Veteran Actor Karl Malden Made Best of What He Had
Looking back on a screen acting career spanning six decades, the bulbous-nosed Karl Malden says he always was keenly aware that he lacked the looks of a leading man.
To him, the key to success was digging a little deeper to bring his characters to life -- from the lonely suitor of Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire" to General Omar Bradley in "Patton" and the television detective Mike Stone on "The Streets of San Francisco."
At 91 and still sharp, Malden says he's "very happy" at having built a prestigious career as a supporting or featured player.
"There were times when certain leads would come along, and I'd say, 'Gee, I could do that,"' Malden recalled in a recent interview. "But you know, you've got to have a great nose. You've got to have great eyes. Everything that an actor has to have to be that leading man, I don't have. So I made the best with what I had."
He did, appearing in about 50 pictures since his 1940 big-screen debut in "They Knew What They Wanted" starring Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton. While he often played coarse, gruff characters, he also was noted for imbuing many of his roles with an understated, natural dignity.
The Screen Actors Guild, which represents some 118,000 film and television performers in the United States, will present Malden with its highest honor, the Life Achievement Award, at its 10th annual awards this month.
It is the latest in a long line of accolades stretching back to the early film career of the Indiana-born actor, who broke his nose twice playing high school football and worked in steel mills before attending drama school in Chicago.
Malden won an Academy Award for his 1951 portrayal of the lovelorn Mitch in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," a role he created on Broadway, and earned a second Oscar nomination as the crusading priest Father Barry in "On the Waterfront."
Both films were directed by Elia Kazan and starred Marlon Brando, with whom Malden stays in touch and calls "the most brilliant actor I've worked with."
He also won acclaim for such roles as the brow-beaten older husband of a child bride in the controversial film "Baby Doll," shifty-eyed miner Frenchy Plante in the frontier drama "The Hanging Tree," Rosalind Russell's agent-lover in "Gypsy," a frustrated thief in "Hotel" and his supporting role as Omar Bradley opposite George C. Scott in "Patton."
Malden became a prime-time TV fixture and earned two Emmy nominations as the trench-coated police detective Mike Stone on the 1970s drama "The Streets of San Francisco," co-starring Michael Douglas as his young partner.
For each role he inhabited, Malden said he always started by trying to find out who the character was and what made him tick, so that he could give an honest, believable portrayal.
"Now I've got to find something to make him exciting," he added. "That's the big step -- how I can make him exciting and still make him honest? Honesty (by itself) is OK, but it's dull."
He approached his role on "The Streets of San Francisco" differently, deciding that the best way to portray Mike Stone was to basically play Karl Malden.
"So first I had to figure out who the heck am I? It took me really, like six months or the first year, to just try to play myself," he said. "It wasn't easy because I was always trying to hide behind something. And in this I was...I was myself as much as I could be."
The same trustful but street-wise persona helped make him a commercial icon as the television pitchman for American Express travelers' checks, admonishing tourists, "Don't leave home without them."
Malden said he originally tried the now-famous line with a warm, inviting tone, turning on all the "the Karl Malden charm" he could muster. But what finally worked best, at the director's suggestion, was to just "scare the hell out of 'em," delivering the line as a stern warning.
Besides his emphasis on honesty as an approach to acting, Malden joked that good grooming was important to him as a supporting player.
"Being the kind of actor I was, I must admit it was over my shoulder a lot," he said of the way he was typically framed in a camera shot. "So I always made sure I had a good haircut."