Karl Malden’s nose


‘Don’t leave home without it.’

Fair warning: if you are related to Karl Malden, or are the president of his Fan Club or anything like that, you may wish to stop reading this post. Switch to the one about the silo. Or the one about Bruce Dern and the sweepstakes.

Because this is an Ad Story in which Karl is the butt (as opposed to the nose) of the joke. But he deserved it. As you will see. To mangle a phrase, ‘Hell hath no fury like a bunch of creative women dissed’.

First, a little (probably necessary) background. Karl Malden was a movie star once upon a time (terrific as Mitch in ‘Streetcar Named Desire’; good in ‘On the Waterfront’ too). But it was his run as a police detective on a TV show called ‘The Streets of San Francisco’ (with a youngster named Michael Douglas as his sidekick) that got him his looooong lucrative run as the Spokesguy for American Express Travelers’ Cheques (‘Don’t leave home without them’).

Karl Malden and his nose (and Michael Douglas too) in ‘The Streets of San Francisco’

It grieves me to realize that I just explained who the hell Karl Malden was and now I have to explain ‘travelers’ cheques’. (Do they even make travelers’ cheques anymore?) Anyway, travelers’ cheques were these things you’d get before going on a trip to use instead of cash because, if you lost them or (gasp) if a bad guy stole them, you didn’t lose out. American Express would replace them, and you’d be fine.

In order to get people to use their travelers’ cheques instead of dangerous old cash, AmEx (as we who worked on their business affectionately called them) ran these commercials where pathetic travelers who used cash were duped and/or robbed and lost their money. Then Karl, wearing his trademark tough-guy hat, would remind us, sternly, not to leave home without our American Express Travelers’ Cheques.

Here, you can watch. (Thank you, YouTube)

Wow. (‘What will you do, what will you do?’)

Well, if you were assigned to the travelers’ cheques business, what you had to ‘do’ was put up with Karl Malden. He was not only famous for his outsized nose, but for his outlandish prima-donna behavior. Especially toward women. (Well, toward women he had to work with; maybe he got along super-swell with other women).

You guessed it: I was the lucky woman writer assigned to this account. Oh, before I forget. It didn’t help that Karl really liked the writer — the male writer — who was on the business before me. This guy had just left Ogilvy for greener pastures at a rival agency. So I was told to ‘make friends with Karl’. I was supposed to do this by taking Karl to the Beverly Hills Hotel for breakfast.

Well, during the course of this breakfast (which cost more than a week’s rent), all I heard about was how the previous writer was so terrific and that no one else could possibly write Karl’s copy as well as that guy and how the account should just leave Ogilvy and go to where that guy worked instead. To add insult to injury, I lost an earring in the Beverly Hills Hotel coffee shop banquette while listening to Karl whine. It’s probably still in there, nestled deep into the velvety tufts along with an errant raisin or two.

But back to the business at hand. Before we did the new TV commercial, we needed to record some radio spots with Karl. Of course we flew out to L.A. to do this. More convenient for Karl. Hey, not that we minded! These were the days of staying at the Sunset Marquis, tooling around in VW Rabbit convertibles, and eating at Michael’s in Santa Monica.

So we show up at the studio: Mr. Malden, the woman writer (me), the woman producer (Hi, Annie!), and the client, whose name I don’t remember. But she was definitely a woman too.

You can tell that Karl isn’t exactly overjoyed to see us. He glowers, sighs, strides toward the soundproof booth to do his thing. While we’re all subserviently going ‘Good morning, Mr. Malden’, ‘Thank you for coming, Mr. Malden’, and even ‘Would you like coffee, Mr. Malden?’ he walks smack-dab into the glass door of the booth. His infamous nose goes ‘squoosh!’ Ouch. I guess he was distracted by all the hormones in the room.

As if he weren’t already crabby enough, the Nose Incident added injury to insult, and he proceeded to drag his voice-over feet: mumbling his takes, stopping in the middle of takes, refusing to do more takes. I’ll spare you the remaining details of his less-than-professional behavior, but let’s just say that, after the session was finally over, we three ‘ladies’ repaired to the bar at the Sunset, where we ran into Bruce Springsteen. But that’s another story.

