Karl Malden, the eldest of three sons, was born Mladen Sekulovich in Chicago, Illinois on March 22, 1912, he was born on his mother’s 20th birthday and was raised in Gary, Indiana. His Bosnian Serb father, Petar Sekulović (1886–1975), worked in the steel mills and as a milkman, and his mother, Minnie (née Sebera) Sekulovich (22 March 1892 – 15 July 1995), was a Czech seamstress and actress. The Sekulovich family roots trace back to Podosoje near the city of Bileća in Bosnia and Herzegovina, more specifically, in the eastern portion of Herzegovina. Malden spoke only the Serbo-Croatian language until he was in kindergarten and was fluent in the language until his death. Malden’s father had a passion for music, and organized a choir. As a teenager, Malden joined the Karageorge Choir. In addition, his father produced Serbian plays at his church and taught acting. A young Malden took part in many of these plays, which included a version of Jack and the Beanstalk, but mostly centered on the community’s Bosnian Serb heritage. In high school, he was a popular student and the star of the basketball team (according to his autobiography, Malden broke his nose twice while playing, taking elbows to the face and resulting in his trademark bulbous nose). He participated in the drama department, and was narrowly elected senior class president. Among other roles, he played Pooh-Bah in The Mikado. After graduating from Emerson High School in 1931 with high marks, he briefly planned to leave Gary for Arkansas, where he hoped to win an athletic scholarship, but college officials did not admit him owing to his refusal to play any sport besides basketball. From 1931 until 1934, he worked in the steel mills, as had his father.
He changed his name from Mladen Sekulovich to Karl Malden at age 22. He anglicized his first name by swapping its letters “l” and “a” and making the result, Malden, his last name; then he proceeded to take his grandfather’s first name of Karl and make it his first name. This was because the first theatre company he was in wanted him to shorten his name for its marquee. He thought that they wanted to fire him and were using his name as an excuse; although that wasn’t the case, he still changed his name to give them no excuse.
Malden often found ways to say “Sekulovich” in films and television shows in which he appeared. For example, as General Omar Bradley in Patton, as his troops slog their way through enemy fire in Sicily, Malden says “Hand me that helmet, Sekulovich” to another soldier. In Dead Ringer, as a police detective in the squad room, Malden tells another detective: “Sekulovich, gimme my hat.” In Fear Strikes Out, Malden, playing Jimmy Piersall’s father John, introduces Jimmy to a baseball scout named Sekulovich. In Birdman of Alcatraz, as a prison warden touring the cell block, Malden recites a list of inmates’ names, including Sekulovich. (Malden’s father was not pleased, as he told his son “Mladen, no Sekulovich has ever been in prison!”) In On the Waterfront, in which Malden plays the priest, among the names of the officers of Local 374 called out in the courtroom scene is Mladen Sekulovich, Delegate. Perhaps the most notable usage of his real name, however, was in the TV series The Streets of San Francisco. Malden’s character in the program, Mike Stone, employed a legman (played by Art Metrano) with that name, who did various errands.
In September 1934, Malden decided to leave his home in Gary, Indiana, to pursue formal dramatic training at the Goodman School (later part of DePaul University), then associated with the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Although he had worked in the steel mills in Gary for three years, he had helped support his family, and was thus unable to save enough money to pay for his schooling. Making a deal with the director of the program, he gave the institute the little money that he did have, with the director agreeing that, if Malden did well, he would be rewarded with a full scholarship. He won the scholarship. When Malden performed in the Goodman’s children’s theater, he wooed the actress Mona Greenberg (stage name: Mona Graham), who married him in 1938. He graduated from the Chicago Art Institute in 1937. Soon after, without work and without money, Malden returned to his hometown.
He eventually traveled to New York City, and first appeared as an actor on Broadway in 1937. He did some radio work and in a small role made his film debut in They Knew What They Wanted. He also joined the Group Theatre, where he began acting in many plays and was introduced to a young Elia Kazan, who would later work with him on A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954). His acting career was interrupted by World War II, during which he served as a noncommissioned officer in the 8th Air Force. While in the service, he was given a small role in the United States Army Air Forces play and film Winged Victory. After the war ended in 1945, he resumed his acting career, playing yet another small supporting role in the Maxwell Anderson play Truckline Cafe, with a then-unknown Marlon Brando. He was given a co-starring role in the Arthur Miller play All My Sons with the help of director Elia Kazan. With that success, he then crossed over into steady film work.
Malden resumed his film acting career in the 1950s, starting with The Gunfighter (1950) and Halls of Montezuma (1950). The following year, he was in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), playing Mitch, Stanley Kowalski’s best friend who starts a romance with Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh). For this role, he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Other films during this period included Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess with Montgomery Clift and Anne Baxter (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), where he played a priest who influenced Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) to testify against mobster-union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). In Baby Doll (1956), he played a power-hungry sexual man who had been frustrated by a teenage wife. He starred in dozens of films from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, such as Fear Strikes Out (1957), Pollyanna (1960), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Gypsy (1962), How the West Was Won (1962), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and Patton (1970), playing General Omar Bradley. After Summertime Killer (1972), he appeared in the made-for-television film The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro (1989) (as Leon Klinghoffer).
He directed one complete film Time Limit (1957) and when Delmer Daves took ill during the shooting of The Hanging Tree, Malden took over direction of the film for two weeks. Malden’s wife, Mona, the former Mildred Greenberg, graduated from Roosevelt High School in Emporia, Kansas where she attended Kansas State Teachers College, now Emporia State University. He first visited the campus with her in 1959 and was impressed by the ESU Summer Theatre. He returned in the summer of 1964 to teach, working with the actors in the company. Upon leaving, he gave his honorarium to establish the Karl Malden Theater Scholarship still given today. In 1963, he was a member of the jury at the 13th Berlin International Film Festival.
In 1972, Malden was approached by producer Quinn Martin about starring as Lt. Mike Stone in The Streets of San Francisco. Although the concept originated as a made-for-television movie, ABC quickly signed on to carry it as a series. Martin hired Michael Douglas to play Lt. Stone’s young partner, Inspector Steve Keller. On Streets, Malden played a widowed veteran cop with more than 20 years of experience who is paired with a young officer recently graduated from college. During its first season, it was a ratings winner among many other 1970s crime dramas, and served as ABC’s answer to such shows as Hawaii Five-O, Adam-12, Ironside, Barnaby Jones, Kojak, McMillan & Wife, Police Woman, The Rockford Files, and Switch. For his work as Lt. Stone, Malden was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series four times between 1974 and 1977, but never won. After two episodes in the fifth season, Douglas left the show to act in movies; Douglas had also produced the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975. Lt. Stone’s new partner was Inspector Dan Robbins, played by Richard Hatch. The show took a ratings nosedive, and ABC canceled it after five seasons and 119 episodes.
In 1980, Malden starred in Skag, an hour-long drama that focused on the life of a foreman at a Pittsburgh steel mill. Malden described his character, Pete Skagska, as a simple man trying to keep his family together. The pilot episode for the series had Skag temporarily disabled by a stroke, and explored the effects it had on his family and co-workers. While Skag met with poor ratings, critics praised it, in instances there were even full page ads taken out in newspapers in an attempt to keep the program from being taken off the air. Nevertheless the series was canceled after several episodes. In 1987, he was the host/narrator for the second and third television specials that later became the long-running series Unsolved Mysteries. Malden’s last role in film or television was in 2000 in the highly acclaimed first season episode of The West Wing titled “Take This Sabbath Day”. Malden portrayed a Catholic priest and used the same Bible he had used in On the Waterfront.
Malden died at his home in Los Angeles on July 1, 2009, at the age of 97. He is said to have died of natural causes. Malden’s manager said, “It could be many things. I mean, he was 97 years old!” He is said to have been in poor health for several years. Malden’s friend and former co-star Michael Douglas wrote a tribute to Malden for Time magazine’s “Milestones” section. He is buried at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, Westwood, California, United States. Malden, along with Eddie Albert, Buddy Ebsen and Ronald Reagan, shared the coincidences not only of being a Golden Age legend, but also of being an Illinois-born nonagenarian to die in the early 21st century.
- March, 22, 1912
- Chicago, Illinois
- July, 01, 2009
- Los Angeles, California
Cause of Death
- natural causes
- Westwood Memorial Park
- Los Angeles, California