OBITUARY: Karl Malden (1912-2009)

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Mladen George Keulovich, better known as "Karl Malden" was a perennial character actor from Chicago. He died today. He was 97.

I heard him say once that as a boy he sang in the church choir, and liked being on stage, so he tried out for plays in high school in Gary, Indianna He was also a bit of an athlete as a kid, and, as with most Hoosiers he had an entirely unfathomable obsession with Basketball that lasted him through his entire life. He tried acting professionally in the early 1930s while attending the Art Institute in Chicago, but struck out and moved home again. In the late 30s, he struck out on his own again, heading to New York this time, and got his first stage gig on broadway around 1938 or so, and continued to act on stage pretty much constantly until he got his first bit part in a film in 1940. From then on, he ping ponged back and forth between the two mediums.

Luck was with him, and he had a major supporting role in "A Streetcar Named Desire," (His 9th film), for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, and from then on he was never hurting for work. He also worked occasionally in TV. That became his mainstay for a time in the 70s when he was doing "The Streets of San Francisco," which was a massive hit show for four of it's five seasons. (In the fith, Michael Douglas left and was replaced by Richard Hatch, later of Battlestar Galactica fame).

Really the only unquestionable genre credit he's got was in 1979's "Meteor," a typical '70s B-movie disaster flick with an A-movie cast that included Sean Connery, Henry Fonda and Natalie Wood (Her final film), and another of the all-time-great Character Actors, Martin Landau. As I recall - it's been decades since I've seen it - Malden played the head of NASA. The movie was a mercinary attempt to merge the waning-but-still-popular Disaster Movie genre with the waxing-ever-more-popular SF genre in the wake of Star Wars. It wasn't great by any stretch of the imagination, but I really liked it as a kid, and Malden was pretty good in it.

I tend to remember him more for the two spy films he did. The good one was Ken Russell's "Billion Dollar Brain," one of the Michael Caine/Harry Palmer spy series. The more laughable one was "Murderer's Row," one of the amazingly smarmy and cheezy Dean Martin "Matt Helm" movies. He was the main bad guy, and it's one of the very, very few times I've ever seen him give a bad performance. Functioning as the main bad guy, He's sadled with a terrible accent, and occasionally forgets to use. The movie is best known for Anne Margaret wearing the world's only turtleneck swimsuit, and an overlong hovercraft chase to pad the film out to barely feature length, and Between the incoherent plot, flaccid direction, and a scrip that was obviously being made up as they went along, it's a sad example of a great supporting player at his worst, but you know what? Even phoning it in as part of a crap movie that is clearly frustrating him, he's still better than anyone in it.

He was a good man from good stock, he lived in the entertainment industry for most of his life, but never let it touch him. He was a good family man, father, and husband, married to one woman from 1938 until the day he died, with no divorces or infidelity. He was a working actor who managed to raise two apparently-well-adjusted and functional children who've never appeared in any scandal sheets or tabloids. That seems like a success to me, and he was always reputed as a very grounded man, one of the few in the industry who took his job very seriously, but never took the stardom seriously.

He's one of the final lights of an entire generation of actors that is fading to black for the final time, and he, more than many of them, will be missed. Our prayers go out to his family.