'Hard work and dreams': Karl Malden remembers his roots

2007-12-02T00:00:00Z 'Hard work and dreams': Karl Malden remembers his rootsPHILIP POTEMPA
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December 02, 2007 12:00 am  • 

Editor's note: Times Columnist Philip Potempa interviewed Hollywood legend and Gary native Karl Malden last month at the California home of the actor and his wife of nearly 70 years, Mona.

LOS ANGELES | When Karl Malden graduated from Gary's Emerson High School in 1931, he was Mladen Sekulovich (or "Suki" as his friends called him), a tall and skinny basketball star ready to become a gym teacher.

Take a quiz on Karl Malden

"This was right in the middle of the Great Depression," said Malden, relaxing on the couch in the library of his home in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles.

"If you were lucky enough to graduate from high school and have an education, you wanted a job that would give you some security," he said.

Working as an actor was something that never entered his mind.

Just as Malden, now 95, is about to share his next thought, his wife Mona walks into the room holding a silver tray with glasses of iced tea and an elegant China plate stacked with almond cookies.

Married in 1938, the couple will celebrate their 69th wedding anniversary Dec. 18, inching them another year closer to breaking Bob and Dolores Hope's 70-year record as Hollywood's longest-married famous couple.

See a slideshow of Karl Malden

"I can't tell you how excited Karl was when he knew The Times was coming to our house to do a story," Mona said.

"He always has stories about Northwest Indiana."

That's when Malden, whose tall 6-foot frame is still strong and impressive, breaks in to finish his earlier thought.

"While I was waiting for you to arrive, I was sitting here thinking about that 1930-31 basketball season of my senior year," said Malden, who is still sharp and sturdy and walks with confidence.

"We were playing Hammond High (School), and we were just down by one point as the final seconds of the game were ticking away. I shot the winning basket. I'll never forget what it felt like at that moment."

His basketball memory is the perfect example of the man who is Karl Malden.

Even though he has won an Oscar and lived a Hollywood career working with a galaxy of stars ranging from Marlon Brando and Bette Davis to Natalie Wood and Michael Douglas, it's his region roots and his family he values and cherishes most.

Malden's last trek to Indiana was in 2001, for the May commencement ceremony at Valparaiso University.

Malden, who earned his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the movie "A Streetcar Named Desire," received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters during that visit to VU.

"With the cold weather back in the region and all the trouble with traveling, there's no reason to return to Northwest Indiana, any more," he said.

"The last family member who still lived in the region was my younger brother Daniel. But he moved out here to Longview Beach, Calif., a few years ago."

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Malden returned to the region at least twice a year to see his mother, Minnie, in Crown Point. She lived to be 104 before dying in 1996.

"My mother and father knew all about hard work and dreams," he said.

"When my father came to the United States in 1906 from the tiny European village of Bileca, Hercegovina, he brought nothing with him but hopes and dreams."

He said his father was the one who encouraged him to pursue a scholarship to attend college, where he could study to be a gym teacher and basketball coach.

"No one had any money back then," he said.

"That's when it was easy to use your thumb (to hitchhike) and that's what I did to get down to Batesville, Ark., where I could have had a college scholarship if I'd agreed to play both basketball and football.

"But since I was only interested in basketball, they sent me home and that's when my dad and our priest put in a good word for me and got me a job in the steel mills."

By this time, his father, Petar, had left the mills and was working as a milk delivery man for Cloverleaf Dairy in Gary, a position his father kept for 38 years.

"Working in the mills was hard work, but it was good money," Malden said.

"I started out as a laborer making $3.49 a day and later, got moved to an even harder position as a bricklayer that had better pay for $5 a day. And for three long and hard years I wondered to myself if this was where I was going to end up for the rest of my life. Finally, I decided I couldn't stay."

He said his change in careers came from a "subtle calling" in 1934.

Once a year, the drama departments at Horace Mann, Emerson and Lew Wallace high schools teamed up to present a series of one-act plays.

