Karl Malden

Academy Award winner Karl Malden, who starred alongside friend Marlon Brando in such classic films at A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, and won another generation of fans with the TV show The Streets of San Francisco, has died. He was 97.

Malden died of natural causes, his daughter Mila Doerner told the Los Angeles Times.

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Born in Chicago as Mladen Sekulovich, Malden was the son of a Czech seamstress and a Serbian steel worker. He first pursued acting in 1934, by enrolling in the Goodman School at DePaul University, and went on to a career spanning seven decades and more than 50 films.

Malden, whose round nose and thick cheeks made him look more like a street-savvy tough-guy than a typical leading man, once told the Times that he was "incredibly lucky" to enjoy the on-camera career that he did.

Malden made his film debut in 1940's They Knew What They Wanted. Following a World War II stint in the Air Force, Malden went on to star in such films as Birdman of Alcatraz, Baby Doll and Patton.

In 1951, Malden won an Academy Award for his turn as A Streetcar Named Desire's Mitch, a role he had previously played on Broadway. Three years after the film he reteamed with Brando, who played Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar, in On the Waterfront. Malden played Father Barry, the bruising, courageous priest who becomes the conscience of Brando's Terry Malloy.

All told, Malden and Brando did three films together. "Marlon made me work harder, dig deeper than any other actor I have ever worked with," Malden wrote in his memoir, When Do I Start?

Check out photos of Malden through his career

It was through a role in the Arthur Miller play All My Sons that Malden first met Elia Kazan, who later would direct him in Waterfront. Malden stood by Kazan even after the filmmaker fell out of favor with Hollywood by cooperating with the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating reputed communists in 1952.

Though he was at first reluctant to do TV, Malden ultimately signed on to star opposite a young Michael Douglas in The Streets of San Francisco, playing Lt. Mike Stone. Last month during an AFI tribute to Douglas, Malden appeared via videotape, saying: "I wish Michael could have been my son. I'm so proud of him."

Streets ran for five seasons, during which Malden earned four consecutive Emmy nominations. Malden did not win his first Emmy, however, until 1984, for his role in the TV-movie Fatal Vision.

Beginning in 1974, Malden starred in a series of commercials for American Express travelers cheques, where he made "Don't leave home without it" a household phrase. The campaign ran for more than 20 years.

While Malden found it "kind of frustrating in a way" to be known as a pitchman, he said the ads gave him the financial independence to pick and choose his acting roles.

Malden was an original member of the Actors Studio, which was formed in 1948. In 1988, he was elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a position he held for five years.

Malden is survived by his wife of 70 years, Mona, and two daughters, Mila and Carla.