Thursday, July 2, 2009
In Memoriam: Karl Malden
Another piece of my childhood died this week.
Karl Malden, age 97. That’s a hell of a ride and one great career. Those from my generation know Malden first and foremost as Detective Mike Stone in the 1970s cop show, The Streets of San Francisco, which my grandfather and I watched together when I was a kid (come to think of it, why aren't those TV programs ever rerun anymore? I haven't seen an episode of Streets in twenty-five years). Malden is also remembered from those omnipresent American Express commercials where he would end each ad with “American Express Traveler’s Checks; don’t leave home without them!” I always thought he was so authoritative and that it was Malden-as-Mike Stone telling us to buy those traveler's checks! Maybe it was because he was always wearing that fedora. Ever see his early role in 1950’s Where the Sidewalk Ends? In it, Malden plays a by-the-book police lieutenant, kind of an early dry run for Mike Stone, who isn’t often mentioned as one of the 1970s great police characters, but if you’ve ever watched the show, you’re probably a fan of it and of Karl Malden—at least that’s how I became aware and appreciative of this man’s ability.
My favorite Karl Malden performances were On the Waterfront (1954), where he’s the decent man of the cloth and in Patton (1970), in which he was just about perfect as General Omar Bradley. I felt he should’ve been Oscar-nominated for that role. Malden was already an Academy-Award winner, for 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire. However, being the excellent character actor that he was, Malden could also play a villain with equal expertise. He was fantastic as a mean S.O.B. Sheriff in One-Eyed Jacks (1961)--a great movie nobody ever heard of--and as an outlaw gang leader in Nevada Smith (1966). When these actors die I think of what a forceful presence they were on screen. You take them for granted because they’re always around- sturdy, reliable, and when a man lives to be nearly 100, they really have been around as long as anyone can remember! These aren’t the kinds of deaths that sadden me, as Malden lived to fulfill his career potential and was a successful working actor for fifty years. I wish all beloved movie stars lived this long, so we wouldn’t mourn their unfulfilled potential, but rather celebrate their lives and careers, as we can with Karl Malden.