Actor Karl Malden has died. He was 97 years old.
For members of my generation, our first real exposure to Karl Malden came when he was president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and, as a result, always got to deliver the show-stopping "mission statement" at a handful of Oscar ceremonies. Even in that somewhat colorless role, he always came across as a genuinely decent, blue collar guy. If nothing else, he was certainly a good deal less pompous than Arthur Hiller.
(Malden later contributed to one of the biggest Oscar controversies in recent years when he spearheaded the effort to award name dropper Elia Kazan an honorary award.)
Malden, however, had a long career an actor. For much of his career, he was the urban everyman, an often-overlooked, hardworking figure who, more or often than not, ended up becoming a figure of moral authority simply based on the fact that you could simply look at Malden's face and tell that he had spent every day of his life making an honest living. Indeed, it was this innate sense of decency that made it all the more devastating when his weak-willed Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire finally ended up rejecting Vivian Leigh's Blanche. This sense of decency actually tempted one to overlook the fact that his crusading priest in On the Waterfront is essentially used to justify "naming names." Just try to imagine sitting through Patton without Karl Malden's practical-minded Omar Bradley there to balance out the megalomania of George C. Scott's Patton.
Malden was such a reliable actor that he was also quite often a rather underrated actor. Though it happened very rarely, occasionally he was cast against type and allowed to show that he had a good deal more range than one might suspect. A prime example of this came in Marlon Brando's sole directorial effort, the western One-Eyed Jacks where Malden was a chilling and believable bad guy. Legend has it that the film's original director -- the legendary Stanley Kubrick -- walked off the film because he felt that Malden's casting was a mistake and that Brando (who also played the film's lead role) would easily dominate Malden. (Reportedly, Kubrick hoped to cast Spencer Tracy in the villainous role.) In the end, however, it was Malden's performance that dominated the final film and Brando who often seemed to be miscast.
Allow me to mention one final underrated Malden performance. As an unabashed fan of the old school Italian giallo, this one is a personal favorite of mine. In Dario Argento's 3rd film, The Cat O' Nine Tales, Malden is cast as a blind, retired journalist who -- along with James Fransiscus -- is drawn into a rather complex murder mystery. It is, admittedly, a rather cutesy role but Malden plays it with just the right balance of genuine pathos and enigmatic menace. Indeed, by the end of the film, the audience can't help but feel rather ambiguous toward Malden's nominal hero. The film's finale -- in which Malden, incorrectly believing that his granddaughter has been murdered, ruthlessly kills the bad guy just to then hear his granddaughter's anguished scream of "Papa!" -- is a lot more effective than it has any right to be and this is largely because of Malden's performance.
Like many of the great film character actors of the 40s and 50s, Malden eventually ended up turning to television. His most famous role was as the lead detective in The Streets of San Francisco. I must confess that, during the rare times that reruns turned up in syndication, I have never been able to sit through an entire episode of The Streets of San Francisco. This is through no fault of Malden's. It's just that the show is as resolutely a symbol of its time as the various CSIspin-offs are today. As a result, the show has not aged well. Everything from the theme music to the announcer informing us that the show is "A Quinn Martin Production" has taken on an element of camp. Everything except for Karl Malden.
A few years back, I read an interview with Malden in which he was asked about his role on the Streets of San Francisco. Malden reflected on the irony of the fact that this by-the-book cop show starred two of the most resolutely liberal actors in Hollywood. The reason why I remembered Malden's comment is because it was delivered without apology. He neither apologized for being liberal nor did he apologize for giving a sympathetic portrayal of a conservative. In these partisan times, there's something comforting about discovering that there actually were accomplished, professional people who were capable of being politically-minded without succumbing to stridency.
(Malden was, for his entire career, an outspoken Democrat. Though, it should be noted, he was a member of the Democratic Party that gave us Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey and not the Democratic Party that has since produced Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.)
For me, Malden's best television role was in the true-crime miniseries, Fatal Vision. Playing the antagonistic father-in-law of convicted murderer Jeffrey McDonald (played, in a truly chilling performance, by Gary Cole), Malden once again embodied something that was both uniquely American and uniquely blue collar. To his efforts to convict that man who killed his daughter, Malden brought a compelling determination and a palpable pathos that distinguished both this movie in specific and Karl Malden's career in general.
Karl Malden, R.I.P.