Academy Award winning actor, Karl Malden, died at his home surrounded by his family on July 1, 2009 at age 97. He was born Mladen Sekulovich on March 22, 1912 in Chicago, Illinois to Petar and Minnie Sekulovich. The eldest of three sons, he was raised in the Serbian community of Gary, Indiana where his father worked as a milkman. Malden spent his high school years as a basketball player and president of his class, but also developed a deepening fondness for acting in the school plays. His father had been the director of the productions at the Serbian Orthodox Church and had introduced him to the theater throughout his childhood. Malden happily left behind his job in the Gary mills when he was offered a scholarship to attend Chicago's Goodman Theater. It was there that his passion for the theater was truly ignited.
There, too, he met another scholarship student, Mona Greenberg. The two frequently played opposite each other in the Goodman's renowned children's theater productions. The couple was married in 1938 and celebrated their 70th anniversary this past December. They lived in New York where Malden (having changed his name) appeared on Broadway for twenty years in such landmark productions as Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" and Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire." During this time, he developed working relationships and lifelong friendships with director Elia Kazan and co-star Marlon Brando. Malden's recreation of the role of Mitch in "Streetcar" earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1951. He was also nominated in that category for playing Father John in "On The Waterfront."
In 1959, Malden moved his family -- now including daughters Mila and Carla -- to Los Angeles so that he could pursue his film career. He appeared in over seventy films including "Baby Doll," "One-Eyed Jacks," "Pollyanna," "Gypsy," "The Cincinnati Kid," "Nevada Smith," "How The West Was Won," "Birdman of Alcatraz," and "Patton." Malden liked to say he had an "open hearth face", but it was his Everyman quality that made him one of the most well-respected character actors of his generation.
In the 1970's, Malden made the transition to television, starring in the popular series "The Streets of San Francisco" which introduced Michael Douglas. Douglas has credited Malden as his mentor ever since. It was during that time that Malden became the pitchman for American Express Travelers Cheques, making the slogan "Don't leave home without them" a household phrase. He won an Emmy for his portrayal of the distraught father in "Fatal Vision" in 1984.
After serving on its board for nine years, Malden was elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1990. He served three terms during which he put his career on hold to devote his efforts to the position full-time. He was instrumental in establishing the Academy Library which stands today on La Cienega Blvd. In 2003, Malden was honored with the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award.
In a business having a reputation for casual acquaintances, Malden maintained cherished lifelong friendships, not only with Kazan and Brando, but also with Richard Widmark, Eli Wallach, Eva Marie Saint, Norman Lloyd, Kirk Douglas and Michael Douglas.
Ultimately, Malden was a working actor, not a Hollywood personality, and he thought of himself that way. For Malden, the work always came first as evidenced by the title of his autobiography, "When Do I Start?" But what was most important to him was his family which grew to include his beloved sons-in-law, Dr. Tom Doerner and Laurence Starkman. He considered his greatest blessings to be his granddaughters, Alison (Simon King), Emily (Daniel Boswell), and Cami, and, in recent years, his great-grandchildren, Mila, Stella, Charlie, and Thomas Karl.
As Serbian tradition exclaims, "Zivio!" "To life!"
Published in the Los Angeles Times on July 2, 2009