LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Oscar winner Karl Malden, the 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 portraying plain-spoken men of gruff manners, though he was noted for bringing an understated, natural dignity to many of his roles.
He acted in the plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, as well as in the films of directors Elia Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock and John Frankenheimer.
Malden, whose trademark bulbous 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 pursue acting.
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 big-screen part in the 1940 drama “They Knew What They Wanted,” starring Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton, and went on to appear in some 50 movies over the next 40 years.
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. 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 Marlon 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.”
In 1985, Malden won an Emmy as the father of a woman murdered by her husband in the NBC miniseries “Fatal Vision.”
He 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.
Malden 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 and wife Mona, whom he married in 1938 and who survives him, had one of Hollywood’s longest marriages. They had two children.
Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Vicki Allen