It’s really strange that I stumble upon a Serb or Serb story everywhere I look. This little tip was passed on to me from a beautiful Serbian gal. I was seriously shocked to find out about this. I never would have dreamed that actor Karl Malden was a Serbian American. Karl Malden was best known for his nose. He broke it twice during his youth and it lead to the rounded, large nose he had the remainder of his life. I remember him best from his part in war movie PATTON and is probably best known by the rest of the world for his supporting role in STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE.
Karl Malden was actually born with the name Mladen Sekulovich or Младен Ђорђе Секуловић in Serbian cyrillic. He was born on March 22, 1912 in my state of Illinois. His father, George Sekulovich, was a mill worker and milkman that worked hard to see his family succeed. He was very proud of his Serbian roots and passed it on to his children. George’s family was from the city of Belica… in todays Republic of Srpska in Bosnia/Hertzogovina. “My mother and father knew all about hard work and dreams,” said Karl.”When my father came to the United States in 1906 from the tiny European village of Bileca, Hercegovina, he brought nothing with him but hopes and dreams.”
Karl spoke ONLY Serbian until he entered kindergarten and was fluent in Serbian until his death in 2009 at the age of 97. Karl was Malden’s father had a passion for music, and organized a choir. As a teenager, Malden joined the Karagorge Choir. In addition, his father produced Serbian plays at his church and taught acting. A young Malden took part in many of these plays, which included a version of Jack and the Beanstalk, but mostly centered on the community’s Serbian heritage. In high school, he was a popular student and the star of the basketball team.He completed high school and hitchhiked to Arkansas to talk to a university about a scholarship. He could have had one but refused to play football and basketball. They sent him packing. He went back home to his parents home. By this time, his father, Petar, had left the mills and was working as a milk delivery man for Cloverleaf Dairy in Gary, a position his father kept for 38 years.
“Working in the mills was hard work, but it was good money,” Malden said.
“I started out as a laborer making $3.49 a day and later, got moved to an even harder position as a bricklayer that had better pay for $5 a day. And for three long and hard years I wondered to myself if this was where I was going to end up for the rest of my life. Finally, I decided I couldn’t stay.”
He said his change in careers came from a “subtle calling” in 1934.
Once a year, the drama departments at Horace Mann, Emerson and Lew Wallace high schools teamed up to present a series of one-act plays.
“To make a little extra money, I helped some of the guys build the sets and scenery for these plays,” Malden said.
“And while watching what was happening on stage, I thought to myself: ‘I can do that.’ But I was never in front of the scenery for anyone to see me. But I always remembered that during these play competitions, they’s always bring in a judge from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.”
Since he was still working the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift at the steel mill, he decided to go to Chicago one day and visit the Goodman Theatre to ask about the opportunities for acting school.
“They asked me how much money I had, and I told them I had saved my every dime from working in the mills, which was about $300,” he said.
“Well, they told me the school tuition for a year was $900. But the man in charge of the school made me an offer I’ll never forget it.
“He asked me if I was a gambler. He said if I paid the $300, he would take me on and if I worked hard and proved I had talent, somehow he’d find the rest of the tuition money for me.”
It was during his Goodman Theatre years that he met “the most beautiful woman he’d ever scene.” This young Goodman Theatre actress was Mona, his future wife and after he graduated in June 1937, they courted and were married in 1938. They even starred together in The Goodman Theatre’s production of “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
But after he finished his theater training and before the couple’s wedding, Malden returned home to Gary for a short time, and his father helped him get a job as a milkman to earn enough money to travel to New York in October 1937 to pursue an acting career.
“The one thing my dad told me before I left was: Don’t ever do anything to disgrace the family name.”
It was in New York that Malden found an agent and began making the rounds for stage work, which introduced him to the young man who would become famed director Elia Kazan, who gave him his breakthrough role as Mitch in the Broadway production of “A Street Car Named Desire,” a role he later recreated in the movie and for which he won his Oscar in 1951.
At the time of their meeting, Kazan was starring on stage opposite actress Frances Farmer in “Golden Boy,” and got Malden a part as the manager of one of the fighters.
It was also during these early acting years, and especially after he got his agent in New York, that he also officially changed his name to “Karl Malden,” something he never wanted to do because of his family pride and Serbian heritage. He said it was Kazan that also pushed him to make the change, partly because he believed the young actor’s real name Sekulovich sounded “Jewish” (even though it wasn’t.) When his future actress wife Mona Greenberg arrived to New York, staying with relatives and also looking for work as an actress, she also changed her “official” stage name to Graham.
“Even if I changed my name for the marquee, I never forgot it, and I never let my parents think I forgot it,” Malden said with a big smile, raising his glass of iced tea to clink classes as he toasted, “here’s to Northwest Indiana.”
Malden then shared examples of all the times he “cleverly” inserted his real last name “Sekulovich” into the dialogue of the famous films he made as a family tribute he knew his parents would recognize when they watched him on the big screen.
“In the film ‘Patton’ (1950), there’s the scene when the jeep I’m riding in gets blown up and we’re thrown to the ground,” he said. “And you can hear me say to the young soldier: ‘Get my helmet, Sekulovich!’ ”
“And in ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ with Burt Lancaster, I play the warden and in one scene I call out to one of the prisoners by the name of Sekulovich. I know over the years I made more than one script girl probably scratch her head and start flipping pages.”
Malden said his father got a particular shock when he heard the family name mentioned in “Birdman of Alcatraz.”
“My father said to me: ‘There’s never been a Sekulovich in prison before!’ ” Malden recalled.
Malden even introduced the name Sekulovich in his award-winning TV show, “The Streets of San Francisco.”
It seems that every Serb I know is proud of their heritage! They never forget their roots. May Mladen Sekulovich REST IN PEACE!