Theatre yesterday and today



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Hard to believe, but longtime friends Marlon Brando and Karl Malden died on the same date, July 1st. Brando in 2004, and Malden five years later in 2009.

Marlon Brando, known to all who knew him as Bud, and Mladen Sekulovich (Malden's birth name) famously co-starred in the original Broadway production and film version of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. But this landmark play wasn't their first appearance together on the Broadway stage. Both appeared a year earlier in Maxwell Anderson's Truckline Cafe, which played a mere 13 performances. In spite of such a short run, it managed to make more than a few people in the know stand up and take notice of Brando, even in the face of overwhelmingly negative reviews. Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times wrote: "Maxwell Anderson must have written Truckline Cafe with his left hand and, it is to be feared, in the dark of the moon."

He doesn't even mention Brando.

But others took note. In Broadway: The Golden Age, Rick McKay's fine 2003 documentary, the late Charles Durning said of Brando's performance: “I thought [he was a] guy they pulled in off the street. Too good to be an actor.”

In a 2008 New Yorker magazine appreciation of Brando, Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote: "[Truckline Cafe] has gone down in history, thanks to a five-minute speech made by a little-known actor in a secondary role: Marlon Brando, at twenty-one, played an ex-G.I. who comes home to find that his wife has been unfaithful; in his final scene, he entered exhausted and wringing wet, and confessed that he had killed her and carried her body out to sea. Karl Malden, who played another minor role, reported that the rest of the cast sometimes had to wait for nearly two minutes after Brando’s exit while the audience screamed and stamped its feet. The performance was as remarkable for what Brando didn’t do as for what he did. Pauline Kael, very young herself and years away from a critical career, happened to come late to the play one evening and recalled that she averted her eyes, in embarrassment, from what appeared to be a man having a seizure onstage: it wasn’t until her companion “grabbed my arm and said ‘Watch this guy!’ that I realized he was acting.'"

Kind of makes you wish you were there, doesn't it?

Though it's never been contested that Marlon Brando was one of the greatest actors of his generation, Karl Malden turned out performances no less exemplary. His theatrical career extended ten years beyond Brando's (who never returned to the stage post-Streetcar), and after 1957, Malden concentrated exclusively on film and television. Today he is mostly remembered for the long-running cop show The Streets of San Francisco, as well as a series of commercials he did as the pitchman for American Express ("Don't leave home without it," became a household phrase). But his Oscar winning role as the hapless Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire; his tough and pragmatic priest in On the Waterfront; his soulful Herbie in the film of Gypsy—all informed by his trademark of honest intensity—offer examples to his superb body of work. And when, after many years of efforts by preservationists, a DVD is finally released of the one-and-only film Brando ever directed, One-Eyed Jacks, see how Malden all but steals every scene he's in from his old friend.

My favorite story about these two comes from the marvelous character actor Tom Aldredge, told in his 2011 New York Times obituary: "Mr. Aldredge’s theatrical calling very nearly did not happen. In the late 1940s, then a prelaw student at the University of Dayton, he visited New York. Ambling through the theater district, he came upon two rough-hewn men in the alley behind the Ethel Barrymore Theater. The young Mr. Aldredge had little interest in theater, but wanted to see the inside of a grand Broadway house. He asked the stagehands—for stagehands they must surely be—for a peek. 'Buy a ticket,' one replied, and he did, for $1.80. From his seat, Mr. Aldredge watched as the 'stagehands'—Karl Malden and Marlon Brando—walked out under the lights to play A Streetcar Named Desire, and after that he was never completely the same."

That story always makes me cry, much in the way it saddens me that all three of these irreplaceable actors are no longer with us.

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