Karl Malden dies at age 97

Written by Barbara Vancheri on .

Karl MaldeAP, Malden, Michael Douglasn, the Oscar and Emmy Award-winning actor, has died at age 97.

Malden will be remembered for many things but perhaps only in Pittsburgh (or TV circles) for the 1980 Abby Mann series "Skag."

He played a veteran steelworker determined to hold his once tightly knit family together amid difficult and changing times. The establishing scenes for "Skag" were filmed here, but the actual production took place in Los Angeles.

Although critics lavished the show with praise -- calling it a "magnificent creation" and "an anthem to the working man" -- it earned some enemies among the steelworkers it depicted, particularly after an episode about a wildcat strike. With other storylines about impotence, senility, prostitution, jealousy and family discord, "Skag" packed a lot of livin' in its short life in January and February 1980.

My late colleague Ron Weiskind talked with Malden before his appearance here in 1997 at the Post-Gazette Book and Author Dinner. Here is Ron's story:

 In the short-lived 1980 TV series "Skag,'' Karl Malden played a Pittsburgh steelworker. "It took me home,'' he says, even though he was born in Chicago and reared in nearby Gary, Ind.

Like the character of Pete Skagska, Malden is of Serbian descent, sang in the church choir, had a father named Petar, married a Jewish woman and worked in the mills. Unlike Skag, he didn't spend his life there.

The young Malden screwed up his courage, took a train into Chicago and applied for acting school at the Goodman Theater. A three-month tryout turned into a three-year scholarship and an acting career that has spanned 60 years. It's all in his autobiography, "When Do I Start?'' which brings him back to Pete Skagska's hometown Nov. 5 for the Post-Gazette Book and Author Dinner.

"Here's a character who led the life I would have led if I'd stayed in Gary,'' Malden writes in the book. Unfortunately, "Skag'' was canceled after only eight episodes. "I was hurt. I put a lot of effort and blood into that one,'' Malden says in a telephone interview from his home in Southern California.

At age 85, he retains the bullhorn voice he used to good effect as Lt. Mike Stone, the cop he portrayed on the 1970s TV show "The Streets of San Francisco" (see photo). Along with the hat crammed on his head and that twice-broken nose, it made him a man to reckon with.

"My own personality came through the most in `Streets of San Francisco,' ‘' he says. "In a series, you cannot change your character every week. You have to say, `This is the man.' You play yourself; this is me, this is how I'd handle this situation.''

Mike Stone was as tough as his name but was also a patient mentor and a loyal partner to young Steve Keller, played by Michael Douglas in his first major role. Malden had known his father, Kirk Douglas, when he was still a dancer named Isador Demsky working summer stock in the Adirondacks. "If I had a son, I'd wish he was like Michael,'' says Malden.

Instead, he has two daughters - one of whom, Carla, helped him write the autobiography, which he started partly as a means of keeping busy.

"At this time I'm not working as much in films and TV. If you don't do something every day, that day is lost,'' he says, reciting the work ethic his father drummed into him.

"I would tell a story at a party and someone would say, `You ought to write a book.' Finally, I said, `Why don't I try?' But I was not successful. I can't type so I sat down with a pencil and paper. It was terrible. It wasn't me. So I forgot about it.''

But then Carla asked him about how it was going. When he said it wasn't, she came over with her laptop computer and instructed Malden to just start telling her stories.

"I realized I couldn't write the book because I'm an actor, and you're always acting with somebody. You're talking and you're seeing his reaction.'' So he would start talking to Carla, "and before you knew it I was acting.'' And they wrote the book.

Acting gave the man born Mladen Sekulovich a way out of Gary, an escape from a life in the steel mills.

"I think acting became something else to me after I arrived in New York. At the Goodman, everything was set up for you. All the roles were assigned. In New York, you had to go out and look for work and you had to ask yourself, `Do I want to do this or not?' In 20 years I did 24 plays and a lot were failures. I was out of work a lot. When you have to sell yourself, it's pretty tough. To me, that was the hardest part - looking for work.''

A few of those plays, however, were classics: Arthur Miller's "All My Sons'' and Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire,'' with Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy and Kim Hunter.

He remains friends with Brando, who rocketed to stardom in "Streetcar,'' which was only his third Broadway play, and he ponders the vicissitudes of celebrity. Malden became instantly recognizable to the man on the street only after 30 years in show business, when he landed on TV in "Streets'' and in a long-running series of American Express ads. Even so, his fame paled in comparison to that of the tumultuous Brando.

"His private life became so much more interesting to people than his theatrical life. And that's a shame.''

Malden always knew that, with his looks, he would never be a leading man. "I accepted that. But I decided if that's what I was going to be, I was going to be the best.''

Judging from his resume -- which includes an Oscar for the film version of "Streetcar,'' an Emmy for the miniseries "Fatal Vision'' and key roles in "On the Waterfront,'' "Baby Doll,'' "Fear Strikes Out,'' "One-Eyed Jacks,'' "The Cincinnati Kid'' and "Patton'' -- it seems evident he succeeded.


Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.