Jul 2, 2009

Karl Malden (1912 - 2009)

During the Pac Man generation, actor Karl Malden was commonly seen on television commercials for American Express travelers cheques, popping out from behind a pyramid warning us, "Don't leave home without them," right after we've seen some unfortunate tourist having their wallet stolen in a foreign land. Even then, the man was in his 70's, already having left forty years worth of memorable performances, and despite that he wasn't often seen on the big screen in those days, he was still doing strong work for television, notably the highly-regarded TV movie Fatal Vision, for which he won an Emmy. One word I had always associated with Karl Malden was "durability"- he was a very busy star well into post-retirement age, still making quality work.

It was always enjoyable seeing Malden on the big or small screen. Nicknamed "potato nose" for his so-shaped proboscis, Karl Malden had a tremendous screen presence, with his piercing eyes and authoritative voice: whether he was a priest, a detective or an army sergeant, he made you listen. As such, he gave every project, big or small, that same element of professionalism-- his intense upper register delivery let you know he took his work very seriously. This is not to suggest that Karl Malden was overacting- his presence always seemed a little larger than life but his everyday characters were always grounded.

In his early career, Karl Malden was commonly employed by Elia Kazan. He won an Oscar as Mitch in the screen adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and was also seen as the doomed husband of Baby Doll (1956), a priest in On the Waterfront (1954), and if you look fast, you'll also see him in Kazan's early noir Boomerang (1947). In Marlon Brando's autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me, the troublemaking actor had nothing but praise for Karl Malden. After having worked with him in Kazan films, it is no coincidence that Brando picked Malden for his vanity project One Eyed Jacks (1961) in which the great mumbler took over the director's chair after firing Stanley Kubrick, and Malden gave I think one of his finest performances.

Because of his strong screen presence, it is unsurprising he was given roles of authority- from patriarchs to sergeants. This is also why he was a great villain, menacing Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith. Coincidentally, Malden found work with the 60's answer to Brando, as he again co-starred with McQueen in The Cincinatti Kid. In the 1970's, Karl Malden's career began a second life for television, namely the long-running crime series The Streets of San Francisco, with Michael Douglas.

Slipping away from this world peacefully in his sleep at the ripe old age of 97 is rather fitting, as ever-present character players like Karl Malden didn't end their careers on a huge valedictory note, but quietly slipped away into the night, as his roles became fewer and further between while his years advanced. But after seven decades of show business, his tremendous body of work will continue to matter to us for ages to come.

1 comment:

The Fraggler said...

I will miss Karl Malden - he will be missed.


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