Karl Malden, the eldest of three sons, was born Mladen Sekulovich in Chicago, Illinois on March 22, 1912; he was born on his mother's 20th birthday and was raised in Gary, Indiana.
His Bosnian Serb father, Petar Sekulović (1886–1975), worked in the steel mills and as a milkman, and his mother, Minnie (née Sebera) Sekulovich (22 March 1892 – 15 July 1995), was a Czech seamstress and actress. The Sekulovich family's roots trace back to Podosoje near Bileća, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Malden only spoke Serbian until he was in kindergarten and was fluent in the language until his death. Malden's father had a passion for music, and organized a choir.
As a teenager, Malden joined the Karageorge Choir at Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Church. His father then produced Serbian plays at his church and taught acting. A young Malden took part in many of these plays, which included a version of Jack and the Beanstalk but mostly centered on the community's Serbian heritage. In high school, he was a popular student and the star of the basketball team (according to his autobiography, Malden broke his nose twice while playing, taking elbows to the face and resulting in his trademark bulbous nose).
He participated in the drama department and was narrowly elected senior class president. Among other roles, he played Pooh-Bah in The Mikado. After graduating from Emerson High School in 1931 with high marks, he briefly planned to leave Gary for Arkansas, where he hoped to win an athletic scholarship, but college officials did not admit him owing to his refusal to play any sport besides basketball. From 1931 until 1934, he worked in the steel mills, as had his father.
He changed his name from Mladen Sekulovich to Karl Malden at age 22. He anglicized his first name by swapping its letters "l" and "a" and used it as his last and taking his grandfather's first name as his own. This was because the first theatre company he was in wanted him to shorten his name for its marquee. He thought that they wanted to fire him and were using his name as an excuse; although that was not the case, he still changed his name to give them no excuse.
Malden often found ways to say "Sekulovich" in films and television shows in which he appeared. For example, as General Omar Bradley in Patton, as his troops slog their way through enemy fire in Sicily, Malden says "Hand me that helmet, Sekulovich" to another soldier. In Dead Ringer, as a police detective in the squad room, Malden tells another detective: "Sekulovich, gimme my hat." In Fear Strikes Out, Malden, playing Jimmy Piersall's father John, introduces Jimmy to a baseball scout named Sekulovich. In Birdman of Alcatraz, as a prison warden touring the cell block, Malden recites a list of inmates' names, including Sekulovich. (Malden's father was not pleased, as he told his son "Mladen, no Sekulovich has ever been in prison!") In On the Waterfront, in which Malden plays the priest, among the names of the officers of Local 374 called out in the courtroom scene is Mladen Sekulovich, Delegate. Perhaps the most notable usage of his real name, however, was in the television series The Streets of San Francisco, where Malden's character, Mike Stone, employed a legman (played by Art Passarella) with that name.
In September 1934, Malden decided to leave his home in Gary, Indiana, to pursue formal dramatic training at the Goodman School (later part of DePaul University), then associated with the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Although he had worked in the steel mills in Gary for three years, he had helped support his family and was consequently unable to save enough money to pay for his schooling. Making a deal with the director of the program, he gave the institute the little money that he did have, with the director agreeing that, if Malden did well, he would be rewarded with a full scholarship. He won the scholarship. When Malden performed in the Goodman's children's theater, he wooed the actress Mona Greenberg (stage name: Mona Graham), who married him in 1938. He graduated from the Chicago Art Institute in 1937. Soon after, without work and without money, Malden returned to his hometown.
He eventually traveled to New York City, and first appeared as an actor on Broadway in 1937. He did some radio work and in a small role made his film debut in They Knew What They Wanted. He also joined the Group Theatre, where he began acting in many plays and was introduced to a young Elia Kazan, who later worked with him on A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954).
His acting career was interrupted by World War II, during which he served as a noncommissioned officer in the United States Army Air Corps in the 8th Air Force. While in the service, he was given a small role in the United States Army Air Forces play and film Winged Victory. After the war ended in 1945, he resumed his acting career, playing yet another small supporting role in the Maxwell Anderson play Truckline Cafe, with a then-unknown Marlon Brando. He was given a co-starring role in the Arthur Miller play All My Sons with the help of director Elia Kazan. With that success, he then crossed over into steady film work.
Malden resumed his film acting career in the 1950s, starting with The Gunfighter (1950) and Halls of Montezuma (1950). The following year, he was in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), playing Mitch, Stanley Kowalski's best friend, who starts a romance with Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh). For this role, he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Other films during this period included Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess with Montgomery Clift and Anne Baxter (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), where he played a priest who influenced Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) to testify against mobster-union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).
In Baby Doll (1956), he played a man frustrated by a teenaged wife. The film was condemned by the Legion of Decency and did not air long. He starred in dozens of films from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, such as Fear Strikes Out (1957), Pollyanna (1960), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Gypsy (1962), How the West Was Won (1962), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and Patton (1970), playing General Omar Bradley. At the 1971 Academy Awards ceremony, Malden accepted the best actor Oscar on behalf of George C. Scott, who won for his role as Patton. After Summertime Killer (1972), he appeared in the made-for-television film The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro (1989) (as Leon Klinghoffer). He directed one complete film Time Limit (1957), and when Delmer Daves took ill during the shooting of The Hanging Tree, Malden took over direction of the film for two weeks.
