James Karen, the incredibly prolific character actor whose career spanned seven decades, has died at his home in Los Angeles yesterday. He was 94.
Over the course of his career, Karen appeared in over 200 film and television projects, oftentimes authority figures of varying temperaments. For a certain generation, he will always be Craig T Nelson’s boss in Poltergeist (1982), whose cost-cutting move to only transplant the cemetery gravestones but leave the actual bodies a new housing development leads to an attack of otherworldly spirits. In 1979’s The China Syndrome he was the fatherly mentor figure to Jane Fonda’s reporter character. For the finale of the classic series Little House On The Prairie, he is the reason that the town of Walnut Grove meets its explosive end.
The son of Ruissian-Jewish immigrants, Karen was born Jacob Karnofsky in Wilkes-Barre, PA on November 28, 1923. His first exposure to the movies was when he would accompany his father, an illiterate coal miner to the cinema to read the title cards on silent films.
Karen got his start acting as a teenager while walking home from school one day. Passing by the Little Thater in Wilkes-Barre, an actor – future US Congressman Dan Flood – leaned out of a window and called out to Karen, asking if he was a Boy Scout. Karen replied in the affirmative and Flood instructed him to run home, grab his uniform and get back to the theater, where he was promptly given a small role in a comedy. It was the first of many plays he would perform at the venue.
Following a stint in the Air Force during World War two, Karen migrated to New York City where he appeared in a number of stage productions, including understudying Karl Malden in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Karen made his first film appearance in 1965 in the short film Film, opposite Buster Keaton. Other early roles include Frankenstein Meets The Space Monster (1965), Hercules In New York (1970) and I Never Sang For My Father (1970).
Over the years Karen has appeared in such films as All The President’s Men (1976), Capricorn One (1977), director John Cassavete’s Opening Night (1977), The Jazz Singer (1980), Invaders From Mars (1986), Apt Pupil (1999), Thirteen Days (2000), Mulholland Drive (2001) and The Pursuit Of Happyness (2006). Additionally, he appeared in three films for director Oliver Stone – Wall Street (1987), Nixon (1995) and Any Given Sunday (1999). On television he had recurring roles on such series as As The World Turns, Dallas, The Larry Sanders Show, First Monday and Eight Is Enough as well as numerous guest appearances on series such as Seinfeld, Murphy Brown, The Waltons and more.
I had the good fortune to meet Karen once, at an event commemorating an anniversary at the Little Theater, where he first started his career. The Theater had flown him in from California to do an At The Actor’s Studio –style appearance. He sat on stage and talked about his career for about an hour before taking questions from the audience. I raised my hand and asked him if he had any stories that he could share about his Hercules In New York co-star “Arnold Strong.” He chuckled and then explained to the audience that “Arnold Strong” was the name that producers changed on a twenty-two year old Austrian actor named Schwarzenegger, citing their belief that the public would never be able to pronounce or remember his real name. He then went on to tell how the young Schwarzenegger was very shy and nervous around some of the young women who were hanging around the set and ultimately asked Karen if he could introduce him to some of them. What was ironic about the story was that this was while Schwarzenegger was governor of California and having a number of allegations of sexual misconduct leveled at him.