Thursday, July 02, 2009

"Vjecnaja Pamjat Gospodin Sekulovich" -- A Tribute to Karl Malden

By M.V. Pejakovich

Yesterday Academy Award winning actor Karl Malden died at age 97 of natural causes at home with his family. His long and varied career was rich with intelligently crafted roles. He is survived by his wife of 70 years Mona, two daughters Karla and Mila, three granddaughters and four great grandchildren.

It was a little over five years ago that I had the privilege of meeting Karl Malden for the first time at his home in West Los Angeles along with his kind and beautiful wife Mona. I was there to do an interview that would later be published in the American Srbobran.

But right now, that first meeting seems so long very long ago because it was before Karl Malden laughed and squawked like a chicken at me for me taking the path of least resistance with someone we both knew and weren't fond of. It was before he surprised my husband & I that first Christmas morning, calling to wish us Merry Christmas. And it was before I told him on several of his recent birthdays that 90+ years old wasn't old enough for a fighter like him to go -- he had to shoot for 100. And he almost made it.

I am not going to pretend that Karl Malden was "my best friend", but he was a special and dear human being to those who got the chance to spend time with him and I was lucky enough to have had that privilege.

My heart goes out to all his family and especially his wife Mona. Thank you for sharing him with us.

Below is that interview I did with him from 2003 that says more about him in his own voice than I can say with my own right now.

Karl Malden Interview

Saturday September 6, 2003

Part I of II

The day that I met Karl Malden, I knew that I would have to overcome an irresistible urge to hug him on first sight. Beloved father-figure of the 1970’s generation in which I grew up, a household face for over 20 years of American Express commercials, and a Serb-American – it was hard not to think of Karl Malden (born Mladen Sekulovich) as a member of the family – some down-to-earth, smiling “Chika Mladen” from the family photos -- someone who you hadn’t met yet but were about to, and you just knew that you’d love each other when you did. All warm thoughts. But, as I approached Karl Malden’s house for the first time, a more literal picture of him emerged – Oscar-winner, Emmy-winner, former President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, an actor strong enough to hold his own with Brando, as well as Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, George C. Scott and a litany of other greats of stage & screen. This was the man who once asked Bogey (yes, the real Bogey!) to hold his coat for him when he won the Oscar for “Streetcar Named Desire.” If there was anyone who was due the formal respect of being called, “Mister” in this day and age, it was certainly “Mr. Karl Malden”. And by the time I arrived at the Malden house for the first time, an impromptu hug and triple kiss on first meeting, seemed beyond all reason to me.

Yet, despite my apprehension, entering the Malden house gave one the sense of just the opposite of intimidation –it was a feeling of “coming home,” even for a first-time visitor. This lovely and unpretentious house in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles was a perfect match to the people who lived there – bright, comfortable and welcoming. And both Karl Malden and his wife, Mona, could not have been more warm & hospitable to photographer Mark Milich and me. Mrs. Malden --a beautiful and gracious lady— produced a generous spread of sweets on the coffee table for us to snack on.

Ultimately, Karl Malden did prove to be the imagined “Chika Mladen” in many ways and he certainly touched my heart, but he was a much brighter and more spirited version than I had envisioned. Despite some health problems, at 91-years-old, his sharp mind was still bustling with real-time ideas, questions and interest – and he was quick to tease and laugh – seeming much more like a contemporary than like someone nearly twice my age.

For this interview, he told me that he didn’t want to talk about his acting career or his personal accomplishments. Instead, he said that he had been “thinking about our people a lot in the last few years” and he was “very grateful for the opportunity to share his thoughts in this interview”. He most wanted to talk about being a Serb-American – about where we’d been and where we were going – and it was on issues affecting Serb-Americans, that he was the most animated and passionate in our conversation.

As I listened to him for these several hours, I was struck by a simple truth – Karl Malden really loved us Serbs and he wanted us to know that before he left this earth. He was born a Serb and would die a Serb, whatever else might have happened in the middle. In some ways, this wasn’t just “an interview”, it was “a love letter” -- to all the old-timers he had ever known, to those alive now and to all the generations he knew he would never live to see. Like the old-timers before him, Karl Malden still has faith in Serb-Americans -- and in our future.

MP: I am just going to turn this tape recorder on and we can forget about it. OK?

KM: You are the boss, whatever you say goes!

MP: So I am “the director” today? (Laughing) I love that!

KM: You bet!

MP: You grew up in Gary, Indiana.

KM: Yes. I was actually born in Chicago, but we moved to Gary when I was four years old. My father was from Bileca, Herzegovina and my mother was a Czech. My father married my mother, and my dad’s brother, Milovan, married her sister -- so our family was very close.

MP: Did you ever visit Bileca?

KM: No, not Bileca, but I did spend 2 ½ months over there (in Yugoslavia) in the early 1980’s and it was very revealing. I was making a film called “Twilight Time”.

The shooting location was about an hour away from Trieste on the Adriatic Coast and another hour inland; there was a little village called Busek in Croatia where we shot the film. This village had only about 100 people in it. We used the actual villagers as characters & extras – virtually all Yugoslav cast & crew, except the girl, me and a young boy from England. Dan Tana produced it.

What was strange, was that there was virtually no one in this village under age 60, and that was what the film was all about – how the young people left the villages to go to Germany and elsewhere to find work, send money home, and the old people were left behind taking care of their children. I played an old man who was left behind by his son. It was an interesting film, but sadly, it wasn’t a success.