Malden’s wife, Mona, the former Mildred Greenberg, graduated from Roosevelt High School in Emporia, Kansas, where she attended Kansas State Teachers College, now Emporia State University. He first visited the campus with her in 1959 and was impressed by the ESU Summer Theatre. He returned in the summer of 1964 to teach, working with the actors in the company. Upon leaving, he gave his honorarium to establish the Karl Malden Theater Scholarship still given today.
In 1963, he was a member of the jury at the 13th Berlin International Film Festival.
In 1972, Malden was approached by producer Quinn Martin about starring as Lt. Mike Stone in The Streets of San Francisco. Although the concept originated as a made-for-television movie, ABC quickly signed on to carry it as a series. Martin hired Michael Douglas to play Lt. Stone's young partner, Inspector Steve Keller.
On Streets, Malden played a widowed veteran cop with more than 20 years of experience who is paired with a young officer recently graduated from college. During its first season, it was a ratings winner among many other 1970s crime dramas, and served as ABC's answer to such shows as Hawaii Five-O, Adam-12, Ironside, Barnaby Jones, Kojak, McMillan & Wife, Police Woman, The Rockford Files, and Switch.
For his work as Lt. Stone, Malden was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series four times between 1974 and 1977, but never won. After two episodes in the fifth season, Douglas left the show to act in movies; Douglas had also produced the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975. Lt. Stone's new partner was Inspector Dan Robbins, played by Richard Hatch. The show took a ratings nosedive, and ABC cancelled it after five seasons and 119 episodes.
In 1980, Malden starred in Skag, an hour-long drama that focused on the life of a foreman at a Pittsburgh steel mill. Malden described his character, Pete Skagska, as a simple man trying to keep his family together. The pilot episode for the series had Skag temporarily disabled by a stroke and explored the effects it had on his family and co-workers. While Skag met with poor ratings, critics praised it. In some instances, even full page ads were taken out in newspapers in an attempt to keep the program from being taken off the air. Nevertheless, the series was cancelled after several episodes. In 1987, he was the host/narrator for the second and third television specials that later became the long-running series Unsolved Mysteries.
His last role in film or television was in 2000 in the highly acclaimed first-season episode of The West Wing titled "Take This Sabbath Day" in which he portrayed a Catholic priest and used the same Bible he had used in On the Waterfront.
Malden delivered the line "Don't leave home without them!" in a series of U.S. television commercials for American Express Travelers Cheques in the 1970s and 1980s. He also advertised the American Express card, with the famous opening line, "Do you know me?" These ads were occasionally spoofed on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Malden was a member of the United States Postal Service's 16-member Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, which meets to review recommendations for U.S. commemorative postage stamps.
On December 18, 1938, Malden married Mona Greenberg (born 1918), who survives him. Their marriage was one of the longest in Hollywood's history, lasting nearly 71 years. In addition to his wife, Malden was survived by his daughters Mila and Carla and his son-in-law Tom; his other son-in-law Laurence predeceased him in 2007, and he was also survived by his three granddaughters and four great-grandchildren. In 2008, he and Mona celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.
In 1997, Malden published his autobiography, When Do I Start?, written with his daughter Carla.
Malden died at his home in Los Angeles on July 1, 2009, at the age of 97. He is said to have died of natural causes. Malden's manager said, "It could be many things. I mean, he was 97 years old!" He is said to have been in poor health for several years.
Malden's friend and former co-star Michael Douglas wrote a tribute to Malden for Time's "Milestones" section.
His remains are buried at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, Westwood, California.
Malden won the 1951 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for A Streetcar Named Desire and was nominated in 1954 for his supporting role in On the Waterfront. Malden was a past president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In October 2003, he was named the 40th recipient of the Screen Actors' Guild's Life Achievement Award for career achievement and humanitarian accomplishment.
In 1985, he was awarded an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series for his performance as Freddy Kassab in Fatal Vision. During the same year, he was also awarded an honorary doctoral degree in fine arts by Emporia State University.
In May 2001, Malden received an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, from Valparaiso University. Michael Douglas presented Malden with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild on February 22, 2004. On November 11, 2004, Douglas also presented Malden with the Monte Cristo Award of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, which is given for "distinguished careers exemplifying Eugene O'Neill's standard of excellence and pioneering spirit." Among other past winners were Jason Robards, Zoe Caldwell, Edward Albee, August Wilson, and Brian Dennehy.
On November 12, 2005, the United States House of Representatives authorized the United States Postal Service to rename the Los Angeles Barrington Postal Station as the Karl Malden Postal Station in honor of Malden's achievements. The bill, H.R. 3667, was sponsored by Representatives Henry Waxman and Diane Watson.
For his contribution to the film industry, Malden has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6231 Hollywood Blvd. In 2005, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.Fatal Vision (1984) as Freddy Kassab
Alice in Wonderland (1985) as The Walrus