You know the old saying ‘don’t get mad, get even’? Well, while we were enjoying our post-Karl cocktails (and trying not to look like we were staring at Bruce), we women, now joined by yet another female, the art director, cooked up a plan.

You see, Karl Malden had this deal with American Express where he earned a yearly fee just by being Karl and being their Spokesguy. But if he actually did anything — like recording radio spots or shooting a new TV commercial — well, then he got a whole lot more money. He’d already recorded the radio spots, so there wasn’t much we could do about that.

But we hadn’t produced the new TV commercial yet. So we came up with this idea, a spot called ‘Break-In’ (which, dammit, I could not find on youtube)*. In ‘Break-In’, this guy is in the shower in his hotel room while a burglar is rifling through his stuff. Including his wallet, which is filled with Dumb Dangerous Stealable Cash. Said wallet is on the hotel-room dresser right in front of the hotel-room TV. As the burglar takes the money and escapes via the hotel-room balcony, we see that the TV is playing last year’s American Express commercial.

Move in on hotel-room TV screen, where we see Karl saying — at the end of last year’s commercial, already shot — ‘American Express Travelers’ Cheques. Don’t leave home without them’.

So hah, Mr. Malden. No new shoot for you. And no new shoot pay, either. We ‘girls’  got you where it hurts: right in the ole pocketbook.

But wait. That’s not all. Remember how Karl smooshed his nose into the recording-booth glass? Well, we not only left the nose print right there, ‘in situ’, so to speak, but we took a strip of masking tape, labeled it ‘Karl Malden’s nose’ and stuck it up there right next to the Nose Print. So no one would mistake this Nose Squoosh for anyone else’s (not that they could).

And, well, I guess we weren’t the only people that Karl rubbed the wrong way. When we returned to that studio the next year to record more spots, The Nose Print and its Label were (yup) still there. For all I know, they remain there today. Like a mini Hollywood ‘Walk of Fame’, only with Karl’s nose instead of his handprints.

I’m sure many of you, particularly my friends from the Wonderful World of Advertising, have some juicy stories like this one. Please feel free to share.

And if you’d like to catch up with some of my other Ad Stories, click on the link in the sidebar. Or, even easier than that, click these links for the one about the silo or the one about the Sweepstakes Company.

*Late-breaking ‘Break-In’ news from my good blog-reading friend Debi. She found the commercial of which I speak. ‘Break-In’, that is. Go, Debi! So, here you go. It’s pretty much as I remember it, except that the wallet full of Dumb Dangerous Stealable Cash is in the guy’s jacket, not on the dresser. But the ending is still the same, and satisfying as ever to watch:

New York City. October 2014



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60 thoughts on “Karl Malden’s nose

  1. Marty from Arizona

    Great story! Thanks! You are a very talented story teller! Enjoyed the Malden story! Remember when Johnny Carson would stick a big honker on and play Malden, saying, “What WILL you do”? He could barely keep a straight face!! Cracked everyone up!!
    Thanks again!

    • Hey Marty! So glad you enjoyed my Malden story. He was a real piece of work, for sure. And yes, I do remember when Carson would impersonate him. Those were the days, huh? Check back any time for more stories!

  2. Elaine Sloan

    Hi! You bring back many memories. Hope you’re well. I hear we have a friend in common. Stephanie. Would you like to adopt two cats? one is named Alice!! Xxx Elaine

  3. Art Fern

    My youngest is a short or petite, blond, with big blue eyes. When she came along her mother had no interest in nurturing a child, while I was far enough in my career that money issues were comfortable and I could lay out my schedules to be the class dad at school, the parent that took her to all the lessons, etc
    It was a chance to really talk to her in ways I didn’t have time to do with her brother and sister. Whatever success I’ve had wasn’t due to smarts or knowing more that my competition, it was because I keep my promises, I knew everyone’s names and I was kind, no matter what was going on.
    Mr Malden paid a price for running over you and those working with you, he will likely never know how many prices he pays. There was nothing unkind or snarky about your story, it was a good lesson for life. I have gotten to see this little girl become a successful adult and say “ You know Dad, people really do want to help you, all you have to do is be kind to them”.