But in spite of the politics and working about ten hours a day on the film, I loved the village life. I got into the way of living over there. It was honest hard work.

MP: Do you know why your father left the old country?

KM: I asked that question many times. Hercegovina was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire back then. My dad was of the age that he would have been conscripted into their army. He didn’t want to go into the Austro-Hungarian Army – so he left.

But in those days, the US helped those like my father come over here. My dad said that they made it cheap for him and others to come over to work, to labor in the coalmines and in the mills. The US needed workers back then because they were building up America. They helped bring our people over just as they had the Chinese, the Mexicans, and the rest, to do that hard work that no one else wanted to do.

My father was the youngest boy in the family and the family had run a kind of country store in Bileca. But other than this and a few things, my father didn’t have much to tell me about where he came from and what the family was about. I tried finding out more from my father before he died, but he didn’t have too much to say. I don’t think that his own father ever told him too much about the family history. Most of what I learned came through other relatives.

There was another story that I heard from one relative – and it is just that, “a story” that I can’t verify -- that the Sekulovici originally came from Montenegro. As the story goes, there were three Sekulovich sons, and there was a battle between the Jankovichs and the Sekulovichs. One of the Sekulovich boys killed a Jankovich boy, so the three Sekulovich boys escaped in different directions and my dad’s ancestor – father, grandfather, not sure how far back it goes --wound up in Bileca, Herzegovina. How true this story is, I am not sure.

MP: So you might really be “a Crnogorac (Montenegrin)”? That would explain a few things!

Yes, it would! (Laughing.)

MP: It always seemed a little strange to me that when many Serb families came here to the US in those days, they never told their kids much about the relatives that they left behind. I knew my father’s family very well, but my mom had to track down her relatives because her parents never told her much about who was still there.

KM: The old-timers had to go wherever the work was –even if that was on the other side of the world. That was their life.

But I had offered my father a chance to go to Belgrade and see his brothers with me. I was making a film in Vienna and I told him that he could come and stay with me, and when I was finished in about a week, we’d go to Belgrade together because it was so close. He said, “No! Necu ja! (Not me!)” I asked him several times to go, but he wouldn’t go back there. I guess that he had cut the ties –said good-bye once never expecting to see them again and just couldn’t say goodbye again.

So I went to Belgrade for a week. I met my dad’s brother Veselin, my cousin Nada who is my age, and my dad’s middle brother. It was fun. We had a good time. I taped the whole trip for my father.

When my dad left Bileca, Veselin, my uncle (the oldest son) had gone to Montenegro to work for his own uncle and learn the hotel business. While he was there, he joined the Montenegrin army and was sent to Russia to become an officer. When WWII came along and the Russians came and billeted themselves in town, my uncle presented himself to the commanding officer and told him that he had also trained in Russia as an officer. The Russian general asked him who his teacher at military school had been, my uncle answered, and the Russian general said that the same man had also been his teacher. This Russian general made it much easier for my uncle during the war. Ultimately, my uncle got into the Yugoslav government’s hotel business and ran the hotels in Sarajevo and finally the Moskva Hotel in Belgrade. He lived in the Stari Grad section in Belgrade with his family when I met him.

I brought the tape of my trip to Belgrade back for my father. When I came home, my father, my Kum Bratic, and Ljubo Dakic, who had come with my dad to the US, sat and listened to it all. I have never heard so much crying in my life! It was all, “Do you remember when…?” and “Do you remember when…?” It was so sad to hear them.

MP: But how much were those ties to the old country really cut? You grew up in a Serb village in Gary, Indiana and spoke Serbian before you spoke English. And from reading your book, (“When Do I Start?” Karl Malden & Carla Malden, Simon & Schuster, 1997) you carried with you some of the same “Serbian stuff” that all of us do. So how much did they really “leave behind”?

KM: That’s a good question. I loved the Vlade Divac interview you did in the Srbobran, and what he had to say amazed me. Vlade Divac – a Serb who has only been in the US for ten years, said what I have been trying for a lifetime to put into words. In one interview, he described the issues that have plagued us for the last fifty years – and what to do about them. God Bless him. What a man! And what great thoughts!

I was just talking to my friend Don Nikcevich --Don grew up on the same block as I did in Gary, and our fathers worked together at the dairy. We are very close -- and Don said to me, “What in the hell happened to our people? Where did we get off track?”

I am first-generation born in this country and I do know this – our fathers and grandfathers came to this country in the late 19th and early 20th century and as a very small minority, they helped build the US. They helped build the railroads across America. From my hometown of Gary, the Serbs helped build the steel mills and when they finished building them, they went to work in them and sometimes died in them. The Serbs were miners and dockworkers and steelworkers and they fed this country with what the US needed at the time. Very few of them had a little grocery store or clothing store or much for themselves, because there wasn’t much of an opportunity for them back then. Most of these Serbs knew that their lives would be hard and that the work they did would probably kill them before their time. Yet in their hearts they all built this tremendous “ladder,” hoping that each generation of their kids would move a step or two up that ladder, be a little better educated, so that one day – maybe, just maybe -- a Serb would become the President of the United States of America! This was their dream – that someday Serbs would mean something positive to this country – and they did as much as they could do for us in their lifetime to make this happen.

This “ladder” still exists but, somehow, I feel that we lost a large part of a generation – we failed this generation and wasted precious time. I can say this from my own experience --my children sang Serbian songs, we had a Serbian picnic every summer, tamburas were playing, many came from Gary, Indiana – and they loved it. To this day, my kids still ask me “When are you going to have another Serbian picnic?” But I must admit that I was too busy with my career when they were growing up to do something more profound about it for them. Maybe I wasn’t intelligent enough to see ahead, I don’t know. I didn’t do many of the things that I should have and I wasted so much time on my career.

MP: How could you say it was “wasted”? What a career!

KM: For me, it wasn’t wasted. But I was really raised to be a Serb! At the age of 13, I had to join the Serbian male choir. There were 25 men and me. These men were smokers and drinkers, but they never let me touch a drop. Even when I was nineteen and ready to go to college, they wouldn’t even let me have a beer at a concert in Chicago – “No beer -- soda pop for this one.” The thought that a cigarette would ever pass my lips was unthinkable to them -- and consequently, to me. They protected me. I will always be grateful to these dear men who shaped who I am. I always think of them when I say, “I am a Serb!”

But my kids never really had this kind of experience. Both my daughters went to church some and they know a bit of what being a Serb is about. They also know “Kako si?”, “Dobro” and “Hvala” and all of those short phrases. But they didn’t really get the full essence of it.

MP: I am not so sure that you “failed a generation.” The church split failed a generation. I recall thinking to myself as a kid, “How can these people claim to have Christianity when they are constantly at each others throats?” I came back to “being a Serb.” A lot of my generation never did come back.

KM: You “came back” to what? You came back to “a choice” – a choice that you should have never been forced to make in the first place. They made you do that, and that was wrong. It wasn’t your war, your fight -- it was theirs – and our young people, nearly a whole generation of them -- were lost in the crossfire of that fight. This spit on everything that the earlier generation fought so hard, and died for!

My father was so disappointed at losing so many of our kids here over the years. I can still hear him speaking in Serbian to the choir, saying “We must not lose the young people! We must get them into the choir before they get into high school, because after that, we’ve lost them.” People would complain that “our music isn’t written for them.” My dad, who was the first president of the Serbian Singing Federation, said “Then we must write it for them, because they are our future!”

MP: Men of your father’s and my father’s generation really amazed me. They were mostly uneducated laborers, but they set up “literary societies,” “theater groups,” and “choral societies” and they were so forward-thinking in terms of their children and their children’s children. They were working not just for themselves but for the future generations that they would never see. Unfortunately, today we don’t necessarily think for our future generations in that way. Perhaps we don’t have the faith that they had

KM: But we must if we are to survive. You and I are speaking the same language, and so was Vlade Divac in your interview with him.

I have been very lucky in some ways; I did have people who opened doors for me. But the best man who ever opened a door for me said, “Look I’ll open the door and point the way, but you have to take responsibility for getting where you need to go.” We, as Serb-Americans, need to take responsibility for where we are going, too.

I have a really dangerous idea, one that will invite criticism, but I am going to say it anyway: I’d like to see us to go all over the country and find the best ten of us, those who are truly worthy and willing stay together for a year or two, and allow these ten to plot a strategy for the future of our people -- our Serbs in America. We need that plan, that strategy. The Jewish people have it, the Polish people have it, the Irish have it, and look what they have been able to accomplish! And this is how they did it! The Irish have parades and we don’t even have that, because we have no plan, no strategy for the future. We just argue, bicker and bewail our fate, instead of doing something about it. There are better ways of handling things!

MP: I understand the need to do something positive and I feel it too, but it isn’t easy.

KM: You know I really love our people. And the Battle of Kosovo is a beautiful story and I love it too. It is a treasure. But must we Serbs always celebrate losing instead of winning? Must all our heroes be “tragic-dead-ones-who-lose”, instead of “live-ones-who-win” once in a while? We can’t continually embrace the negative without the positive, and expect to survive as a people in this country. We embrace being the victim and being beaten down too much. I’ve been beaten down in my life enough and I don’t like it – I don’t like it at all! We must find a way out of that. What someone else does to us is one thing, but what we do to ourselves -- and to each other -- is something else.

MP: I wonder sometimes if we don’t have too narrow a view of what being “a good Serb” is. By the time you get to the second, third and fourth generations of Serbs in America, it is highly likely –especially among the most well-integrated and educated of us-- that you are going to have interfaith marriages – the Greeks and others recognize this – but the Serbs don’t –and to the extent that they do, they don’t have a positive way of dealing with it. I know that you went through this and I know that I did at one time -- and it wasn’t comfortable at all.

KM: Yes, we were in the same boat from what you have told me. I think that in the old days Serbs were such a small minority here in the US, they were afraid of losing their identity --their church and culture -- by intermarriage, so it was discouraged. But let’s look at it in another way – what if all Serbs in the US had married only Serbs? Do you think that we would be better off than we are today?

MP: Now there is food for thought –a very interesting question. No, ultimately, I don’t think that we would be better off. Especially since so many of us American Serbs are related by blood or kumovi – the thought of so much intermarriage would be a little too creepy. And continually going overseas for mates would be impractical.

KM: Many years ago, I did have Serb girl I was interested in, just before I went to New York City from Gary and eventually married Mona. I asked the Serb girl to go with me, but I didn’t propose to her. She said, “But you have nothing.” I told her that she might have to go to work, and she said “Gee, I don’t know.” So I took the couple of hundred I had made in Gary and went to NYC alone. A year later Mona and I met again --we knew each other from Chicago -- and I married her.

MP: Ooh, that Serbian girl must have kicked herself later! (laughing.)

KM: Oh, I don’t know. (laughing)

MP: But it couldn’t have been easy for you and your wife in the early days; especially back in the 1930’s when you two married –a Serbian boy and a Jewish girl were an unlikely pair back then.

KM: Well, Mona & I just never really discussed religion; that she was Jewish and I was Serbian Orthodox. We were both actors. That was so much of our life. We had met at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, but we didn’t date until we got to NYC. In Manhattan in 1938, we both navigated toward a lot of those original people we knew from the Goodman, but they were all “good-time Charlies” and Mona and I weren’t. Neither of us liked to stay up until 1AM and drink. We found that we had so much in common, and it was the Depression when things were tough. Two were better than one, and Mona and I got married.

MP: I could understand how you two got together, but reading your book, you and your wife went through some very hard times together –long periods (years) of unemployment, having to live with her family, and then her having to live with some people who weren’t very nice to her while you were in the Army. Any one of those things could have put a lot of pressure on a marriage, let alone all of them. Especially when your wife was living with people who “measured her bathwater” and “how much she peeled off the potatoes” while you were in the Army -- I don’t understand how she didn’t run out the door screaming – I know that I would have.

KM: Well, actually she did. This friend of mine who was a mentor to me in New York City, and his wife, offered to have Mona live with them while I was in the Army. But it turned out to be a real nightmare for Mona. The worst was that I was in the US Army, it was World War II, and I couldn’t do much to help her – but we finally got her a place of her own –we had to.

MP: Well, from what I have read and now meeting her, you truly have an extraordinary wife. And she gave up her acting career for you, too.

KM: Well, as an actress, Mona understood what we were getting into back then with this career of mine. But every once in a while when she is in a good mood she still teases that “The theater just doesn’t know what it missed when it lost me!”

MP: And I believe that it is true. And you got one hell of a wife in the bargain!

Karl Malden Interview

Saturday, September 6th, 2003

Part II of II

Karl Malden didn’t want to talk about himself or his career for this interview, although I finally cajoled him into it. But what he didn’t tell me and I had to discover through other sources was at least as important as what he did tell me, in describing his character:

This February, the Screen Actors Guild will present him with their highest honor -- the “Lifetime Achievement Award” – a fact that I had to discover from CNN and not from him;

I never heard a word from him about the multitude of other prestigious awards he had been given (besides the Oscar) not only for his acting, but also for his humanitarian work -- with recognition coming from groups as diverse as the County of Los Angeles, the International Foreign Press Association and the University of Judaism;

He also never mentioned to me the Scholarship Fund he set up & funded in his father’s name through the Serbian Singing Federation. His father Petar Sekulovich had been the SSF’s first president;

Nor did he breathe a word about the hundreds-of-thousand- of-dollars he had donated over the years to his original home church in Gary, Indiana;

And yet to date, no Serb-American organization has ever granted him a single award or special recognition –but I never heard even the slightest grumble about it from him.

Instead, for better or worse, Karl Malden wanted to honestly share whatever knowledge, and personal experience that he had acquired over the years to help Serb-Americans move forward into the future. It s this honesty, humility and faith in us, that will always distinguish Karl Malden as one of the most memorable and admirable human beings that I have ever had the privilege to meet.

KM: In the last few years, I have had a lot of time to sit up in my office above the garage and think – some of the mistakes I have made, how lucky I have been, and some things that were gained by just plain sweat.

You know, I started in the theater in 1937. And in 1972, a TV project came along called “The Streets of San Francisco. Between 1937 and 1972, for thirty-five years, I had worked hard, struggled – even after the Oscar. In all those years, I never said, “What is the money for this job?” or “I want more.” I cared about the part and I worked to bring it to life. I always believed that, you can’t hit a homerun unless you can get up to bat, so I took whatever project came. I struck out many times, but I did get some hits. Yet when “The Streets of San Franciscoultimately came along, I drew the line and told them that I wouldn’t take it unless I starred in it. I wanted something for myself, for my family’s future. And, in the middle of that five-year “Streets” run, along came American Express offering me the spokesperson role I eventually did for twenty-one years. Few people know this, but these two things -- “The Streets of San Francisco and the American Express ads -- were my annuity. If “The Streets of San Francisco hadn’t happened, I would still have to be working to this very day.

MP: With “The Streets of San Franciscoyou became a household name –not just an “actor’s actor” or a known name, but someone that everyone recognized – an “American father-figure”.

KM: Yes, with “The Streets of San Francisco they started to know me, and then they really began to recognize me when I started telling people “Don’t leave home without it!” for American Express. But that father-figure image really began with “The Streets of San Francisco”.

MP: It was a little different for us, because for years Serb-Americans always used to point at you in every movie and say, “He’s ours!”

KM: Yes, when I won the Oscar (for “Streetcar Named Desire”), all the Serbs were saying to my father (in Serbian) Our Mladen – “jedno nase” (one of ours) -- won the Oscar!” And my father responded to me, “Oh yes, because you won the Oscar you are “nase” (ours), but if you were sent to prison, you’d only be Petar Sekulovic’s kid!” Dad was right. Our people often show a bad trait of loving you when you succeed and disowning you when you fail.

MP: Are you talking about the TV show “Skag”?

