Thursday, August 08, 2013


Karen Black (1939-2013)

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Karen Black occupied a singular place in movies, hovering in that rarefied atmosphere that placed her somewhere between character actress and star. It landed her roles in many of the decade's classics as well as some of its silliness (such as Airport 1975) As the '80s came along, more of her work came on television and in low-budget horror films, but her early work kept her a recognizable name. Black died today at 74 after a battle with ampullary cancer diagnosed in 2010.

Born Karen Ziegler in Park Ridge, Ill., the actress attended Northwestern University before heading east and attending The Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg. She appeared in several off-Broadway plays and as an understudy in the 1961 comedy Take Her, She's Mine starring Art Carney before making her starring debut in 1965's The Playroom whose cast also included Bonnie Bedelia and Richard Thomas. Her second feature film made a mark for many people when she joined the cast of Francis Ford Coppola's 1966 comedy You're a Big Boy Now starring Elizabeth Hartman, Geraldine Page, Rip Torn and Tony Bill, among others. She made lots of episodic television appearances until she gained noticed in the small role of a hooker named Karen who drops acid in a cemetery with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in 1969's Easy Rider. Her counterculture journey continued the following year when she played the role of Rayette, the country-music loving waitress who becomes crazy in love with the alienated Robert Dupea (Jack Nicholson) in Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces. The part earned Black her sole Oscar nomination as supporting actress.

Black teamed with Nicholson again the following year, only Nicholson sat in the director's chair as she starred opposite Bruce Dern in Drive, He Said. She soon followed that by assuming the part of the Claire Bloom surrogate Mary Jo Reid or The Monkey opposite Richard Benjamin in Ernest Lehman's adaptation of Philip Roth's comic novel Portnoy's Complaint. In 1974, she joined Zero Mostel when he brought his Tony-winning role from Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros to the big screen co-starring Gene Wilder. That same year she assumed the role of Tom Buchanan's mistress, Myrtle Wilson, in Jack Clayton's version of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and the film won Black a Golden Globe for best supporting actress — and she did it in two dimensions! Finally, she completed 1974 by playing the scrappy stewardess trying to fly a crippled jumbo jet whose flight crew got taken out when a small plane crashed into its side in the funniest of the Airport movies, Airport 1975 (which I'll always love for having Gloria Swanson playing herself dictating her memoirs into a tape recorder as the plane is going down).

Black found herself busy again in 1975, beginning with the cult classic horror film Trilogy of Terror where she starred in three shorts all based on stories by the recent passed Richard Matheson. She also co-starred in John Schlesinger's film of the Nathanael West classic novella Day of the Locust. Her epic piece for that year though involved her first collaboration with Robert Altman in his masterpiece Nashville. Black played country superstar Connie White, filling the bill for another ailing star Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakeley), during events surrounding the political campaign of Replacement Party candidate Hal Philip Walker. In 1976, Black worked again with Nashville co-star Barbara Harris and frequent co-star Bruce Dern as well as William Devane to appear in what would be the final film of the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock's darkly funny tale of crooks, con men and kidnapping, Family Plot. In 1982, she returned to Broadway under Altman's direction as part of the ensemble of Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Altman's impossible-to-see film version featuring Black came out later that same year. Aside from some notable television appearances, most of her post-1982 career has been in horror and science fiction, but Karen Black delivered so much great work when her career was hot, she won't soon be forgotten. RIP Ms. Black.

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