Malden was born Mladen George Sekulovich in Chicago, the son of a Serbian father and Czech mother. He changed his name for obvious reasons when he went into acting (after working alongside his father in the steel mills), but often found a way for someone to mention the name "Sekulovich" in his films, as a tribute to his roots. He appeared in 21 Broadway productions between 1937 and 1957, including the premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947. He and several other cast members from the show, including Marlon Brando, reprised their roles for the 1951 film version, and Malden won an Oscar for best supporting actor. He was later nominated for On the Waterfront, in which he also appeared with Brando. Overall, he appeared in some 50 films, 19 in the 1960s alone.
In the 1970s, he earned four Emmy nominations as the star of The Streets of San Francisco, where he played an experienced cop working with rookie Michael Douglas. Malden also appeared in American Express TV commercials throughout the '70s ("Don't leave home without it"), an oft-parodied but long-remembered campaign that worked because of his familiar, trustworthy face. His bulbous nose, perhaps the most recognizable thing about him, was the result of sports injuries in his youth, and Malden joked about it frequently. He later won an Emmy for his work in the 1984 miniseries Fatal Vision.
Someone who dies at 97 after a happy life and dignified career doesn't get as much media coverage as someone who dies at a younger age under more unusual circumstances ... and that would probably be just fine with Malden. At his 70th anniversary celebration in December, he told longtime friend Eva Marie Saint that after he died, he didn't want her to do anything but have a party. "So another party is coming up," Saint told the Associated Press today.
Malden hadn't acted in a while, and his greatest successes were decades ago. But A Streetcar Named Desire remains a classic film, largely because of Brando's iconic performance but also because of Malden's work opposite him, balancing him. Brando's Stanley Kowalski was handsome but savage; Malden's Mitch was plain-faced but gentle, a necessary contrast that makes the film (and the play before it) work so beautifully.