KM: Yes. Even after all these years, when I think about it, it still hurts.

I got the original script for “Skag” from Brad Dexter (another Serb-American) and it had the part of a Polish steelworker in it. I read it, called Brad and said, “Yes, I am interested, but, Brad, why in the hell can’t we make this character be a Serb? I could speak Serbian; we could go to a Serbian Church; and I could sing in the choir. Vlado (Proto Vladimir Mrvchin, who Malden grew up with) could do the service.” And Brad Dexter said, “Sure!” So, I gave the “Skag” script to Vlado, and he gave it to the church committee. The committee all came back and said OK. So we did the movie. In the film, I am married to a non-Serb, I have one daughter who is very promiscuous, and one of my sons is in med school-- taking pills to stay awake and go to sleep. The characters and plot were all in the script I had given the church committee and none of them said a thing, no objections at all before or during the time that the film was shot.

But, when the movie was aired, that same committee said, “How dare you portray us in this way? There are no Serbian families like that! You have a lot of nerve!” And just what was I supposed to say to them? “Didn’t you do your job and read the script before we shot the film? And just where was the surprise for you?” They successfully disowned it all and blamed it all on me because I was the most visible target – yet they had no problems at all with getting nicely paid for it.

MP: Well, I think that there was a lot of miscommunication about the film and the TV show in the general Serbian community before it ever aired. I recall hearing up in Jackson, CA that you were going to make a TV show “about Serbs” – not a just drama in which some of the characters just “happened to be Serbs” – but a TV show specifically about us. So there was this high expectation that Serbs were going to be portrayed in a positive way for the first time on TV. It never occurred to anyone that this was going to be a drama in which the characters would be less than positive role models.

KM: Well, that’s probably true, but this was the first time on TV anyone had seen the inside of a Serbian Church or heard a Serbian choir, and what they saw was a not-too-wealthy family -- with problems. That can’t happen to us?

MP: Of course it can. But there is that “Serbian pride” that doesn’t allow us to think that we might be subject to the same family problems as everyone else – even in a mixed marriage, like the characters in the show.

KM: But we do have the same problems, don’t we? We aren’t immune. A positive way to deal with problems would be to see them as “opportunities”. We, as a people, really need to learn that.

Some years back, I recall a plan that a local Roman Catholic Church had. When some of their immigrant kids weren’t doing well in school, the parents would tell the parish priest. This priest had organized college-educated volunteer tutors from the parish to help the immigrant kids a couple of hours a week until their grades improved. Why can’t we do that with our new immigrant Serb kids? I am sure the parents of those kids could use this kind of help and it is a way to bring these families to the church – some perhaps for the first time in their lives. New parishioners!

And there is another wish I have had for the last twenty years, not for me because I won’t live to see it, but for meeting the needs of our people – a Serbian old-folks home. When my father needed a place, my brother Milo found him someplace that was God-awful when I went to see him. But my mother was in a really nice place run by Franciscan nuns, right next to the hospital in Merrillville. It was beautiful place with a chapel and she loved it.

My mother was originally Roman Catholic. She had gone to Catholic School and she spoke German in her youth. She converted to Serbian Orthodoxy for my father --but when she was in this old folks’ home, she converted back to Roman Catholicism at the end of her days, spending night & day in the home’s chapel. Ironically, in this Roman Catholic home where my mother was -- the head cook was a Serb, the janitor was a Serb, and most of the workers were Serbs. I thought, “Here’s an opportunity! Why couldn’t these Serbs be working for us in a place of our own?”

In Chicago alone, within fifty miles, we have six Serbian Orthodox churches. In LA, St. Steven’s and Saint Sava’s are within a few miles of one another. Yet we have no old-folks home, which could be self-supporting, anywhere in the country. There are 140+ acres on the property of the St. Sava Church in Gary. I ask why we couldn’t take a few acres and raise funds – start small at first – 30 or forty people – and then grow it from there. It would be good for our people and it is also a good money-making business. Virtually everyone is going to need a place like this someday for themselves, or for their parents or grandparents. We could help ourselves and each other at the same time. But no one has picked up the ball and run with it yet --not just in Gary, but anywhere in the US. Unfortunately, I think that our people often wait for someone to do it for them – some “big money” person to make it easy. Well it never is “easy” --it is not supposed to be. It wasn’t easy for our grandparents and parents to build those churches in the first place, either – but they did it – and on miners’ and mill-workers’ salaries. It takes a community –not just some lone “money-man” -- to build a church, an old folks’ home or anything else of value that we can point to and be proud of.

MP: Did you spend much time around Serbs or at church after you grew up? I know that it couldn’t be simple “blending in” at church after you became well-known.

KM: Well, I do have a reputation and it’s true. I could go anywhere and nobody would notice or bother me – no dark glasses, no disguises, walked straight in and no one recognized me. But if I was with Marlon or Monty Cliff or even, Jimmy Cagney, this “anonymity” meant I was always the guy who had to go out and hail the taxi.

MP: Yes, I could imagine that you’d be the familiar face that would take people a little while to place. And in that few seconds it would take to figure out that you weren’t just the neighbor down the block, you’d be gone.

KM: That’s exactly it.

But, there was no Serbian Orthodox church in NY when I got married in 1938. Yet, when I was “greeted by the government” and joined the Army in the forties, the place that they picked me up was right in front of the then-newly consecrated Serbian Orthodox Cathedral that I didn’t even know was there. I tried to get in that morning, but it was locked. After I came back from the Army, I was there every Sunday with Shukie (Father Dusan Shukletovic).

