Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Late Great James Karen

Character actor James Karen was not exactly a household name, but anyone who had ever watched a few American TV shows or movies would immediately recognise his face. He was one of the most prolific and talented character actors of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, with a career that spanned seventy years and included stints in film, television, and on Broadway. For the classic film community he was something even more than a great character actor. Mr. Karen had been a close personal friend of the great Buster Keaton and had a wealth of memories about the legendary actor and director. Despite his talent, his many credits, and his friendship with Mr. Keaton, James Karen was wholly unassuming. If one did not already know it, he or she might not realise that James Karen was a famous character actor. He was a kind and generous man who called many in the classic film community friends. For his thoughtfulness and his kindness he was among most the most beloved figures in the classic film community. Sadly, James Karen died on October 23 at the age of 94.

James Karen was born Jacob Karnofsky on November 28 1923 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He was the son of Russian born Jewish immigrants. His father never learned to read, so the elder Mr. Karnofsky took young Jacob to silent movies to read the titles for him. As a youth, he was walking home from Union Street School, past the Little Theatre, when he was stopped by Congressman Daniel J. Flood, who was an amateur actor, who asked if he was a Boy Scout. Young Jacob said that he was and Congressman Flood gave him a part in a comedy playing at the theatre. He enjoyed the experience so much that he stayed with the theatre for quite some time and decided to pursue acting as a career.

In 1940 he left home for New York City to pursue a career in acting. It was at that point that he adopted the stage name "James Karen". He studied under acting teacher Sanford Meisner and appeared at the Neighbourhood Theatre there. Upon the United States' entry into World War II in 1941 he enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces. For part of the war he served as a cryptographer in Alaska. Following the war he returned to New York to return to acting. He was at the Actors Studio for a time and was Karl Malden's understudy in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. He made his debut on the Broadway stage in 1948 in Six O'Clock Theatre. From 1950 to 1951 he appeared on Broadway in An Enemy of the People. He made his television debut in an episode of The Philco Television Playhouse.

In the Fifties James Karen appeared on Broadway in An Enemy of the People and Third Best Sport. He guest starred on Lux Video Theatre. It was in 1956 that James Karen met Buster Keaton. He worked with Mr. Keaton in touring productions of the comedy Merton of the Movies.

In the Sixties he made his film debut in Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster (1965). He appeared in the films Hercules in New York (1970) and I Never Sang for My Father (1970). He guest starred on the shows Car 54, Where Are You?; The Defenders; and Directions. He had stints on the soap operas As the World Turns and All My Children.  He appeared on Broadway in A Cook for Mr. General, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Tiny Alice, Cactus Flower, The Birthday Party, The Only Game in Town, and The Engagement Baby. In 1965 he appeared alongside his friend Buster Keaton in the short simply titled "Film".

In the Seventies he appeared in the TV mini-series Blind Ambition. He had a recurring role on the show Eight is Enough. He guest starred on the shows The Invisible Man, Starsky and Hutch, The Waltons, The Streets of San Francisco, The Bionic Woman, Hawaii Five-O, McMillan & Wife, Police Woman, Executive Suite, Serpico, Delvecchio, The Blue Knight, The Kallikaks, Rafferty, Family, Lucan, Lou Grant, One Day at a Time, and The Rockford Files. He appeared in the movies Rivals (1972), Amazing Grace (1974), All the President's Men (1976), Capricorn One (1977), Opening Night (1977), F.I.S.T. (1978), The China Syndrome (1979), and The Jazz Singer (1990). On Broadway he appeared in The Country Girl and A Moon for the Misbegotten. He was a standby for the role of George in a revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

In the Eighties Mr. Karen had a regular role on the TV show The Powers of Matthew Star. He guest starred on such shows as The Jeffersons, Knots Landing, Dallas, M*A*S*H, Quincy M.E., Simon & Simon, Trapper John M.D., Hardcastle and McCormick, Family Ties, The Paper Chase, Dynasty, Cheers, Moonlighting, 227, Melba, Amazing Stories, Magnum P.I., Sledge Hammer!, The Golden Girls, MacGyver, Murphy Brown, Highway to Heaven, and Charles in Charge. He appeared in such films as Take This Job and Shove It (1981), Poltergeist (1982), Time Walker (1982), Frances (1982), Sam's Son (1984), The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Jagged Edge (1985), Invaders from Mars (1986), Wall Street (1987), Return of the Living Dead: Part II (1988), and The Closer (1990). He appeared in the short "The Roommate".

In the Nineties James Karen had a recurring role on The Larry Sanders Show and a regular role on Ned and Stacey. He guest starred on such TV shows as Matlock, L. A. Law, Designing Women, Coach, Melrose Place, Hearts Afire, The Commish, Touched by an Angel, Dark Skies, Seinfeld, and The Practice. He appeared in such films as The Unborn (1991), Stone Soup (1993), Congo (1995), Piranha (1995), Nixon (1995), Behind Enemy Lines (1997), Joyride (1997), Girl (1998), Fly Boy (1999), and Thirteen Days (2000). He appeared in the short Tick, Tick, Tick (2000).

In the Naughts Mr. Karen had a regular role on the TV show First Monday. He guest starred on the shows The Nightmare Room, JAG, Judging Amy, Unscripted, and Cold Case. He appeared in such films as Mulholland Dr. (2001), Outlaw Trail: The Treasure of Butch Cassidy (2006), The Pursuit of Happyness (2007), Trail of the Screaming Forehead (2007), Dark and Stormy Night (2009), Jack and the Beanstalk (2009), and Sympathy for Delicious (2010). He appeared in the shorts "Jane Bond", "Flickering Blue", "Office Court", and "Heart Medicine".

In the Teens James Karen appeared in the films The Butterfly Room (2012), Dark Canyon (2012), America's Most Haunted (2013), Rain from Stars (2013), Bender (2016), Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk (2017), and Cynthia (2018). He appeared in the shorts "Pride" (2011) and "Humanity" (2016).  He was a guest voice on the animated TV series The Cleveland Show and American Dad!.

In the Northereastern United States, Mr. Karen appeared in commercials for Pathmark supermarkets for nearly three decades. He was known by many in New England as "the Pathmark Man” or “Mr. Pathmark".

James Karen was certainly a prolific actor. He appeared in a large number of TV shows and movies over the years, as well as making several appearances on Broadway. He was also certainly versatile. He was best known for playing authority figures, both good and evil, but he could play other roles as well. Indeed, among his best known movie roles was that of smarmy real estate agent Mr. Teague in Poltergeist  and doomed medical warehouse manager Frank in Return of the Living Dead. Over the years he played doctors on shows ranging from Family to Quincy M.E. His roles over the years ranged from judges to lawyers to politicians to clergy. Quite simply, James Karen could play anything.

I never had the honour of meeting James Karen, but for me he was most definitely a friend of friends. He regularly attended both the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival in Hollywood and the Buster Keaton Celebration in  Iola, Kansas. Many of my fellow film buffs knew him and counted him as a dear friend. In many ways, James Karen seemed less to me like a famous character actor than a beloved uncle of many of my friends whom I had never met. He was friendly, cheerful, warm-hearted, and kind. He had a great sense of humour and was always eager to share his memories of the great Buster Keaton. If James Karen ever met a fellow classic film fan he didn't like, I never heard of it. James Karen was more than a great character actor to members of the classic film community. He was a beloved friend, a wealth of memories, and a true gentleman.

No comments: