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RIP Karl Malden (updated)

July 1, 2009

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(This post is also featured at Premium Hollywood)

Like all character actors, Karl Malden never got quite the same level of attention as costars like Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Steve McQueen, Anthony Perkins, Montgomery Clift, Michael Caine, and George C. Scott. Even the seventies TV series he starred in, “The Streets of San Francisco” found him being overshadowed in the eyes of the teenybopper set by his young punk of a male ingenue costar, Michael Douglas. That was largely because Malden was the kind of performer who understood that acting is a team sport. His best scenes were like great duets with near perfect communication between him and his scene partners. The exception were American Express travelers’ checks; those, he wiped off the screen.

Karl Malden died today at age 97, having been more or less fully retired since appearing in a 2000 episode of “The West Wing.” While he was never precisely an A-lister, he was a go-to actor for secondary leads, president of the Motion Picture Academy, and as far as I can tell a universally respected figure among actors and everyone else associated with the movie industry. He was also married to the same woman for seventy years, a rare enough Holllywood achievement to merit it’s own special Oscar. Not a bad life.

Below the fold is a video tribute I found that, from the misspellings, I gather may come from Serbia. (Malden, whose real name was Mladen Sekulovich, was the son of a Serbian father and a Czechoslovak mother.) The image quality could be better and some of the clips are a little too brief, but it does give you an excellent overview of his truly diverse film career, which included work with some of the greatest Hollywood directors including Elia Kazan, John Frankenheimer, and Alfred Hitchcock. It also includes some interesting moments from two oddball spy films, “Murderer’s Row,” which I haven’t seen, and the underrated “Billion Dollar Brain,” which included some pretty amazing scenes between Malden and Michael Caine as his old spy buddy, Harry Palmer, as well as Françoise Dorléac as his treacherous spy girlfriend (though he’s pretty tricky himself).

This scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire” may be a bit much for the Tennessee Williams-unfriendly, but it’s a special favorite of mine. Every time I see “Streetcar,” I forget I’m watching Karl Malden and Vivien Leigh, too very familiar faces to this film geek, and wind up hoping that somehow poor Blanche and Mitch will find happiness. (In case you haven’t seen the movie or the play, let’s just say the odds are slim.) That’s acting.

And, finally, his best known role. <Sigh>

My good pal Zayne has more video at More a Legend Than a Blog. Check it out.

UPDATE: Christoper Campbell of SpoutBlog has a very good rundown of other blog postings on Karl Malden’s passing (which I’m happy to say includes us). He also mentions yet another celebrity death, the passing of actor and singer Harve Presnell, whose credits ranged from the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” to such now semi- or completely forgotten sixties film musicals as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “When the Boys Meet the Girls” and the legendary “Paint Your Wagon” (where, it’s safe to say, he easily out-sang costars Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin). He was also Daddy Warbucks — a part he was born to play in his later days — in touring productions of “Annie” and also did some really funny work as a gruff detective emeritus on the sadly canceled “Andy Barker, P.I.

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