MP: Oh, wow, Shukie! He married my parents, baptized my brother and later married him. By the time I was old enough to get married, he had passed away. He was “a real character”.

KM: He was indeed “a character”, but he was also a good priest. He knew how to handle the young people. I knew him from both Gary, Indiana and NYC.

MP: In Saratoga, CA, many years later, Father Shukletovic used to have a little paddle and if you got in trouble, he’d use it on you -- kid or adult, but not so it hurt – but then he’d make you sign it so everyone knew! And, as I recall, you could visit him anytime with any problem – as long as “Perry Mason” wasn’t on. But if “Perry Mason” was on TV, you had to shut up & wait for it to be over, because he wasn’t going to miss that show for anything – probably not even last rites! (Laughter)

KM: I was never his altar boy, but I was for Father Stijacic – another man who my father knew before he became a priest. Whenever they needed an altar boy, I hear, “Mladene! Moras! (You must!)” I did a full two years as an altar boy, plus filled in whenever I was needed.

MP: Well, my husband was an altar boy in the NYC Cathedral when you used to come to church. He said that you would come in, stand in the back and not try to make a fuss, but as an altar boy he got see everyone come in first. Yul Brynner also used to come to St. Sava’s in NYC.

KM: Yes, I saw him, too. In NYC, I used to live not far from St. Sava’s Cathedral. On Sundays, I’d take Mila (his daughter) and we would come to church. She was very young back then and when the Liturgy started, she’d say “Brigadoon! Brigadoon!” That was her favorite musical record, so any music that she liked became “Brigadoon!” back then.

MP: Did you ever see the Serbian plays that they put on NYC? My Dad acted in a few of them.

KM: Not in NYC. But my own father used to put on Serbian plays in Gary, Indiana. I got my start on stage as an “old Turk” when I was fourteen years old. I had one line, “Napred! (Onward!)” I was one of several boys who’d get recruited for those plays – even as kids, those old-timers made us become a part of their world and their efforts. Don Nikcevic said to me, “Yes, you think it was all great back then because the only thing your father made you do was to say “napred”. But your father made me play the gusla in front of everyone! I also had to sing this song and your father was in the wings laughing at me the whole time I was singing”. My dad loved every minute of it. Don said that, as a kid, he’d always get scared when he’d see my father at the door with papers in his hand – thinking, “Oj-joj! Nechu ja! (Not me!) Not another planned public humiliation!”

In the old days, father & Glisho Rapajic used to plan as to how to present our culture to people -- not our politics. When politics took over, we lost a lot.

MP: I know in a lot of your movies, and in the “The Streets of San Francisco -- that you almost always had a character named “Sekulovich”. How did that happen?

KM: It just happened one day while filming “On the Waterfront”. The gangsters were going on trial and Gadge (Director, Elia Kazan) said that he was missing a few names for the gangsters, so he asked me if he could use my name, “Sekulovich” and I said, “Sure”. So when they call these guys to trial in the movie, you hear “Sekulovich”. And I thought, “That’s nice”, so that is where it started. And from there on, I tried to put a character named “Sekulovich” in every picture I was in.

MP: I heard that there was a little problem with your father and “The Birdman of Alcatraz

KM: Oh, yes. I couldn’t find a place to use the name “Sekulovich” anywhere else in that film, so I used it for the name of one of the prisoners. Well, my father came to me very upset and said (in Serbian), “I am going to tell you right now, Mladen, there has never ever been “a Sekulovich” in jail ever— ever (nikada)!”

MP: (Laughter) That’s too funny! That good old Serbian pride!

KM: Yes, my father had a lot of that. Do you know that he also gave some priests their start? When my dad first came to this country, he met a man named Mrvchin in Chicago who wanted to become a priest. He lived next door to us and my dad helped him study at least three times a week for over a year to become a priest. They’d rehearse the Liturgy until he knew it by heart. And when the time came for Stari Mrvchin to go to NYC to be ordained in the Russian Cathedral, he asked my father to go and be ordained with him since my father knew the Liturgy so well. The Serbs needed priests back then. But dad said, “No, not me, but you go, because I know that you will be a very fine priest”. The older Father Mrvchin was ordained. And I grew up with his son, Vlado, from the time I was born.

Many years later, the older Father Mrvchin wrote my father a letter telling him that Vlado was going to NYC to leave for Europe and be ordained as a priest. He told my father that since he had helped him become a priest and seen him off, he asked if my dad would to come to NYC and see off his son. But my father’s job wouldn’t let him go, so he sent me to see off Vlado (who would eventually become Proto Vladimir Mrvchin of St. Steven’s Cathedral in Alhambra, CA). I loved Vlado. We used to see quite a bit of each other when he was here, but it’s very hard to treat someone as “a priest’ when you grow up together.

Luckily, we have a very good priest here at St. Steven’s now (Father Nicholas Ceko), too. You know what he did? He told my therapist that he had some Holy Water from Ostrog to help me with the problem with my eyes. The eyes themselves are fine, but the muscles around them have weakened. So when I went to church he came to me before the service and blessed my eyes with the Holy Water. Just the fact that he thought of me and did this for me was so kind. He is a good man and a good priest.

MP: Forgive me, but when you were talking about Elia Kazan earlier, he sounded like a very interesting character (Director, Elia Kazan, who has since passed away, was alive at this time of this interview).

