One of the greatest character actors of all time has died. Karl Malden, who won an Academy Award for best supporting actor in A Streetcar Named Desire, passed away of natural causes yesterday in Los Angeles. He was 97.
He made up for his ordinary looks by his extraordinary performances, distinguishing himself in three films directed by Streetcar director Elia Kazan, including his (in my view) his greatest performance (and that’s saying a lot) as Father Barry in On the Waterfront. Kazan had first met the actor in New York in the 1930s where he him “in a host of successful Broadway shows.”
He later starred alongside Michael Douglas in the 1970s television show, “The Streets of San Francisco.” He served as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences from 1989-1992. His acting range was incredible, from the pathetic older man trying to control his younger wife in Kazan’s Baby Doll, to the level-headed “G.I.’s general,” Omar Bradley, in Patton, to the persistent police inspector in Hitchcock’s under-appreciated I, Confess.
He was truly protean, able to play almost any character. In the three films he did with Kazan, he assumed three entirely different guises. He could be a nebbish, manipulated by those around him–or the moral force of one of the grestest movies of all time. He could hold his own again more charismatic screen legends like George C. Scott, Montgomery Clift and Brando.
Words cannot capture the true greatness of this man, so let me offer two scenes from Waterfront where he really shows his acting chops. I can’t watch the first without crying. All you need do is look at his face at the end of the second clip to see that a good actor doesn’t need dialogue to express his character’s emotions.
UPDATE: From the comments:
An actor who could play characters at opposite ends of the moral and emotional scales and all points between — from Dad Longworth in “One Eyed Jacks” to Omar Bradley in “Patton” and Father Barry in “On the Waterfront” — and make them rock solid believable, is an actor that comes along maybe two or three times in a century.
Couldn’t have said it better myself.