Sunday, March 3, 2013

George Malich: a life worth his living

George Malich with the love of his life, Jennifer Salci.

We asked Jennifer Salci to prepare a biography of the late St. Louis actor George Malich in advance of the George Malich Free Film Festival that opens Wednesday at Mad Art and screens every Wednesday in March.

George Malich was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Serbian emigrants on August 7, 1956. He was the youngest of three children. Although he was a first-generation American, Serbian culture played a major role in shaping George’s life. Serbo-Croation was his first language, as he did not learn English until kindergarten. His given name at birth was “Djuro Malich.” “Djuro” directly translates to “George” in English. Serbs do not have middle names. By the time he was 18 he was tired of people mispronouncing his name, so he changed it to the American spelling of “George” and used “Djuro” as his middle name.

Growing up, George had an inclination for the arts. He started playing the guitar around age seven by ear; he never had lessons. As an adult he would play acoustic and electric guitar, the accordion, didgeridoo and bass. He named his favorite electric guitar “Stella.” During the 1990s he was in a band called the Pedestrians, and on occasion would even sing. George also had a lifelong love of dance and a strong attraction to theater. However, in high school football, choir and girls left him with no time for the drama club.

George decided to see what the world had to offer and left Milwaukee by the time he was 20. After a brief stay in Kentucky and mid-Illinois, he settled in St. Louis. Not long after arriving in St. Louis, he got married and started working for Laclede Gas Company. At one point he was offered a job as a DJ at a St. Louis radio station due to his outgoing and lively personality. However, not being a risk-taker he declined because the pay was too low and he had a wife to support. George would end up working for Laclede Gas for nearly 30 years, although he and first wife Judy would separate after 10 years of marriage.

While in his mid-20s, his biggest passion was water skiing. George owned a boat and would ski every weekend. Not only would he announce water ski competitions, but he would announce them dressed as Mark Twain. George loved dressing up, and playing Mark Twain afforded him the opportunity to shine in the limelight he craved his whole life. At this time in his life, he counseled teenagers at Alateen. George's father was an alcoholic and George particularly struggled with his father's alcoholism as a teen. George would later receive letters from the teens he counseled thanking him for his support, guidance and understanding. Known for his wisdom, George would also become the touchstone for his many friends when they needed a sympathetic ear.

Many friends George had indeed. This was evident by the enormous turn out for his 55th birthday party and Venice Cafe Memorial. His 55th birthday was sadly his last, but was definitely his most memorable. George never had a birthday party with balloons or a fancy cake. Plus the day was made extra special by the presence of his family from Milwaukee. There are no words to express the happiness he felt being surrounded by so many people who loved him.

George had twice as many acquaintances as friends – and that was an awful lot! Being a bachelor for 20 years, George ate out all the time and was a regular at many places in town. Everyone who knew him knew he had a love for food, the best scotch and great wine. Everybody knew his name, from the bar tender to the entire waitstaff to the manager to the owner. George was the most likable guy around. Chris' Pancake House, O'Connell’s Pub and Pi Pizza were his favorite restaurants. For years he would have chicken dinner at The Lemp Mansion on Sundays. The Royale was his favorite place to meet up with friends for drinks, and he never missed a major event at Mad Art Gallery. From time to time he would drop by Venice Cafe, a place he frequented in his younger years.

George wasn't much of a cook, but once a year, usually for Memorial Day or Labor Day, he would make his famous Serbian sausage (which he was very proud of). He would also be sure to wear his holiday polo shirt – a shirt covered with miniature flags, bar-b-que grills and stars! George was famous for his bowling shirts, although he felt Charlie Sheen's character stole his image. To say George's summer wardrobe was unique is an understatement.

Actually, George was attracted to all things unique and out of the norm. He had a large collection of art work from many different cultures: Asian, African, Mexican and Egyptian, to name a few. He even had an African statue made from a dead monkey and was quite proud of it. People regarded George as highly intelligent. He was knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects. When he was in his early 20s he decided he didn't receive a very good grade-school education so he decided to educate himself. George was well rounded and his varied interests included history and politics too. His political beliefs originated because his parents were persecuted refugees forced to flee their homeland. He was passionate about social justice and equality and turned out to support many events and rallies sponsored by the Democratic Party through the years.  

