My First Meeting with Karl Malden by Tony Piazza

As many of you know, I was on the crew of the television production “The Streets of San Francisco”. My position was stand-in; the first three seasons as auxiliary stand-in; the forth season as Michael Douglas’s stand-in; and the fifth and final season as Richard Hatch’s who replaced Michael. Of course, once on the crew you also did other jobs as well… extra, bit actor, photo-doubling, and was even involved in a couple of stunts. It was a great experience!

I have a lot of stories to tell- some about “Streets”, others about the other films I worked on (a few I have already discussed). I was in and about movie sets and film makers for 17 years (my father’s involvement) and then worked directly with them myself for about seven.

The story I want to tell today relates to my beginnings with Quinn Martin Productions and my first meeting with Karl Malden.

It was on a Saturday in June, and the location was the garage entrance of the SFPD headquarters located close to theBayBridge. QM was shooting the pilot episode for the show – but there was little worry about its’ outcome. The network had already guaranteed the producers that the show would be picked up for the fall season just based on the Academy award winning Karl Malden’s participation. Actually it was pretty well set for its five year run. After five years a show could go into automatic syndication, and that was what Karl had in mind when they worked the details out with the A.B.C. Network.

As I approached the set, I saw a tall man (6′ 2″) dressed in what would become his signature outfit- a dark raincoat and a grey fedora hat. I was introduced and immediately became tongue tied as he looked down with his stark blue eyes and gave his kindliest, fatherly smile. I was dubbed Junior that day because my father also worked on the set and in time we became great friends, both sharing the love of magic and sleight-of-hand.

Karl not only looked fatherly, but he became a father figure- not only to me- but to the crew in general. He was always concerned with every level of production and every person in each department. For example, one of the “grips” died in his sleep when we were on location inSanta Rosa,California. The funeral was held a few days later inSan Francisco-in which I attended. During the rosary, I heard some whispers suddenly arise from those in attendance and saw that Karl had entered the room to pay his respects! 

Karl (and Michael) was always pitching in where needed- even spooning out mashed potatoes to the crew in the chow line! No pretense here.

Of course I have so much more to write about Karl- including our mutual love of magic- but I will have to leave that for another day.  However I wanted to end with one personal incident that occurred which demonstrated his concern for all of us. I was asked to photo- double Larry Hagman for a dangerous car crash stunt in the episode “Dead Air”. He came over to me and asked if this was something I really wanted to do- or was I talked in to it by the First Assistant Director. I told him that it was indeed something I wanted to try (What can I say- I was young and not too bright). He still showed his concern- and told me of his fear of helicopters and how he always used a double for scenes that involved them. He said that there is always a risk of something going wrong, and you can never be too careful. I did do the stunt the next day however- and happily all went well. But I really appreciated his concern. 


Tony Piazza is author of the 1930’sHollywoodmurder mystery novel; “Anything Short of Murder,” which had its roots on the TCM fan website. His next novel, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” is due out early 2012. He was an actor/extra during the 1970’s and worked with such legends as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Tony Curtis, and Karl Malden.