KM: Oh, he is – and the most talented director I ever worked for. If he were to hire you right now, he’d take you out to lunch or for a walk in the park and ask you all kinds of questions, like “why did you marry him?” or “who is your best friend and why?” And before you’d know it, you’d be telling him your whole life story. Kazan was a Greek born in Turkey, which was like being a Black born in America. He had gone through quite a lot in his life and he understood my background as well as I did. When he wanted an emotion onscreen, he’d say, “I want you to feel what you did when you married that person and you were afraid of what Serbs might say.”—because he would already know that about you before he hired you. Gadge (Kazan) would get to know you better than you knew yourself. But, if you weren’t careful with him, he could manipulate you outside of acting, as well. I did some directing & set-up for “Streetcar Named Desire” and he never paid me for it – instead he gave me some little gift. (Looking around on the coffee table for some object, “I don’t know where my wife put it.”)

MP: There was a time when theater actors looked down on doing film. And not so long ago, there was also a time when film actors looked down on doing TV.

KM: Oh yes, all my friends in NYC in the theater thought it was ridiculous for us to come here, but the work was here in Los Angeles and I went to where the work was.

I moved into this house over forty years ago. When I wanted to make the move from NYC, a dear friend, who used to live a few doors down, told me about this house & we bought it -- Richard Widmark. Both of our families spent many Christmases here together. But now Dick is old and he lives in Connecticut. We talk on the phone at least twice a week. I love him. He is a nice man. We got to know each other doing radio, years ago. I hated doing radio, but he was good at it. He did a show for years called “Front Page Farrell” and I did a radio series for about a year and a half called “Our Gal, Sunday”. Our studios were right next door to one another. When we’d finish, everyday, we’d go downstairs to this bar where all the radio people hung out. Sitting at the bar, I’d order a ginger-ale and Dick would order a glass of milk. Neither of us were really drinkers. I mean I might nurse one cocktail at a party once in a while or have a beer rarely on a hot day with dinner, but alcohol really didn’t appeal to me -- or to him – so we were a good team.

MP: Did it ever dawn on you, how did I ever get here -- get to be such “a celebrity”?

KM: Not in that way. Mona & I have sat in bed many times and said to each other, “Did you ever think we would get to know so many brilliant people?”

MP: And be part of so many great pieces of work.

KM: Yes, we have really been pretty lucky. We’ve been very lucky.

MP: Well, having a tremendous talent didn’t hurt either. But I know that when I lived in LA and studied acting here, there were some really good actors --most everyone here was reasonably good to great --but out of that group, only a handful made any living at it – and not even the best necessarily made it.

KM: Yes, I can’t tell you how many people from the Goodman Theater who Mona & I know, who are still reading for parts. That’s the problem –you get hooked, really hooked and can’t walk away. There were many times in NYC when I said, “I’ve had it. I’ve done so many roles and they still don’t know who I am. I am still knocking on doors and being told come back in a month. I am too healthy and strong to waste this time waiting forever. I have energy. I am going home to work in the steel mills and at least when I come home, I’ll be physically tired.” But Mona stopped me. She said, “What are you, crazy? Together, we are going to do this. You just keep on doing what you are doing and whatever happens will happen.” She knew the business; she understood what it took, even when many times I was discouraged enough to quit.

MP: I watched you in the “Cincinnati Kid” the other night. There was this scene where Steve McQueen threw you up against the door, and you stayed there as though you were still “emotionally pinned” -- remaining there longer than any actor I know would have stayed there, but that instinct made that scene absolutely flawless.

KM: What happened, was when we ran through that scene Steve McQueen took me by surprise and literally slammed me into the door. I was shocked. I could have easily gone through the door, but luckily it was a strong door. He apologized for it and said he would try not to hurt me, but he didn’t know any other way to play it right, so I said, “OK. Do it”. What you didn’t see in the shot, because they cut it, was my foot up hitting the door before I did. So that kept me there, on one foot, until I moved away. Funny, I haven’t thought of that for years --you are the first person to ask me about that scene ever, and I have been asked about a lot of scenes in a lot of movies. There were many things I had to do in films that were frightening, but luckily I had wonderful stunt men and stand-ins.

MP: You did an episode of “The West Wing” a couple of years ago. Are you still planning to work here and there?

KM: No. I am done. I didn’t retire from acting -- I just plain quit! I tried to quit the US Stamp Committee, too, but they refused to accept my resignation.

MP: Tell me about the Stamp Committee.

KM: The Stamp Committee is comprised of fifteen people from all walks of life. I represent the Arts. Digger Phelps, the retired basketball coach for Notre Dame, represents Sports, and there are Architects, Painters, and Doctors, Teachers & Design people. We get together three times a year for two days, and we pick stamps.

Digger Phelps and I were actually against producing the Elvis Presley stamp, for several reasons; we didn’t feel that he was a good representation of the entertainment industry or a good role model for kids. But it passed anyway, and you know what happened? That Elvis stamp made more money than any other stamp ever printed! So Digger & I looked at each other and said. “Just how wrong can you get?!!!” I also voted against the Marilyn Monroe stamp for similar reasons – plus she really was never an actress, anyway. But I did recommend Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontaine (half the committee didn’t know who Lunt & Fontaine were!). I recommended Betty Davis, who will be on a stamp soon. You have to be dead ten years before you can be on a stamp, unless you are the president of the US. The following year a president can be on a stamp. But I really loved working on stamps because it was very different from all the work I had done.

