Born to a Czech mother and a Serbian father in Chicago as Mladen Sekulovich, on March 22, 1912, Karl Malden did not speak English until he was in kindergarten. After graduating from high school in the nearby steel town of Gary, Indiana, Malden worked in the industry for three years until 1934, when he was frustrated with the drudgery of manual labor. He left to attend the Arkansas State Teacher’s College, then the Goodman Theater Dramatic School and never looked back. Three years later, he went to New York City to find fame.
Malden rapidly became involved with the Group Theater, an organization of actors and directors who were changing the face of theater, where he attracted the attention of director Elia Kazan. With Kazan directing, Karl starred in plays such as “All My Sons” by Arthur Miller and “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams. While Malden had one screen appearance before his military service in World War II, in They Knew What They Wanted (1940), he did not establish his film career until after the war. Malden won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and showed his range as an actor in roles such as that of Father Corrigan in On the Waterfront (1954) and the lecherous Archie Lee in Baby Doll (1956).
He starred in dozens of films such as Fear Strikes Out (1957), Pollyanna (1960), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Gypsy (1962), How the West Was Won (1962), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and Patton (1970) as General Omar Bradley. In the early 1970s, he built a television career on the tough but honest screen persona he had created when he starred as Detective Mike Stone on The Streets of San Francisco (1972), co-starring with Michael Douglas. He also became the pitchman for American Express, a position he held for 21 years. In 1988, he was elected President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a position he held for five years. Following that he, published his memoir entitled, “When Do I Start?: A Memoir”, written with his daughter Carla.
Malden also courted controversy by pushing for a special salute to Elia Kazan at the 1999 Academy Awards. Malden defended both Kazan and the award, arguing that Kazan’s artistic achievements outshone any shame attached to Kazan’s naming names before the Congressional committee investigating Communists in Hollywood. Marlon Brando refused to give Kazan the statuette; Robert De Niro ultimately did. Karl Malden died at age 97 of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles on July 1, 2009. He was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California.