"To make a little extra money, I helped some of the guys build the sets and scenery for these plays," Malden said.

"And while watching what was happening on stage, I thought to myself: 'I can do that.' But I was never in front of the scenery for anyone to see me. But I always remembered that during these play competitions, they's always bring in a judge from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago."

Since he was still working the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift at the steel mill, he decided to go to Chicago one day and visit the Goodman Theatre to ask about the opportunities for acting school.

"They asked me how much money I had, and I told them I had saved my every dime from working in the mills, which was about $300," he said.

"Well, they told me the school tuition for a year was $900. But the man in charge of the school made me an offer I'll never forget it.

"He asked me if I was a gambler. He said if I paid the $300, he would take me on and if I worked hard and proved I had talent, somehow he'd find the rest of the tuition money for me."

It was during his Goodman Theatre years that he met "the most beautiful woman he'd ever scene." This young Goodman Theatre actress was Mona, his future wife and after he graduated in June 1937, they courted and were married in 1938. They even starred together in The Goodman Theatre's production of "Jack and the Beanstalk."

But after he finished his theater training and before the couple's wedding, Malden returned home to Gary for a short time, and his father helped him get a job as a milkman to earn enough money to travel to New York in October 1937 to pursue an acting career.

"The one thing my dad told me before I left was: Don't ever do anything to disgrace the family name."

It was in New York that Malden found an agent and began making the rounds for stage work, which introduced him to the young man who would become famed director Elia Kazan, who gave him his breakthrough role as Mitch in the Broadway production of "A Street Car Named Desire," a role he later recreated in the movie and for which he won his Oscar in 1951.

At the time of their meeting, Kazan was starring on stage opposite actress Frances Farmer in "Golden Boy," and got Malden a part as the manager of one of the fighters.

It was also during these early acting years, and especially after he got his agent in New York, that he also officially changed his name to "Karl Malden," something he never wanted to do because of his family pride and Serbian heritage. He said it was Kazan that also pushed him to make the change, partly because he believed the young actor's real name Sekulovich sounded "Jewish" (even though it wasn't.) When his future actress wife Mona Greenberg arrived to New York, staying with relatives and also looking for work as an actress, she also changed her "official" stage name to Graham.

"Even if I changed my name for the marquee, I never forgot it, and I never let my parents think I forgot it," Malden said with a big smile, raising his glass of iced tea to clink classes as he toasted, "here's to Northwest Indiana."

Malden then shared examples of all the times he "cleverly" inserted his real last name "Sekulovich" into the dialogue of the famous films he made as a family tribute he knew his parents would recognize when they watched him on the big screen.

"In the film 'Patton' (1950), there's the scene when the jeep I'm riding in gets blown up and we're thrown to the ground," he said. "And you can hear me say to the young soldier: 'Get my helmet, Sekulovich!' "

"And in 'Birdman of Alcatraz' with Burt Lancaster, I play the warden and in one scene I call out to one of the prisoners by the name of Sekulovich. I know over the years I made more than one script girl probably scratch her head and start flipping pages."

Malden said his father got a particular shock when he heard the family name mentioned in "Birdman of Alcatraz."

"My father said to me: 'There's never been a Sekulovich in prison before!' " Malden recalled.

Malden even introduced the name Sekulovich in his award-winning TV show, "The Streets of San Francisco."

Today, Malden and his wife are happily spending time with their two daughters, Mila and Carla, and with their grandchildren and great grandchildren. Carla and her husband live in the house next door.

"I'm happy to spend my days reading and watching lots of sports, mostly the Lakers," Malden said.

"The phone stopped ringing for me to work after I did that episode of 'West Wing' in 2000. And I only did that as a favor for Martin Sheen because he had done my show, 'The Streets of San Francisco' back in the '70s."

Title: SLIDESHOW: Karl Malden

Date: Dec. 1st, 2007

A look at the life and career of Gary's own Hollywood legend. All photos and text are reproduced with permission from Malden's memoir "When Do I Start?"