MP: And also the work you did for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, as president.

KM: I told you that I don’t want to talk about myself. But you are making me do it anyway, aren’t you? (Smiling)

MP: You bet! Remember, I am the boss!

KM: Yes, ma’am!

That Academy job was the most frightening work that I ever did. Really scary, but I finally figured, what do I have to lose?

I became president of the Academy and the first thing that came up was a remodel on the theater. There were springs coming up through those damn seats. Immediately, I got “let’s change the seats” –they voted on it and passed it. Then the design department says, “If you are going to change the seats, then you have to change the rugs to match – but, if you do that, then you also have to change the curtain to match the new seats & the new rugs.” Before you know it, we decided to completely remodel the whole theater. So we tore out two rows of seats to increase the apron so we could put a band up there if we wanted. I asked, what is this going to cost? They said $7 million to redo the whole theater. So I asked if we had it. The answer was yes -- but not a penny more.

Then I asked the Foundation what was being done about the new Academy Film Library. And the answer was nothing. It had been about three or four years since we decided on that, but no one had talked about it since. So I told the president that he had to start fundraising to move forward on it, but he insisted that I come with him I told him that I wasn’t good at asking for money -- I get too embarrassed -- but he said that he wouldn’t do it if I didn’t do it. So I started fundraising, and at the end of three years we had $12M for the new Film Library.

We bought the Beverly Hills Waterworks Building on La Cienega & Olympic, which looked like an old Spanish Cathedral, for $6M. These big dollar figures made me nervous. I told them that, at this rate, I may just wind up being remembered as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, who finally bankrupts it!

I said, “Buddy when this is done we are going to have no money in the bank at all! Do you understand the term, broke?”

But the proudest thing that I ever did was to help create the Academy Library and it is the best film library in the country. Right now, if you were doing a show on Cary Grant and needed film on him, the Library would gather all they had on Cary Grant and have it waiting for you to view in a day or two. Before this, we were storing most of our film in warehouses all over town and on the fourth floor of the Academy Building on Wilshire. It was hard to get any piece of film because no one knew where anything was. But the new Library changed all of that. And the largest room in the Library is called “The Karl Malden Reading Room”, donated by American Express. Since then, they also expanded the facilities by buying the NBC Building on Hollywood and Vine, to use for film restoration.

DP: Amazing! Do you still have projects that you look forward to doing?

KM: I am trying to find a new project. I don’t really want to teach, I have done that (at seven universities and colleges). I don’t know how good I am as an acting teacher, but I do know that I can excite them about the theater and film, and how to work --that I know how to do.

My father was never a professional actor, but he acted in and directed Serbian plays here in the US. He loved it. I didn’t know until after he died that he had thought of becoming a professional actor. But my uncle told me. One day, after dad died, our family had dinner together in Chicago. My uncle, Milovan, told me that he and my dad were coming home by streetcar many years before and my dad suggested that he’d like to go to drama school. My uncle said that he was crazy, given that he didn’t speak English. So my dad never mentioned it again, and instead he put on all those Serbian plays.

I remember my dad giving me the best piece of direction I ever had when I was getting my start at the Goodman Theater. It was: to read the script several times through to understand why the author wrote that script; to read only my part to discover why my character was in this script and what he contributed; and finally, when I “became the character”, to figure out how to make this character honestly interesting to the audience so they didn’t fall asleep. At the Goodman, the instruction was virtually the same as what Dad had said, but with different terminology. Dad had a real instinct for theater, so maybe acting is just in my genes -- if you believe in that sort of thing.

MP: How are you feeling these days?

KM: A few years ago, I woke up one morning and couldn’t open my eyes although I was fully awake. I was that way for about eight months and I didn’t know what to do. I thought I was going crazy, but I discovered that I have myasthenia gravis – something that affects the muscles. Some people get it in their legs or their arms, at a much younger age than this; mine affects my head and neck. I get tired, my head just drops. In desperation during those eight months, I told my internist that I don’t care where you have to go to find someone to help me, but just find something somewhere. Even if I could see with just one eye, it would be OK, I’d be happy – because there is nothing wrong with my sight, just the muscles that around my eyes that are affected by this disease. Three or four days later, he sent me to a plastic surgeon right next door who said that he could help me by giving me an eye-lift, making it easier to open my eyes. It was out-patient surgery and he did both my eyes with a little tape-like spring. That was a year ago, and he said that I should come back in six months, so I am due to go back. But this is my face now.

MP: And you still look like yourself, but a little older. You made me laugh on the phone when you said that you don’t look like you did fifteen years ago. Who does? I’d like to look like I did fifteen years ago, too! Find me the secret!

KM: (Laughing) Yes, that’s true -- and what “a secret” that would be!

But, beyond what I have told you, my physical therapist still keeps telling me that I am strong as an ox. So, at ninety-one years old, that’s too not bad, is it?

MP: No, that is not too bad at all!

Thank You, Mr. Malden! On behalf of all Serb-Americans, you have made us prouder than you will ever know!

Photo courtesy of Mark Milich

A ten minute film collage tribute of Karl Malden's film roles here.

(All Rights Reserved. May not be reprinted without permission of the author.)

1 comment:

Madam Miaow said...

Fascinating interview. A reminder of a kinder time when stars were intelligent and gave something meaningful to the world.