Carla Malden Talks About Love, Loss, Her Books, and Her Oscar-Winning Father

Carla Malden grew up in Hollywood, the younger daughter of the Academy Award-winning actor, Karl Malden. When she was 16, she met 18 year-old Laurence Starkman, and after many years of friendship, on and off dating, they married and had a daughter, Cami. Screenwriters, they worked on projects together, sitting across from each other at a partner’s desk. Surrounded by a loving family and many friends, Carla and Laurence enjoyed their daughter, work, and time together. Then everything came crashing down. In 2006, Laurence, 55, was diagnosed with colon cancer and died after a nearly year-long battle with the disease. 

“I was really so unscathed by loss up until that point, and then for it to be such a huge one out of the gate,” Carla says, “there was definitely a part of me that thought, and still does, that I got off too easy for too long.”

Carla had no intention of writing about Laurence’s death. “Occasionally I couldn’t sleep,” she says. “I would go into my office in the middle of the night and write things down, which is what I do. After he died I really just started writing it for myself and I didn’t think it would grow up to be a book.” Carla has won praise for AfterImage: A Brokenhearted Memoir of A Charmed Life, published in 2011, which she describes as a book in two parts: the year of Laurence’s decline and death, then her first year without him, transitioning into a new life.

Carla is now married to Norman, a retired entertainment attorney, who was a family friend. “I think of him as a preexisting condition,” she says with a laugh during a phone interview from California. “He was also a dear friend of Laurence’s. It’s like those Lifetime movie situations, which he hates me to say. I mean that in the best possible way. He was at my wedding to Laurence, so we had known each other for a long time. If I hadn’t known Norman I would still be single, which would be okay.” 

Carla co-authored her father’s autobiography, When Do I Start? published in 1997. (The actor was 97 when he died in 2009.) Following AfterImage, she turned to fiction, writing two novels, Search Heart-Ache (2019), about a marriage falling apart in the internet’s post-privacy world, and Shine Until Tomorrow (2020), a YA novel involving time travel. 

Books about death and dying are never easy reads. Those that are well done, however, touch a nerve and stay with us long after the last page is turned. John Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud, about the death of his 17 year-old son from a brain tumor, and John Green’s YA novel, The Fault in Our Stars, continue to resonate because we are drawn into the lives of the characters, whether real or fictional. While Carla deftly handles the medical information in AfterImage – some through memory and the rest through the many notes she kept – we get to know Laurence and the relationship he had, not only with Carla and Cami, but with everyone who crossed his path. These insights are dropped into the story as italicized snapshots.

“I didn’t want him just to be someone who was dying and then dead, but wanted to capture who he was as a vibrant presence in the book,” she says. “I didn’t want to focus on big momentous occasions, like our wedding day. I really wanted daily life’s little moments that I believe really reveal who a person is.”

One of those moments, told in a snapshot, happened at Disney World. Besides screenwriting, Laurence created two cable television series for the Disney Channel, Magic Shop and Joke Time. In each, the children either did a magic trick or told a joke. At the Orlando shoot, which lasted several days, he was helpful and patient with each child, encouraging them, feeding them jokes when they didn’t have one. Often, with the light fading, Laurence was ready to stop filming, but with so many children still in line, he kept going. “Laurence stayed into the night, night after night, encouraging each child as he or she stepped up to the microphone….He waited to wrap until the very last child had given it a shot.”

What comes across in AfterImage is Laurence’s love for all children, but particularly for Cami. And she shared a special connection to her father, transferring to a college closer to home after he was diagnosed. When he was near death, she insisted that he die at home and not in the hospital. “I’m so grateful that I listened to her,” says Carla, adding that Cami “is smarter about a lot of things.” While the move from the hospital made the day more frantic, it was the right thing to do. “The minute we got home,” Carla says, “I was so grateful and have been since that’s the way that played out.”

Cami may have been robbed of more time with her dad, but the time she did have is filled with memories, something that hit home with Carla during a celebration party they had after Laurence’s death. A woman approached Carla in tears, saying that her daughter was not close to her father. “It made me realize that Cami would carry that with her forever, and this woman’s daughter would have her father forever but not the closeness,” says Carla. “So there’s always bizarre and possible tradeoffs.”

Cami is married with an 18-month old son and, depending on L.A. traffic, 10 minutes away. “She is a film editor, Emmy-winning, I have to add, because I’m a proud mom,” Carla says.

Carla’s idea for Search Heart-Ache came about after she was newly widowed and saw many of her friends and acquaintances getting divorced or separated. “From where I was at that moment, it really angered me,” she says. “I had no choice. You people have a choice! Try a little harder! Sometimes people cavalierly toss aside a marriage or take one little chink that has occurred and pull the thread and pull the thread until they have no choice but to dispose of the marriage.”

In the novel, Maura Fielder and her husband, Adam, have been married for 20 years and have a teenage daughter, Stephanie. One evening awakened from a nightmare, Maura wanders downstairs and finds her husband in his office watching a video of his much younger self having sex with a French woman named Aimee. Maura takes her surveillance another step and, logging onto Adam’s computer, finds emails between Adam and Aimee. What she takes away from the exchange is that Adam is disappointed in his marriage and still lusts after Aimee. After allowing herself a long cry, Maura packs Adam’s clothes into a suitcase. When he comes home, she confronts him, unable, or unwilling, to accept his explanation that what happened was a “stupid, childish fantasy.” No long discussion, no couple’s counseling. Full stop. The marriage is over.

