He was an unlikely candidate for success as an American actor, this son of a Serbian father and a Czech mother, neither of whom spoke English. Born Mladen George Sekulovich on March 12. 1912 in Gary. Indiana, he never heard a word of English until he got to first grade. The steel town of Gary was divided up into immigrant ghettos (Serbs, Poles, Irish, Greeks) and so everyone In young Mladen's neighborhood, playgrounds, stores, and churches spoke Serbian.

As he progressed through school, he became bilingual in English and did well for himself in sports and in drama. From the former, he got the broken nose that made It look even bigger. From the latter, he obtained his life-time career. Although he spent three yeas after high school working with his father In the Gary steel mills, it was only to save up enough money to go to acting school In nearby Chicago.

After four tough years at the Chicago school, he moved to New York to find acting work and it was even tougher. Gradually his grit, talent, and determination prevailed as he worked his way up to Broadway ladder to bigger parts. He changed his name by moving the "l" in his first name and using it as his last name: Malden. For his first name, "Karl" he took his grandfather's.

Finally he achieved stage stardom In the late 40s in Streetcar Named Desire with newcomer, Marlon Brando. It was made into a movie in 1951 and the following year Malden won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in that film. He would go on to star in On the Waterfront, Gypsy, How the West Was Won, Patton and many other great films. He was co-lead with Michael Douglas in TV's Streets of San Francisco which ran for five seasons (1972-77).

I was not acquainted with any of Malden's radio work until I recently read his biography, which he co-authored with his daughter, Carla (1997, Simon & Schuster). This book gives not only a summary of his experience in radio broadcasting, but also his views on radio actors.

Like many struggling stage actors in NYC In the late 30s, Malden tried to find work in radio to meet expenses between shows. One of his first jobs was a role on Our Gal Sunday. It didn't last too long, because he got a part in a play that required day rehearsals, so his character was "killed off" on that soap opera.

Among the other theater actors who was doing radio work to pay the bills was Richard Widmark. In fact, he was the original Front Page Farrell. He and Malden became friends as they juggled their microphone and stage employments. Later, in 1947, Malden, by then a seasoned film actor, was delighted to be in the movie debut of Widmark's Kiss of Death. Audience members will never forget Widmark in this motion picture, as he laughingly shoved an old woman in her wheelchair down the stairs to her death.

Ed Begley was a very successful radio actor (The Fat Man, Escape, Tales of the Texas Rangers and the lead in Charlie Chan.) But Malden knew him only casually until Begley's first big role on Broadway. "All My Sons", In which Maiden also had a large role. Begley Initially found theater work almost terrifying since he was used to a script and a microphone.

Malden tells in his book how he became acquainted with Ezra Stone on The Aldrich Family when Malden occasionally played a boy friend of Henry's sister. Later, when they were both drafted in WW II, Stone asked Malden to be in his Army production that he was producing for the troops, but Malden declined as he wanted to join Moss Hart's Air Corps show, Winged Victory. Stone used his influence to get Malden into the Army Air Corps where he promptly won a role in Winged Victory.

But most of Malden's radio work was on The Theater Guild of the Air which John Dunning asserts "..was to Broadway what 'Lux Radio Theater' was to Hollywood: an 80 minute package of prestige drama". Regarding this series, Malden says in his book: "We would rehearse each play for four or five days and then broadcast in front of a live audience in a theater, instead of behind a mike in a radio studio. To this day, people often believe I played the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie because I did it so many times on radio--with Helen Hayes, Shirley Booth, and Mildred Dunnock."

Malden also says he felt much more comfortable broadcasting from a theater since he was never completely "at home" in the radio studio. He had trouble with the rhythm and fast tempo of radio broadcasting and he was in awe of some of the big stars in radio.

He recalls that when he was on Our Gal Sunday, he'd get to studio early and would study his script intently. but he says, the "real radio pros would show up five minutes before air time and read their parts letter perfect. I could never do that."

Karl Swenson (misspelled as "Carl Svenson" in Malden's book) really impressed the stage actor. Malden recounts that Swenson had such a heavy radio schedule that he had an assistant who attended the rehearsals for him and marked his script. Swenson, hurrying from another show, would tip the elevator man a few bucks to hold the door so not a minute was wasted. He would then dash into the studio, take the script from his assistant and step to the mike as the "On the Air" sign flashed.

The radio work, while it paid the bills, always left Malden feeling uncomfortable and sometimes even worse. A friend of his wife's was visiting their apartment when Malden rushed in after a broadcast. He was white as a sheet and headed straight for the bathroom. The friend asked his wife, Mona, "What's wrong with Karl? Is he sick?" "Oh no'" ' Mona replied. "It's just radio."

Early in his NYC career, Malden noticed the big difference between stage actors and those on radio. "They all had magnificent voices, the kind of instrument I simply never had and never will have. But they also had a completely different style of acting. These were actors who could pick up a script and give you a great performance, right on the spot. I always thought of it as acting from the neck up. I admired the skill involved in their craft, but I knew it would never work for me."


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Created: Saturday, January 08, 2000
Design of this web page, copyright © 2000 James F. Widner.
Article is copyright © 1999 Jack French.