Finally, around the age of 48 or 49, George fulfilled his lifelong dream of acting on screen when he played a sleazy Serbian club owner in The Bunglers. Next would come George's breakout role as Gavin Tarkowski in the film A: Anonymous. George would go on to play Gavin Tarkowski off-screen as well. He played him at events, when he accepted his 2008 Kick Ass Award and even gave a eulogy as Gavin. At one point there was even a drink on the menu of The Royale called The Gavin Tarkowski.

George Malich, enjoying an afterlife as Gavin Tartowski
after his breakout role in A: Anonymous.

While the popularity of the drink didn't survive, George's popularity soared. Between 2005-2011, George starred in four independent films including The Bunglers, A: Anonymous, Speak Easy and Go South for Animal Index. During this time George also participated in some of the 24 Hour and 48 Hour film projects, did some commercials and a couple corporate training videos. He also did four episodes of the web series Blackbookberry.

Via mutual friend Ray Brewer, George would meet second city alumni and improviser Bill Chott. Bill Chott would become George's mentor and inspiration. George excelled at improv and taught classes at Bill Chott's Improvtrick for 3 years. George became a serious student of improv. In 2009 he traveled out of state to take a weekend workshop by the internationally recognized British improviser Keith Johnstone. This class was a major highlight in his life and he talked about his Keith Johnstone experience often. George would perform and later host weekly improv shows at Lemmons, Atomic Cowboy, The Stable and Mangia Italiano. Working at the gas company was what he did but being an improviser and actor was who he was. He had finally realized his true identity. That being said, George hardly missed a day of work and was extremely proud of his years of service at Laclede Gas.

George had also joined PlayBack theater and won critical acclaim for his performance as a Palestinian in the play Beautiful Resistance. Being a true character actor, George grew a beard and dyed it black to look the part of a Palestinian. The more films George did the more costumes he would collect! He would pick things up because "he never knew when he would need it". George was meticulous with his costumes. They were always cleaned and pressed. George believed in being prepared. He always knew his lines, as he had a fantastic ability to memorize a large amount of material in a short period of time. He would also speed-read on a regular basis to keep his mind sharp.

Actually, a decline in speed reading was his first symptom of brain cancer. George was having trouble recognizing words as well as numbers, and it prompted a visit to his internist who sent him for an MRI. George was shocked when the MRI showed a tumor. He was sent to a neurosurgeon right away and was told his tumor was most likely malignant. Within days he called his friends and asked them to help make his Life is Meant for Living video series. The purpose of Life is Meant for Living was to document the emotions George was feeling with a sense of humor.

Shortly after brain surgery, George received the devastating news his tumor was the most aggressive form of brain cancer, a glioblastoma, and average survival was 12 months. George once again called his friends and said life is meant for living, so let's make more episodes! Of course, his loyal friends rallied around him and shooting commenced. The Life is Meant for Living videos were shown on the Barnes-Jewish Hospital’s website and people were able to blog about them. George liked to think sharing his story helped other people fighting cancer.

From the very beginning, George handled his cancer with courage and optimism. He was determined to improvise and act again. After his first brain surgery, his reading level was of a third grader but within a few weeks he taught himself to read and brought his level up to a high-school level. Being human, he would have down moments, but never accepted he was going to die. The thought of dying terrified him because he did not want to be separated from his friends and family and most especially the love of his life, his fiancee, Jennifer Salci. George would question why he had to get cancer now ... when he finally found the right partner.

George Malich and Jennifer Salci.

 It was George's pursuit of acting that led him to Jennifer. George and Jennifer met in December 2006 on the set of an Anheuser-Busch spec commercial Bill Chott and Ray Brewer wrote, directed and produced. At the time George was dating someone, so it wouldn't be until August of 2009 that George would take Jennifer to The Royale for their first date. They quickly became inseparable. George asked Jennifer to marry him in March of 2011. Sadly, George was diagnosed with brain cancer in July of 2011 and they would never make it to the aisle.

George died on July 26, 2012, surviving 12 months, as his doctor predicted. The Life is Meant for Living series would be George's final appearance on camera, even though he was convinced there would be a "next one". George touched people in ways he never knew. He never imagined his life and subsequent death would have such a profound effect on those who came in contact with him. George will never be forgotten. He will live on in our hearts, minds and in the way we choose to live our lives.

George Malich in his last role in a feature movie
as the military chaplain in Go South for Animal Index.

1 comment:

Patty Mooney said...

A very touching story. We just met Jennifer Salci at the NAB in Vegas and were so saddened to learn about the passing of her fiancee, George. There are no words for this type of loss, only the bittersweet reminder that life is short, so enjoy it while you can - which is exactly what George wanted to teach people.