PLAY ┬╗

Malden Moments

* In 2004, Malden was the 40th recipient to accept the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. He was presented the award by actor Michael Douglas, his costar from their series "The Streets of San Francisco," which aired on ABC from 1972 to 1977.

* Malden also earned an Oscar nomination for "On the Waterfront" (1954) and starred in numerous other classic movies, including "Baby Doll" (1956), "One-Eyed Jacks" (1961), "The Cincinnati Kid" (1965), "How the West Was Won" (1962) and "Nuts" (1987).

* From his more than 50 movies, Malden said today he receives the most fan mail about his 1957 film with Anthony Perkins, "Fear Strikes Out," about Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall, who played 17 seasons in the majors -- with a lifetime batting average of .272 -- while battling mental illness.

* As pitchman on TV for American Express, Malden made the phrase "Don't leave home without it" a part of American culture. Malden said he had no idea his one-year contract would lead to 22 years endorsing the same company.

* In addition to his success as an entertainer and celebrated personality, Malden has provided leadership to numerous professional organizations and has been a benefactor to a variety of charitable groups.

He served three terms as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and as a member of the Academy's Board of Governors for nine years.

He also served on the Board of the Screen Actors Guild for six years. He helped raise $12 million to consolidate the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences library.

He has contributed to organizations ranging from the Crossroads School of Arts and Sciences and the Motion Picture and Television Country Home in California, to St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Merrillville.

* While president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1989 to 1993, Malden is credited with rejuvenating both a "tired Academy" and "lackluster Oscar's telecast," according to Anthony Holden's 1992 book, "Behind the Oscar" (Simon & Schuster).

"Everyone is always giving me credit for the changes in the Oscars telecast, but I say the credit should go to Gilbert Cates, the producer who pitched the ideas to me," Malden said.

"The best thing we did that first year was when we decided to invest the money to send the show to be broadcast around the world via satellite. It was a big expense and a gamble, but it paid off. Today, it's the standard."

* Malden's daughter Carla collaborated on his 1997 memoirs "When Do I Start?" (Simon&Schuster $25).

Malden on Malden

About his work with so many famous female costars:

"I was never a movie star. I was an actor who loved every minute of my work. I can't claim a lot of close friendships that came from working with the ladies of the screen. When I worked with Bette Davis (in 1964's suspenseful "Dead Ringer"), it was later in her career and she wasn't all that happy. She never really associated with anyone on the set. She stayed to herself.

"And when I was still under contract at Warner Bros., they cast me as Claudette Colbert's love interest (in the 1961 film 'Parrish' also starring Troy Donahue and Connie Stevens), which didn't make her happy because she expected more of what she considered a leading-man type. But at the time, I was the only actor also under contract who was around her same age who could do the role.

On his favorite female costar: "Hands down, that's Roz (Rosalind) Russell. She was always so much fun and so nice. And she was that way the moment we met on the set of 'Gypsy.' I asked to be in that film. Roz was great and we stayed friends right until she passed on [1976]. When we were doing 'Gypsy,' I say: 'I'm going to sing this part better than you!' And she'd say: 'Oh no you're not!' "

On his favorite male costar: "(Marlon) Brando was the best. I know he was wacky, but he was a genius. He and I talked by phone just about every other day right up until he died. I know he was eccentric. But as an actor and a creative mind, no one else compared. He knew he was kooky. He was who he was. He didn't care what people thought."

On when he thought he had reached star status: "When I got to act with Gary Cooper in 'The Hanging Tree' (1959), I knew my parents were going to be proud."

On the last good movie he's seen: "I don't go to the movies. There's nothing I want to see. My wife will go out with friends to see a movie now and then, but there's nothing I want to see."

On his health: "I feel pretty good most days. I have a nurse that's here in the house to help out in case I need anything. And, like anyone, I have good days and bad days. But mostly, I'm feeling okay."

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