Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Class Act - Karl Malden, 1912-2009.


** In April 1998, when Karl Malden was 86, my wife and I got a chance to meet him and his daughter Carla at a screening of "On the Waterfront" at a theater in La Jolla, north of San Diego. He was also there to promote his fabulous and somewhat dishy memoir, "When Do I Start?" -- which had been released the year before in hardcover -- (and as of this writing, is still gloriously in print in paperback because it's that fantastic, esp. his impressions of the stars he worked with -- which he felt OK writing about -- given the fact that even in 1998, he had already outlived most of 'em).

** In conjunction with his appearance, I loaned my linen-backed, original 1954 movie poster to "On the Waterfront" to the film society group hosting his visit. It was displayed on stage after the screening -- and also at an adjacent bookstore where he signed copies of his books with his daughter, who wrote the text. He answered a ton of questions from the huge audience that turned out -- esp. what it was like working with Brando, Elia Kazan and Vivien Leigh. He said Kazan was a genius, that Leigh was closer to Blanche DuBois in real life than Blanche herself, and that Brando was the greatest actor he'd ever worked with. He spoke of Brando with great sadness, calling him a man who had everything -- drop-dead looks, talent and money -- but who became a corpulent, tragic figure who lost it all, squandering his money and becoming increasingly eccentric, working in bad projects after the Godfather, desperate to make money just to pay his bills.

** The entire night, Malden was sharp as a tack -- and had the command and respect you'd expect as a president of AMPAS -- but who also had that self-deprecating persona that made him endearing, esp. jokes about his lack of matinee idol looks, his Broadway stage experience vs. his work on film -- and his conviction that his years as a spokesman for American Express ("don't leave home without it") made him more famous than all of his other work combined. In fact, he joked that his obituaries would all mention his Oscar -- and predicted ALL would also mention his work for American Express -- saying it would be the "signature role for which he was better known to most of the public."

** The man we met that evening was gracious and accommodating to every fan present. He represented the "old Hollywood," the type like the late Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston -- and the still-with-us Tony Curtis out here in California -- who have good manners and love to mix with fans. Malden loved the attention -- and I got the impression he was ultra-surprised and ecstatic that a "supporting actor" could generate such a large turnout. He and his daughter signed our book thus: "To Koose and Yoe, best always from Carla Malden and Karl Malden." I took my "On the Waterfront" poster off its easel and asked him to sign it. He did, just above his name credit. I've mentioned this poster several times at movie poster art forums -- in the context of certain signatures which add sentimental value -- but don't necessarily add $$ value to vintage memorabilia. That poster is no longer in our collection -- but I recall it fetched an OK price when I sold it. But I kept his book, personalized as it is. I view it similarly as my "Psycho" poster, whereby my wife got Janet Leigh, during a visit in 2000, to personalize her signature, "To David -- Psycho-tically yours, Janet Leigh."

(Original material © 2009 by David Kusumoto.)

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