Remembering a Working-Class Hero

In a summer news cycle that has left us reeling with stories of police investigations into Michael Jackson’s death, the marital transgressions of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, squabbling over Farrah Fawcett’s legacy, the murder of an NFL star and Ed McMahon’s homelessness, one celebrity story stands out for its dignified and abiding achievement.

The life of Karl Malden seems almost like a fairy tale. After seven decades of steady acting jobs in film, TV and advertising, he died peacefully in his sleep last week at the age of 97, just one year after celebrating his 70th wedding anniversary with the woman he married in 1938.

On the face of it, Malden would seem to have little to do with the TMZ-fueled obituary mania of recent days. He was born to Serbian parents, with the given name of Mladen Sekulovich, in 1912. His family moved from Chicago to the nearby steel town of Gary, Ind., when he was 5; Gary was a company town, founded by US Steel in 1906, and named for its chairman at the time, Elbert H. Gary.

The son of a milkman, Malden’s path was not certain early on. He abandoned studies in teaching after three months for professional basketball. Then he became a steelworker. Three years later, he felt like he was “getting nowhere fast.”

He applied for a scholarship to Goodman Theatre of Chicago’s Art Institute, imagining he would build scenery, since his father had also worked as a carpenter. Instead he discovered his true gift was on the stage, not behind it, and in 1937 Malden moved to New York. He got a bit part in Harold Clurman’s Group Theater play “Golden Boy.” During the production, he formed a lifelong bond with Elia Kazan.

Malden won an Oscar in 1951 for playing Mitch, Blanche’s suitor in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He was a familiar face throughout the next two decades, playing a handful of military characters in films like “Winged Victory,” “Kiss of Death,” and “Bombers B-52.”

His most controversial role was against type as the lascivious cotton-gin owner in “Baby Doll” (1956), which was protested by Catholic groups for its sexual content. Today, Malden is best remembered for his role as Father Barry in “On the Waterfront” and as Detective Mike Stone in TV’s “The Streets of San Francisco.”

It is hard to imagine an actor with Malden’s schnoz succeeding today. Though Malden did not have to change his nose, he did have to change his name. Kazan was the one who suggested the change — he knew what he was talking about, since he had been born Elia Kazanjoglous. As a tribute, though, Kazan often added characters to his movies that bore the name Sekulovich. Malden once bragged “there’s always a Sekulovich in a Kazan picture. In ‘On the Waterfront,’ he’s a longshoreman.”

Many of Kazan’s Group Theater compadres snubbed Kazan after his decision to “name names” during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Los Angeles in 1952. But Malden was always loyal to his old friend. So much so that in the 1990s, when Malden was president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he proposed Kazan be presented with a lifetime achievement award. Kazan’s award in 1999 opened old wounds among the Hollywood left.

Malden did not have much truck with Karl Marx. He often trumpeted that art and politics had no business commingling. At the same time, he had a career that was determined, in part, by cultural politics. He was rarely cast outside his caste: He almost always played the stoic sergeant, the kindly priest, or the crusty detective. And there is some irony that it was his 20-year job as a pitchman for American Express (the “Don’t Leave Home Without It” ads) that made his golden years truly golden.

What can Malden tell us about our current moment? First, he reminds us that Gary, Ind., the birthplace of Michael Jackson, was a steel town, and that the King of Pop had working-class roots. Secondly, Malden reminds us that we used to embrace “ethnic” noses — at least when the owners of those noses played by the rules.

Finally, Malden reminds us that there is another way to be a Hollywood star. Malden spent most of his life in the limelight, and died wealthy, without exposing his private life to public scrutiny.

In the end, Malden’s life should be celebrated for what he accomplished, and also for the ordinary people who saw themselves in his crooked nose and moral rectitude. He became a working-class hero at the very moment that the working class was supposed to have disappeared. But in his passing we are reminded that “working families” are very much alive and struggling in our current economy, and that many of us are still wishing, perhaps foolishly, upon a star.

— Kathy M. Newman

Kathy M. Newman is professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University.  She was involved in the effort to unionize Teaching Assistants at Yale University in the 1990s and she is currently finishing a book, Blacklisted and Bluecollared: How Americans Saw Class in the 1950s.

This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Guest Bloggers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Remembering a Working-Class Hero

  1. V.E.G. says:

    Due to the passing of Michael Jackson, the media paid little attention to the passing of the brilliant actor, Karl Malden.


  2. Nick Coles says:

    Thanks for this, Kathy.
    Does anyone recall Malden’s role in the TV series Skag? It seems to me it only ran four or so episodes, but it was extraordinary, one of very few shows set in and around a steel mill, perhaps in Malden’s home town of Gary? I’d love to see those again, to look at his role and the labor politics involved.


  3. I think that On the Waterfront is a deeply reactionary film, as is Malden’s role in it. How is this film not mixing politics and art?


  4. Joe Atkins says:

    Really nice piece on one of my favorite actors. In all the Michael Jackson-Farrah Fawcett mania, I told someone I was most affected by the passing one of the great old character actors of Hollywood, Karl Malden. In his own quiet way, he was a kind of working-class hero.


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