    • Dear Art, it sounds like you’ve been a wonderful father. Your lesson on kindness is something everyone should remember. It’s funny how we women used to have to come up with clever strategies to deal with abusive men. This one worked because it punished the offender in the bank account, where it can really hurt. I like to think that these days I would just tell Mr. M that his behavior was unacceptable, but hey, it’s harder than it sounds. And this way was not only satisfying, it made a pretty good story. Thanks for reading — and for weighing in!

    • Oh yes! After more than 30 years in the Ad Biz, I’ve got quite a few stories with plenty of “inside perspective”. It was really a fun business to be in, and took me all over the world on somebody else’s dime to boot! Thank you for reading!

  4. This is the most amazing story- am loving it!!
    I remember him from the big names movies but all I could imagine here was his role in Pollyanna- yelling ‘death comes unexpectedly!!’ To a congregation !!

    • So glad you liked this one, Susie! Hmmm, Chris Landau? Boy Chris or Girl Chris? Either way, I don’t think so. Tho it WAS a long time ago, and I’m better at remembering stories than remembering names (!)

  5. Eleanor

    That was BRILLIANT, Alice! And, great sleuthing by Debi, too. Loved the story…and loved the ad! FANTASTIC WRITING!

  6. Elaine Slian

    Yes, great tales!! And how nose prints can one guy leave on planet earth?? I’ll bet you two were in cahoots at that studio. He didn’t have a chance

  7. Nancy Vines

    I thought I was the only one Karl ever yelled at! I still have nightmares about being in a motor home in the middle of the desert and Karl yelling at me about the copy. I tried to be polite and convince him that the line in question was ok, but all the while thinking: “Hey, I’m the producer. I didn’t write this. Why are you yelling at me?”
    I also have a “nose print on the door to the booth” story. We were recording a VO with him and he walked right into the glass door. We made a frame around it with masking tape and put a sign with an arrow – “Karl Malden’s nose”.
    BTW – I love all your stories, Alice.

    • Hey thanks, Nance! For reading AND for commenting. I pity you; stuck in a motor home with Karl would NOT be pretty. And, hey! I’m thinking we’re talking about the same Nose Print! I think YOU were the producer I was working with at the time. So glad to have that story ‘fact-checked’ (hah!) And yes, I have a million of these. Stay tuned! And thanks again.

  8. Elaine Slian

    Somewhere I wrote a bit about Jason Robards. He was just so great. But I don’t know where that ended up.
    Ditto WWW wicked witch of the west a.k.a. Margaret Hamilton, Cora shopkeeper for Maxwell House…… !! Xxxx e

  9. Elaine Slian

    :). On the other hand, Jason Robards was SO much fun!!! Hanging out in his boxer shorts reminiscing about “Betty” aka Lauren Bacall! What a pleasure!

  10. Ron

    Umm, yeah there’s no indication that Malden had anything against women in this story and every indication that he could just tell he was working with a bunch of thin-skinned, obnoxious, vindictive, and less-than-talented people of any gender. Hey remember when Christian Bale yelled at that guy? I guess that makes him a misandrist.

    • Ah, Don. You sharp-eyed reader, you! Actually, I’m not sure if AmEx ever sent an art director to a radio session. In those days, nothing excessive would have surprised me. Let me ‘splain. As you know, Lutheranliar never lies; she edits. In this case, I used a splice. The scene at the bar with Springsteen is true; so is the fact that we women cooked up the no-shoot Karl Revenge Plan. But I squooshed the two episodes together to give the story a bit more pace and zip. (I tend to digress enough as it is). Excellent catch!

      • Elaine Keeve Sloan

        I shot w/Karl for AmEx and he was totally devoid of humor. Someone on set made an innocent, amusing joke about AmEx and he took great exception that anyone should joke about THE CLIENT!! Otherwise, his nose was in fine shape, so to speak, and it was a good spot!

        • So glad Karl’s nose survived the impact with the sound booth (!) And that he lived to shoot another day, so to speak. But you are spot on about his sense of humor (or lack thereof). xo

    • Ah, yes. I had heard that, Sande. I had heard he was mean to the little kids on his shoots. Which is much more hateful than being mean to a bunch of really clever Ad Girls who know how to get even (!)

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