“I wanted it very much to be about how often we treat the people close to us the worst,” says Carla. “You wouldn’t behave that way with a stranger and certainly not with a friend, with a girlfriend. Oftentimes you expect or, assume is a better word, a certain level of understanding and communication that really isn’t there.”

Maura had attended a demanding girls school and internalized that pursuit of perfection. “She demanded so much of herself that she started demanding that of her husband and the people around her,” Carla says. “I felt sorry for her. I hate that, it’s crippling. But I get that.”

While Shine Until Tomorrow is categorized as a YA novel, the book has crossed over to the adult market. It’s easy to see why. Set in Haight Asbury in 1967, the themes and atmosphere Carla creates in the novel certainly resonate with Baby Boomers who lived through that season of love, if not in San Francisco, then on their own college campuses or in their cities and towns.

Carla spent time in San Francisco in the mid 1970s, while her father was filming the TV series, The Streets of San Francisco, which co-starred a young Michael Douglas. “I really fell in love with San Francisco and try, and usually succeed, in going every year at least for several days for fun,” she says. “When I started working on the book, I made a special trip to the Haight area and saw how it had evolved. Then I did research like crazy, every picture book of the summer of love and the year 1967 and San Francisco at that time and just sort of steeped myself.”

The teenager in the novel, Mari Caldwell, is a social misfit who only feels comfortable behind the lens of her vintage Leica camera. She has her sights set on attending Yale and is thrown for a loop when, amidst all the A’s on her last senior report card, she gets an “incomplete” in photography. After a fight with her mother, she rides her bike into a storm, and crashes into a tree. For shelter she climbs into a van covered with psychedelic images from the 60s. When she wakes up, she accepts a ride into San Francisco from the van’s owners, a hippie couple. But the city she views is not the one she’s familiar with. After leaving the van, she walks into an anti-war protest and realizes she’s now in 1967. 

“I’ve always had a fondness for the 60s, but the 60s, were a coin that had flip sides,” Carla says. “There was the civil rights issues, the war in Vietnam, marching in the streets, but there was also the music and generosity of spirt and the communal feel that I don’t think we have now. We’re able to idealize them as a time which I don’t see happening now.” 

Mari is transformed by her time travel experience. “My line from the book is that it’s about a girl who is obsessed with her future who has to travel to the past to learn to live in the present,” says Carla. “My hope is that [readers] would take away the idea that it doesn’t serve you to obsess about the future, that all we really have is this moment, here and now.”

A poignant moment in the novel occurs when Mari realizes that an older man who comes to her rescue is her grandfather, Victor, who died before she was born. “I throw my arms around his neck and cling to him. A moment so charged that it scoops out its own tiny point in time.” Mari gives him her Leica, the camera becoming even more precious to her, knowing it was once used by her grandfather, also a photographer. 

I tell Carla that scene made me long to meet my maternal grandfather, long deceased when I was born, and also to be able to have conversations I never had with other relatives. “I’m happy to hear that,” she says. “I think that as children and grandchildren, we tend not to explore the lives of those people. I was fortunate enough to write my father’s autobiography with him, which was one of the great joys of my life, so I got to have that experience. But yet, I find that I didn’t learn enough. I lost my mother a couple of years ago. I’ll have a question or my husband will say to me, `did your mother’s family do such and such?’ And I don’t know. I’ll never know now. So I think it’s an important lesson we obviously never learn fully, but I’d like to put out there.” 

Although Karl Malden died 12 years ago, new generations continue to discover this immensely talented actor through his iconic film roles in A Streetcar Named Desire, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, On the Waterfront, and Patton, and his many roles on TV. Carla never tires talking about her father.

“People often came up to me, and still do, and say that your father reminded me of my father,” says Carla. “I think there was something authoritative and sturdy and paternal about him that people gleaned even when he was being a villain.”

Malden’s last acting role was in 2000 in the first-season episode of The West Wing titled “Take This Sabbath Day.” He portrayed a Catholic priest who comes to the White House to counsel his former parishioner, President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), as he struggles with a decision regarding the death penalty.  For the scene, Malden brought along the Bible he had used when he played the priest in On the Waterfront. In AfterImage, Carla writes that Laurence, who had accompanied his father-in-law to the set, watched as actors “flocked to lay eyes on the thing. It radiated beyond the waterfront priest to a golden age of movies: it radiated Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan. Could they touch it please?”

Despite Malden’s being a star, Carla and her sister, Mila, had a very normal upbringing. “We lived in a canyon that was dotted with very close family friends, most of whom happened to be in the movie business,” she says. “Eva Marie Saint was down the street, Richard Widmark, these people were dear, dear family friends. They all had completely normal family lives. We would have Christmas Eve at one of their houses and the kids would all be running around. Widmark and my dad would take us out caroling. It was really normal.”

With social media, the celebrity culture is different today, something that Carla thinks her father would find horrifying. “I don’t think it would speak to him at all,” she says. “He had no interest in computers. That was not for him. He wouldn’t have been a Kindle reader he liked to hold a book in his hand. I can’t picture him with any of this or having any interest or patience for it.” 

For more information on Carla Malden and to purchase her books, go to her website.

Top photo of Carla by Rod Maxwell.

About Charlene Giannetti (518 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.