I’ve written in a couple articles about how, Karl Malden, Michel Hugo (Director of Photography), and myself enjoyed sleight of hand. How we performed magic tricks for one another, and then taught how it was done. We were like kids, and it was the highlight of long hours of filming episodes- which most times went well into the night.
I may have mentioned this before in an earlier story, but I gave Karl two paperback books written by magician/author Walter B. Gibson (who also wrote “The Shadow” stories)- one book, I remember was about the secrets of Harry Houdini and the other, sleight of hand tricks. Karl seemed very excited and very appreciative when I handed them to him at his Winnebago dressing room while on location one day.
Tony Piazza in front of Karl Malden’s Winnebego
At Christmas, Karl was very generous to the crew of “The Streets of San Francisco” and gave wonderful gifts. I still have the blue Pendleton jacket he gave us one year- however my greatest treasure was not this jacket, or other expensive gifts (although I’ve appreciated them all), but a small “magic” penknife that he surprised me with one afternoon at the studio. With a sweep of his hand, the handle changed color from black to pearl white. Pretty neat, don’t you think? He performed the trick for me- and then after exposing its secret- to my amazement and glee, told me that it was mine. I have it put away in a special place in my home- and whenever I see it I think of Karl. It’s very personal to me.
Here’s the penknife (position 1)
Pass a hand across it (position 2)
Presto-change-o (same knife, position 3)
Karl Malden’s Christmas gift-today (still good as new)
Another story I’d like to share regarding our mutual interest in magic occurred during the summer of 1975, in-between shooting at the studio. I was practicing my sleight of hand with a deck of cards, as I had been doing during for some weeks when my services weren’t required on the set. On this occasion however, the first assistant director came over and said I would have to put them away- that cards were no longer allowed during production. Karl Malden caught wind of this and said, “Don’t worry, Junior (his nickname for me), I’ll investigate.” In the meantime, Michel Hugo showed up with “magic” ropes and three foam balls and said, “Let’s forget the cards for now, and practice tricks with these”. Michel was always very clever that way- he wasn’t one to roll over and play dead. Karl came back a day or so later with his own deck, handed it to me and said it was okay for us to practice with them again. It seems that someone on the crew was upset because there was poker being played by some members of the film crew at lunch (who knows maybe this person loss a few dollars at one of them and was holding a grudge) and reported it to the production heads back in LA. Apparently word had come down from them- “no more cards on the set”, but as Karl explained in his always kindly way, “That didn’t include our innocent fun.” As thoughtful as he was, I’ve no doubt he talked with production and cleared it. After that, I didn’t have any trouble with the assistant director- and Karl, Michel, and I once again continued exchanging our card tricks with each other.
I think these stories really indicate how Karl Malden was never hung up with himself, or his star image, but just a fine artist with a down-to-earth attitude, a true humanitarian who cared for everyone- big or small. He certainly went to battle for me, even though it wasn’t expected of him. He knew I enjoyed the magic lessons and so it also mattered to him.
When I give lectures today as a ‘film historian’ the question I’m frequently asked is, “who was my favorite actor to work with?” My resounding answer is always the same- Karl Malden. “Why?” they ask, “Because he was like a second father to me.” I believe stories like these illustrates why. What other actor would care enough to go to bat for a young stand-in on his show? Answer: not many, except the ever kind and thoughtful, Karl Malden.
Tony Piazza is author of the 1930s Hollywood murder mystery novel, “Anything Short of Murder,” which had its roots on the TCM fan website. His second novel, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” was next released early 2012, and in July of this year, his latest Tom Logan Mystery, “A Murder Amongst Angels” was published and is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites. He was an actor/extra during the 1970s and worked with such legends as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Karl Malden. His non-fiction e-book “Bullitt Points” is an in depth look at the making of “Bullitt” from a person who was there. Look for it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites, or at the link posted below. All profits go to the Boys Republic charity: www.bullittpoints.com.
Also: The new Tom Logan mystery thriller, A Murder Amongst Angels is now available!
Find it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. Also available for $2.99 on Kindle.