In Memory of Karl Malden 1912 – 2009 R.I.P.


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Th great Oscar-winning actor Karl Maden died today. He is remembered for being a fine character actor.  Charles Gibson, the ABC news anchor, just quoted Malden as saying he was the only actor in Hollywood whose nose qualified him for handicapped parking.

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According the the IMDB, his last role was as a Catholic priest, Fr. Thomas Cavanaugh, former pastor to President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) in The West Wing episode #14, “Take this Sabbath Day” in 2000. He was called in by Bartlett for counsel about whether or not to commute the death penalty of a prisoner. It remains one of my favorite episodes of all time, both from the series, and from television. Whenever you doubt that television can be and is, sometimes, art, watch this episode again.

I just spoke with Fr. Willy Raymond at Family Theater and he said that Karl Malden was a Catholic. [July 2: I later received an unsigned notice saying that Karl Malden's mother was a Catholic who then converted to the Serbian Orthodox faith of her husband and that Malden was also Serbian Orthodox... though this really doesn't matter or change the fact that Karl Malden was a fine artist, married to his wife for more than 70 years and father of two, etc.] 

Fr. Willy also told a wonderful story that he heard when Karl Malden addressed a symposium on the death penalty.

Malden told the group that when he appeared on the set to shoot that episode of The West Wing he brought with him the stole and breviary he had used in On the Waterfront – and that everyone on the set, actors, crew, assistants, etc., all went up to touch these items with reverence because of their link to this great film.

It is fascinating to think that 46 years after the film was released its hold on the popular and religious imagination remained strong.

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Father Cavanaugh: You know, you remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town. And that all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, ‘I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.’ The waters rose up. A guy in a row boat came along and he shouted, ‘Hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.’ But the man shouted back, ‘I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.’ A helicopter was hovering overhead. And a guy with a megaphone shouted, ‘Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I’ll take you to safety.’ But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well… the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘I’m a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?’ God said, ‘I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?’

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Malden was the Reverend Paul Ford in Disney’s 1960 version of Pollyanna. I think people may dismiss this film as saccherine but actually it is filled with wisdom. The Reverend, and the whole town, learned a lot from Pollyanna. To his credit, the Reverend listened to her, really heard her, before anyone else.

Then who will ever forget Karl Malden as Father Barry in On the Waterfront?

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Here is a link to an online article by Michael Paulson of online version of The Boston Globe:

Karl Malden recalled for priest portrayal

Here’s a link to a great story about Malden and the priest on whom his Fr. Pete Barry  character was based: Fr. John Corridan, SJ. The article is from the Jesuit magazine The Company:  The Waterfront Priest by James Fisher 2003.

Fr. Barry quotes from On the Waterfront:


Father Barry: Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!


Father Barry: You want to know what’s wrong with our waterfront? It’s the love of a lousy buck. It’s making love of a buck – -the cushy job – -more important than the love of man!


Terry: If I spill, my life ain’t worth a nickel.
Father Barry: And how much is your soul worth if you don’t?


Father Barry: Isn’t it simple as one, two, three? One: The working conditions are bad. Two: They’re bad because the mob does the hiring. And three: The only way we can break the mob is to stop letting them get away with murder.


Father Barry: Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!


Father Barry: You want to know what’s wrong with our waterfront? It’s the love of a lousy buck. It’s making love of a buck – -the cushy job – -more important than the love of man!


As already mentioned, Karl Malden had an intersting pop culture link with the Catholic Church. He portrayed priests but the 1956 film “Baby Doll”, in which he had a lead role, was condemned by the Legion of Decency for “carnal suggestiveness.”

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Karl Malden, interestingly enough, grew up in Gary, Indiana. He was married to his wife, Mona Greenburg, for more than 70 years.  What a wonderful legacy to leave the world – a life of art and integrity.

Karl Malden Bio Wikipedia

Karl Malden Internet Movie Database

Karl Malden Obituary YahooNews

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this. I like your comments about him in Pollyanna. I remember that scene where he is in the fields with Hayley Mills and has an epiphany about his gloom-and-doom sermons (am I remembering it correctly?). It’s quite a lovely scene.

  2. Yes, that is the exact scene. I had insomnia one night and turned on the TV. The film was on and I watched it so differently from the first time. This scene really impressed me. Thank you!


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