She is one of the last surviving stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Malone was born Dorothy Maloney on January 30, 1925 in Chicago, Illinois. When she was a child, her family moved to Dallas, Texas, where she attended high school and Southern Methodist University. While performing in a play there she was spotted by a talent scout who had been looking to find and cast a male actor. Malone recalled in 1981,
I was minoring in drama because I always seemed to be in the plays produced in high school and college. ... I did some scenes with this boy the agent had found and pictures of the scenes were taken of the boy and also of me. A few weeks later a 13-week [studio] contract arrived by mail with a six-year option.
Signed on to the studio RKO at age 18, she made her film debut in 1943's Gildersleeve on Broadway. She was credited as Dorothy Maloney in The Falcon and the Co-eds, released shortly thereafter. She later recalled, "I was a bridesmaid at a wedding in one picture. In another film, I was the leader of an all-girl orchestra. The only thing I did at RKO of any note was lose my Texas accent." After RKO did not renew its contract with her, she signed a three-year with Warner Bros. The studio, she said in 1985, changed her surname "from Maloney to Malone. They placed my picture in the newspaper and they gave me a raise."
Much of Malone's early career was spent in supporting roles in B-movies, many of them Westerns, although on occasion she played small but memorable roles, such as the brainy, lusty, bespectacled bookstore clerk in The Big Sleep (1946) with Humphrey Bogart, and the love interest of Dean Martin in the musical-comedy Artists and Models (1955). After To the Victor (1946) Malone played the female lead in Two Guys from Texas (1948) which, in her words, established her onscreen persona as "the all-American girl watching the all-American boy do all sorts of things.".
Among her other films during this time, she had supporting roles in Columbia Pictures' Convicted (1950) and The Killer That Stalked New York (1950). She made Mrs. O'Malley and Mr. Malone (1951) at MGM and played Tim Holt's love interest in RKO's Saddle Legion (1951).
She then began acting on television while continuing to appear in films. Malone relocated to New York City for several months to study acting until producer Hal Wallis called her back to appear in Scared Stiff (1953) starring the comedy duo of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
By 1956, Malone transformed herself into a platinum blonde and shed her "good girl" image when she co-starred with Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, and Robert Stack in director Douglas Sirk's drama Written on the Wind. Her portrayal of the dipso-nymphomaniac daughter of a Texas oil baron won her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. As a result, she was offered more substantial roles in such films as Too Much, Too Soon, where she portrayed Diana Barrymore, Man of a Thousand Faces (with James Cagney), and Warlock (with Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark). Additional screen credits include The Tarnished Angels (in which she reunited with former co-stars Hudson and Stack and director Sirk), The Last Voyage (with Stack) and The Last Sunset (with Hudson).
On New Years Day 1956, she appeared with John Ericson in the episode "Mutiny" of CBS's Appointment with Adventure. She guest-starred on NBC's 1958–1959 western series, Cimarron City.
During the 1963–1964 season, Malone guest starred on ABC's circus drama The Greatest Show on Earth, starring Jack Palance. From 1964 to 1968, she played the lead role of Constance MacKenzie on the ABC prime time serial Peyton Place except for a brief stretch where she was absent due to surgery. Lola Albright filled in until her return. Malone agreed for $3,000 a week less than ABC's offer of $10,000 weekly, if she could be home nightly for 6 p.m. dinner with her two daughters and no shooting on weekends. "I never turned down a mother role," said Malone. "I like playing mothers. I started out as a very young girl in Hollywood doing westerns, portraying a mother with a couple of kids." In 1968, she was written out of the show after complaining that she was given little to do. Malone sued 20th Century-Fox for $1.6 million for breach of contract; it was settled out of court. She would later return to the role in the TV movies Murder in Peyton Place (1977) and Peyton Place: The Next Generation (1985). Malone had a featured role in the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man (1976). She was in the Canadian soap opera High Hopes (1978) and had support parts in the series Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff (1979) and The Day Time Ended (1980), and the miniseries Condominium (1980). The producers of Dallas approached her to step into the role of Miss Ellie Ewing when Barbara Bel Geddes vacated the part in 1984, but Malone declined.
In 1981, Malone made her stage debut in Butterflies Are Free in Winnipeg. She was suffering financial troubles at the time due to two expensive divorces and a life-threatening pulmonary embolism.
In her last screen appearance, she played a mother convicted of murdering her family in Basic Instinct (1992) with Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone.
Malone married actor Jacques Bergerac in June 1959 in Hong Kong, where she was on location for her 1960 film The Last Voyage. They had daughters Mimi and Diane and divorced in December 1964. She then successively married and divorced Robert Tomarkin and Charles Huston Bell. Circa 1971, Malone and her daughters moved from Southern California to suburban Dallas, Texas, where she had been raised.
Malone has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1718 Vine in the Motion Pictures section. It was dedicated February 8, 1960.