushed. Producers would say: ‘Hurry up, you’re two days behind schedule, pick up the pace! Faster, faster!’ On the other end, as a director, he had to motivate the actors. Marlon was a sergeant caught in the middle trying to do a good job. He did it on his own time. He couldn’t be pushed and I respect that and I wish I had that quality.”
Malden directed the film Time Limit (1957), and when Delmer Daves fell ill during the shooting of The Hanging Tree, he took over direction of that film for two weeks.
As an addendum, Malden did say that he “didn’t respect” when Brando intermittently went on record with reporters calling actors “whores.”
Tom remarked that as a kid, the first movie he ever saw in a theater was the revenge Western Nevada Smith starring Steve McQueen and featuring Malden as a cold-blooded killer who had murdered McQueen’s parents.
“I’ll never forget your last lines, in fact the final lines of the movie, after McQueen shot off your kneecaps and you were leeching crimson into that creek up in the Inyo National Forest,” Tom said. “McQueen finally got a conscience and wouldn’t finish you off and you screamed at him …”
Before Tom could recite the line himself, Malden beat him to the punch: “You’re yella, you haven’t got the guts!” he thundered so loudly that other diners stopped eating and looked our way.
It had been 32 years since filming had wrapped on Nevada Smith but Malden could still project like he was hitting the third balcony at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in Streetcar.
Life as a film/TV actor-cum-diarist seemed to suit Malden. He said it gave him more time to spend with his wife of 58 years, two children who lived close by and assorted grandchildren. For a man who approached acting throughout his career by the book, he had become interested only in what’s in the book – his own.
“After you buy it, don’t leave home without it,” he quipped, smiling that smile and waiting for the chuckle he knew was imminent.
The Karl Malden Method – foolproof.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Why Did the Peahen Cross the Road? After Running Into A Wayward Peahen, A Writer Ponders Her Safety And The Intentions Of The Bird Before Finding Salvation From A Colorful Couple.