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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Oscar winner Karl Malden, the bulbous-nosed character actor acclaimed for film roles in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "On the Waterfront" before gaining TV fame as a leading man in "The Streets of San Francisco," died on Wednesday at age 97.
Also remembered as the commercial spokesman for American Express travelers checks, sternly warning tourists, "Don't leave home without them," Malden died in his sleep at his Los Angeles-area home, according to his longtime agent, Budd Moss. He said the actor had been in failing health in recent years.
In a career spanning seven decades, Malden made his mark playing plain-spoken men of gruff manners, though he was noted for bringing an understated, natural dignity to many roles.
His talents earned him a place in the works of playwrights Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, as well as directors Elia Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock and John Frankenheimer. He shared the screen with the likes of Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Montgomery Clift, Rod Steiger and George C. Scott.
Malden, whose trademark nose was broken twice while playing high school sports, often said he was keenly aware that he lacked the looks of a leading man.
"There were times when certain leads would come along, and I'd say, 'Gee, I could do that,'" Malden recalled in a 2004 interview with Reuters. "But ... 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 was born Mladen George Sekulovich in Chicago to parents of Serb and Czech origins, grew up in Gary, Indiana, and worked at a steel mill before moving to New York City in 1937 to act.
His stage debut came that year in "Golden Boy" and he later appeared in the original cast of Miller's "All My Sons."
Malden landed his first movie role in 1940 drama "They Knew What They Wanted" starring Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton, and went on to appear in some 50 movies over 40 years.
He won an Academy Award for his 1951 portrayal of the lovelorn character Mitch in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," a role he created on Broadway. He earned a second Oscar nomination as the crusading priest Father Barry in the 1954 classic "On the Waterfront."
Both films were directed by Elia Kazan and starred Brando, who Malden called "the most brilliant actor I've worked with."
Malden had a memorable turn as General Omar Bradley in "Patton" in 1970 before becoming a prime-time TV fixture and earning four Emmy nominations as police detective Mike Stone in "The Streets of San Francisco." Then-budding actor Michael Douglas co-starred as his young partner.
"I admired and loved him deeply," Douglas said in a statement.
Saluting Malden as he received an American Film Institute award last month, Douglas said, "It was Karl more than anyone who got me to understand that an actor is just one part of a whole team that makes a TV series or a movie work."
Malden returned the compliment in a taped message played back for Douglas at the ceremony, saying, "I wish Michael could have been my son. I'm so proud of him."
"The Streets of San Francisco" ran from 1974 until 1977. The following decade, Malden won an Emmy as the father of a murdered woman in fact-based NBC miniseries "Fatal Vision."
As his career waned, Malden found himself at the center of a controversy surrounding his longtime friend, Kazan, who had been shunned by the Hollywood establishment since naming names of alleged Communists to the U.S. House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee in 1952.
It was Malden who proposed at a 1999 board meeting of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that Kazan receive a special Oscar honoring his body of work. The award was given over the protests of many film industry veterans who believed Kazan's actions during the "blacklist" era were unforgivable.
Malden is survived by his wife of more than 70 years, Mona, whom he married in 1938. They had two children.
Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte