Actor Karl Malden, who died today at age 97, was a fine performer who stood for good principles and conveyed a sense of moral responsibility in his performances, S. T. Karnick writes.
Malden was instrumental in pushing the Motion Picture Academy to give a lifetime achievement award to writer-director Elia Kazan, who directed Malden in perhaps his best and most memorable role, that of Father Berry in On the Waterfront.
Kazan had been an outcast in Hollywood for several decades before the 1999 award, because of his opposition to communism.
A measure of Malden’s integrity is that he was married to the same woman for seventy years and was surrounded by family members when he died.
By no means handsome or dashing, Malden was seen by critics an Everyman type, but he did not settle for allowing his characters to be ordinary or dull. Having grown up in no privileged environment, he knew just how much strength it often took for ordinary people just to survive. Thus he invested his characters with real strength, regardless of whether the person was basically good or not. He succeeded purely on the strength of his acting ability and the availability of roles playing real adult human beings in real, dramatic stories.
Malden clearly made an effort to understand why his characters did what they did, and as a result his performances emphasize the characters’ freedom of moral choice and consequent moral responsibility for their actions. Thus his performances worked against the prevailing cultural notion that our actions are determined by our circumstances.
Malden had numerous memorable film roles, including Gen. Omar Bradley in Patton, the complex sheriff and former bank robber Dad Longworth in One-Eyed Jacks, the cuckolded husband in Baby Doll, the domineering father in Fear Strikes Out (an awful film), and of course as Lt. Mike Stone in the 1970s TV series The Streets of San Francisco.
—S. T. Karnick