Serbian-American Karl Malden

Karl Malden carried his Serbian heritage with pride, even as he navigated the often ruthless terrain of Hollywood. He grew up in a Serbian immigrant community in Chicago, and as he accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2004, he made it clear that his roots were still deeply important to him. “I am very proud of my Serbian heritage,” he declared. “I have been delighted to carry it my whole life.”

But as Malden embarked on his career in show business, he found himself confronted with a difficult choice. His given name, Mladen Djordje Sekulovic, was not exactly the kind of name that would roll off the tongues of Hollywood executives. At the suggestion of director Elia Kazan, Malden changed his name to Karl Malden, and he soon found himself facing a moral conundrum.

In his memoir, co-written with his daughter Carla, he recalled the guilt he felt over changing his name. “Accepting to change my name made me feel tremendous guilt,” he wrote. “I spent the majority of my movie and television career trying to alleviate that guilt. This is the reason why I put the surname Sekulovic wherever I could, in the movies and series where I had parts.”

Karl Malden’s father, Petar Sekulovic, was a Serbian immigrant from the vicinity of Bileca, in Herzegovina, who moved to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. He settled in Chicago, where he worked in a carpenter’s workshop before eventually moving to the city of Gary, Indiana, to work in a steel mill. The Serbian community in Gary was concentrated around Connecticut Street, and many of them worked in the steel mills.

Despite the difficult circumstances, the Serbian community in Gary made an effort to preserve their customs, Orthodox faith, and language. Petar Sekulovic played an important role in this, founding the first Serbian choir in the United States, called the “Branko Radicevic” choir, as well as a Serbian gymnastics club named Soko. He also organized events in the Orthodox Church that included short theatre plays inspired by Serbian epic poems. It was through these plays that Malden first developed a love for the theatre.

Karl Malden
Karl Malden

Malden’s upbringing also included singing in the “Karadjordje” choir, which regularly performed Serbian national songs in Chicago and the surrounding areas. Malden described these experiences in his memoirs, writing, “It was a part of their history and national identity.”

Malden’s father instilled in him a sense of pride in his Serbian heritage, and his childhood

In high school, Malden was a member of both the drama section and the basketball team. While he was a skilled basketball player, his true passion was for the theatre. However, after finishing high school, he had to find a job and eventually found work at a steel mill, where he worked hard at a plant that produced wheels for trams and trains. For the next three years, Mladen saved up, and once he had collected $340, he decided to follow his passion for acting. In September of 1934, he arrived at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where he landed his first serious roles in school plays. He acted in smaller parts in plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Tolstoy, among others. It was at this theatre that he met his future wife, Mona.

After completing his studies in acting, Mladen returned to Gary and worked as a milkman for a year, during which time he did not receive any acting roles. However, in October 1937, he received an invitation to visit New York, where he landed a role in a Broadway play, although the play did not run for very long.

In 1951, Elia Kazan directed a movie adaptation of the successful theatre play A Streetcar Named Desire. Marlon Brando and Malden reprised their roles, while Vivien Leigh replaced Jessica Tandy as Blanche. Malden’s portrayal of Mitch earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, although in the early 1950s, the awards ceremony was not as highly publicized as it is today, and there was no live television broadcast of the event.

In his memoir, Malden recounts an amusing incident from the awards ceremony. Before going on stage to receive his Oscar, Malden had asked Humphrey Bogart, who was seated next to him, to hold onto his coat. After Malden received his award and went backstage to answer questions from journalists, Bogart joined him, having won an Oscar for Best Actor in the film The African Queen. Malden asked him where his coat was, to which Bogart replied, “Who cares about the coat, man, you won an Oscar!”

In the same memoir, Malden reflected on his popularity in America and attributes it to his role as Lt. Michael Stone in the television series The Streets of San Francisco, which was filmed between 1972 and 1977. Malden had a personal connection to the city, as it was where his father, Petar Sekuloovic, had originally wanted to settle when he arrived at Ellis Island in 1906.

However, due to the devastating earthquake that occurred on the very day Petar arrived in San Francisco, he was forced to change his plans and ultimately settled in Chicago, like many other Balkan immigrants. Malden loved San Francisco because it was the city his father had always dreamed of living in but never got to see. During the filming of The Streets of San Francisco, Petar Sekulovic passed away, and Malden visited him on his deathbed in Gary. Petar told him that although many knew him as Karl Malden, to him, he would always be a Sekulovic.

Movie poster for Disney’s Pollyanna (1960)

In the waning years of the 1980s, Karl Malden ascended to the highest office of the esteemed American Academy of Motion Pictures, where he served as president. For a remarkable six decades, Malden had graced the silver screen with his inimitable talent, endearing himself to audiences the world over. Born Mladen Djordje Sekulovic, the veteran actor passed away on July 1st, 2009, in his abode in Los Angeles, having lived a full life of 97 years. Malden attributed his enviable longevity to his mother, who had reached the ripe age of 102 before passing away. Surviving him were his devoted wife, Mona, two beloved daughters, three cherished grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, who all mourned his loss deeply. Regrettably, Mona Malden also departed this world in July of 2019, leaving behind a legacy of love and a lifetime of memories.

Karl Malden’s journey through life and career is the embodiment of the American dream. As a destitute immigrant boy, hailing from a humble community on the fringes of Chicago, he rose to become a towering figure of the acting world, leaving an indelible mark on the artistic landscape.

Malden took immense pride in his Serbian heritage, and today, the Serbians hold him in high esteem. Dan Tana, Malden’s confidant, fittingly remarked, “Mladen was to the world of acting what Nikola Tesla is to science and what Novak Djokovic is to tennis.” His remarkable talents and contributions to the acting realm will continue to inspire generations of aspiring performers for ages to come.


Milos Rastovic

Milos Rastovic is the Cultural Editor at the Balkan Voice. He served as the Cultural Outreach Coordinator for the Serb National Federation (2011 – 2023), one of the oldest Serbian-American Fraternal...

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