Movies

Karl Malden Died For Your Sins

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My local news station describes Karl Malden, dead today at 97 years young, as having been "a fixture of seventies television." Even for a committed Quinn Martin fan, that seems like pretty uncharitable praise for a major cultural figure. If nothing else, as celebrities continue to pop off before their time, Malden proved that clean living can help get you almost a century.

With his slightly monstrous physiognomy and a temperament permanently set at "lovable but overbearing," Malden was the greatest of the second bananas. Even his breakthrough American Express commercials hinged on Malden's ability to reassure you: "I'm not a big star; you can trust me." And you could! By some accounts it was Malden's eloquent defense of Elia Kazan that got the controversial HUAC songbird his lifetime achievement award in 1999. As it is the nature of supporting players not to get the glory, there's no sense in complaining about underrating. So I'll just say that for me, On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Patton are all Karl Malden vehicles in which somebody else got most of the credit.

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  1. Was he the last of the celebrities that you could plug in as a punch line about big noses? When I was a kid, I remember hearing Johnny Carson or Don Rickles types making jokes with Malden’s or Jimmy Durante’s nose in the punch line.

    Milton Berle passed the torch to Tommy Lee; Dolly Parton to Pam Anderson. Who will take the big nose torch?

  2. RIP, Karl. The King of Character Actors.

  3. Don’t forget his great villain role in Nevada Smith, the one where Malden made a purse out of Smith’s Indian mother’s breast after he skinned her alive, and then way Steve McQueen left him begging to be killed.

    IN the Cincinnati Kid, he was the perfect dealer/mechanic, the good friend that goes bad over a bad woman, and McQueen leaves him again without mercy given.

    The perfect shy man opposite Brandon in Streetcar, and the perfect priest in Waterfront. Malden could play all the roles.

    Patton’s Omar, the general up from the ranks, Bradley, was easy for him.

    He didn’t drink or smoke, and didn’t reveal his politics. He didn’t seem to take himself too seriously, yet he was serious and could lead his fellows, which he did.

    His defense of Kazan was justified, and seems more right as time goes by. Citizens on both sides were victims of the Commie scare.

  4. Let’s not get carried away with praising Malden’s acting. Of course George C. Scott got most of the credit for Patton. His performace was a tour de force. Would the movie have been as good without Malden’s portrayal of Omar Bradley? Of course not. But implying that somehow or other Malden was the real star of the movie is nonsense. Same with those other films.

  5. I would argue that Streets had one of the best openings and themes in TV history (alternate version, from the two-part bridge episode that started the final season).

  6. Don’t forget Malden in Bridman of Alcatraz (Frankenheimer FTW). However, I have to agree with Bruce that George C. Scott totally pwned in Patton.

  7. Karl Malden is also part of Usenet History. At least the newsgroup named after him (alt.fan.karl-malden.nose) is.

  8. Malden was the Great Enhancer.

  9. Malden also had a great “second banana” role, opposite James Franciscus, in Dario Argento’s 1971 thriller “The Cat o’ Nine Tails.”

  10. Hey, how about his role in Nuts?

  11. IMO, he was a better overall artist than Michael Jackson. His contributions to american culture exceed Jackson’s.

  12. “Would the movie have been as good without Malden’s portrayal of Omar Bradley? Of course not.”

    But Malden was Bradley and captured his essence just as much as Scott captured Patton’s essence. It is just that Scott got to play a more compelling character.

  13. Was it clean living? Or was it a longevity secret known only to a few and closely held? Malden’s partner in Streets was Michael Douglas; Mikey’s Dad is 93 and (according to a recent interview with Mr. Zeta-Jones) still working.

    Could Kirk have been admitted to Karl’s Circle of Trust, or the other way around, and then shared the secret?

    Seriously, I thought both Malden and Douglas had been gone for years. I was surprised to hear, a few weeks ago, that Douglas remained with us; similarly surprised to hear that Malden just “left home” this week — carrying his Heavenly Express card, I hope.

  14. Sorry to see the old boy go, but at 97, I guess you could say he’d gotten the full measure of years. He was grand and one of the satisfactions is that he is immortalized on celluloid if not in physical form.

    RIP.

    Don’t forget his great villain role in Nevada Smith…

    Damn, now you got me trying to remember the flick where the character Nevada Smith was introduced. George Peppard played a barely disguised Howard Hughes character and Alan Ladd, in one of his last roles, was the cowboy actor with a past, Nevada Smith.

  15. Patton’s Omar, the general up from the ranks, Bradley, was easy for him.

    Actually, no, far from being “up from the ranks”, Omar Bradley was a West Point whiz kid with an IQ in the stratosphere.

    But, aside from that historical inaccuracy, Malden did an absolutely splendid job of portraying him on the silver screen.

    And, this much is true, Bradley was seen as a “soldier’s soldier” and was extremely popular with the men in the ranks, as opposed to other “brilliant” men, like Patton and MacArthur who were if not exactly hated, universally disliked.

  16. He was a downright evil villian in Nuts. Great character actor. Since Hollywood doesn’t write dialog or see any need for characters in their films, the only need movie stars to say a few polemics and dodge the explosions. That doesn’t leave much room for character actors. It is amazing the actors we have lost in the last ten years or so; Paul Newman, Matthau and Lemmon, George C. Scott, Roy Schider, Richard Widmark, Shelly Winters, Jack Palance. That is just off the top of my head. All of the character actors and movie stars from the golden age of film are passing from the scene.

  17. “MacArthur who were if not exactly hated, universally disliked”

    MacArthur was hated by other generals. He was loved by the people who served under him. His campaigns in the SW Pacific were brilliant and suffered far fewer casualties than the Marines did in the Central Pacific. He cared about his men and was very popular. He was amazingly charasmatic.

  18. If nothing else, as celebrities continue to pop off before their time…

    I’m gonna assume Mr. Cavanaugh was referring to Farah Fawcett and Farah Fawcett only. I can’t remember if I lost my virginity to her or Marilyn Chambers…

  19. Damn, now you got me trying to remember the flick where the character Nevada Smith was introduced. George Peppard played a barely disguised Howard Hughes character and Alan Ladd, in one of his last roles, was the cowboy actor with a past, Nevada Smith.

    .

    Wasn’t that The Carpetbaggers? It was a film based on Harold Robbins’ novel of the same name. It was centered around the making of a movie about some guy whose American Indian mother had been raped, mutilated, and murdered and his long quest for revenge and justice. The producer/director of the movie commissions an engineer to design a special cantilevered bra for the movie’s female lead.

    In real life Howard Hughes produced and directed a movie named The Outlaw which starred Jane Russel among others. A special underwire bra was designed for Ms. Russel to accentuate her rather ample breasts. The plot of The Outlaw was similar to the plot of the movie being made in The Carpetbaggers.

  20. Great in Streetcar and Waterfront, just great. R.I.P. Mr. Malden, and thanks.

  21. “So I’ll just say that for me, On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Patton are all Karl Malden vehicles in which somebody else got most of the credit.”

    So what you’re saying, Tim, is that you have a big nose too?

  22. About Patton:

    Malden is critical because the movie is structured to give the viewer overwhelming sympathy for Patton – but it’s critical that you be reminded that Patton was kind of an asshole. Malden’s portrayal of Bradley had to be more likable, with a handful of lines, than the guy favored by the script. That’s hard to do.

  23. MacArthur was hated by other generals. He was loved by the people who served under him. His campaigns in the SW Pacific were brilliant and suffered far fewer casualties than the Marines did in the Central Pacific.

    MacArthur’s initial defense of the Phillipines was strikingly incompetent. The Japanese always had a shitty logistics system and a more vigorous defense against the initial landings would have hurt them bad. The British commanders who botched the defense of Malaya and Singapore were criticized for it, while MacArthur somehow managed to get his failures regarded as heroism.

  24. “MacArthur’s initial defense of the Phillipines was strikingly incompetent. The Japanese always had a shitty logistics system and a more vigorous defense against the initial landings would have hurt them bad. The British commanders who botched the defense of Malaya and Singapore were criticized for it, while MacArthur somehow managed to get his failures regarded as heroism.”

    You are right. McArthur has two huge blots on his resume. The defense of the Philipines as you mention and his absolute ignorent refusal to believe that Chinese would invade Korea. Read David Halberstam’s last book “The Coldest Winter” sometime. Everyone was telling McArhur that the Chinese were going to intervene. They were finding Chinese Soldiers in North Korea all fall. But anyone who didn’t toe the party line was banished from headquarters. It was absolutely disgracful. Worse than his performance in the Phillipines.

    But that said, he was still brilliant in the Southwest Pacific. And it is not like other generals didn’t have their share of screwups. Bradley is responsible for the worst friendly fire incident in U.S. history. Patton wasted a couple of brigades trying to rescue his brother in law from a POW camp. Halsey had a bad habbit of not listening to his weatherman and sailing his fleets into hurricanes. Really the only American flag officer with a pretty much flawless record who won big battles despite being outnumbered and out gunned was Nimitz.

    That said, you are right. McArthur for all of his virtues had some huge flaws.

  25. Halsey had a bad habbit of not listening to his weatherman and sailing his fleets into hurricanes.

    That’s a very bad habit. They should develop a patch for that.

  26. If another celebrity dies, then we’re officially in The Rapture.

  27. Wasn’t that The Carpetbaggers?

    That’s the one, many thanks, Mr smartass sob.

    John, you’re right, “universally” was probably the wrong word for MacArthur. Opinion was more divided, I suppose. There was widespread resentment among troops on Bataan but the troops involved in the New Guinea campaign respected and even liked him. He was also popular with Australians, and the Filpinos think he’s a god (some say he could easily have become President there), as did a generation of Japanese.

  28. If another celebrity dies,

    Does the actress, Gale Storm count? She died this last Saturday at 87. She was known for playing the part of My Little Margie among other roles.

  29. If nothing else, as celebrities continue to pop off before their time, Malden proved that clean living can help get you almost a century.

    “Before their time”? The only one I can think of might be Farrah Fawcett. The rest have either been plenty old enough to die (Malden, McMahon) or abused their bodies so badly that they were lucky to make it as long as they did (Jacko).

  30. The “rule of 3” for celebrity deaths will have to be revised soon, if only because of the sheer number of people the baby boomers elevated into “celebrity” status. There’s a big group of those folks rocketing towards 70 that will probably start to drop like flies soon. The death curve will probably look like that of WWII vets – where one day they’re all alive, and you blink and three years later there are only a comparative handful left.

  31. Agreeing with some previous comments re: patton

    Look, Malden was great in Patton, but he was still just a calming foil for Scott to play the giant-ego against. Could anyone else have done a better job in that particular role? Probably not – but nevertheless a ‘Malden vehicle’, it certainly wasn’t.

    Streets of San Francisco, however WAS a real Malden vehicle. Surprised it wasnt mentioned.

  32. Fluffy, others:

    MacArthur knew the importance of image and public relations in a way that most of his peers were ignorant of. The corncob pipe affectation, the aviator shades, being photographed as we walked through the surf of the Philippines (“I have returned”) and so on.
    I have also heard the “He was loved by his men” thing, but clearly not all soldiers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonus_army

  33. Bradley is responsible for the worst friendly fire incident in U.S. history.

    What was that? I thought the biggest U.S. friendly fire incident in WWII was when anti-aircraft from the Anzio landing fleet shot down a bunch of planes.

  34. Owing much to the injustices suffered as subjects of celebrities like King George and assorted petty tyrant aristocrats there was a fairly long period after te revolution that Americans shunned even despised the idea of someone holding celebrity status. Not so under rule of fascists and communists. Sorry if I don’t share everyone’s love of celebrities, they get no special attention from me, in life, or death. All the same, R.I.P., Karl, like any other American crossing to the other side of the river, I hope your journey is a pleasant one.

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