07/01/2009 at 04:25 PM EDT
Karl Malden, the bulbous-nosed character actor who won a Best Supporting Oscar for his role as Mitch, the guiless suitor of Blanche DuBois in the 1951 classic A Street Car Named Desire – a role he created on Broadway – and lent his particular brand of gravitas to American Express commercials in the 1980s, died Wednesday of natural causes in his Brentwood, Calif., home, his family announced. He was 97.
Born Malden Sekulovich to Czech and Siberian immigrants in Chicago, Malden barely spoke English as a child until the family moved to Gary, Indiana. He returned to the Windy City in the '30s and studied acting at the Goodman Theatre Dramatic School, before making his Broadway debut in 1940.
He would go on to star in more than 50 Hollywood films, often playing richly complex and often dark characters, while also making a mark on the small screen starting in 1972, on The Streets of San Francisco. He played a veteran police investigator who takes under his wing a young greenhorn, played by Michael Douglas.
"[Karl] was my surrogate father," Douglas told PEOPLE recently. "I love this man with all of my heart. He had an incredible work ethic. This is where I established mine."
Malden continued to work in TV after the series was cancelled in 1977, winning an Emmy as a father who solves his daughter and grandchildren's murderer in the non-fiction 1984 TV movie Fatal Vision. More recently, he played a priest in a 2000 episode of West Wing.
A corporal in the 8th Air Force during World War II, Malden, who was well respected in the industry, also served as the president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences from 1989 to 1993.
Besides his wife of 70 years, Mona, Malden is survived by daughters Mila and Cara and their husbands, three granddaughters, and four great grandchildren.