Monday, August 12, 2013

Remembering Karen Black

Of all the obituaries about the passing of Karen Black the best one summed up her talents this way: "strange and lovely".
Well, I actually met the lady, sat beside her at a Hollywood party for more than an hour and she was all that and more.
It was in June 1982 as part of the TV Critics junket in Los Angeles, very late at night and the Presidential Suite at the Century Plaza hotel was packed with the usual hordes of hungry critics and hangers on.
I remember I'd just been speaking to Donna Mills so the party must have been a CBS affair.
I needed some air so I took a seat on a settee near an open window and looked at the glowing lady sitting ever so serenely next to me.
Yes, she was Karen Black, who didn't look like she wanted to talk.
But I did. I told her I'd been in New york months before and was on the set of the daytime soaper Another World where I'd interviewed her younger sister. Named Gail Brown and Black immediately perked up.
As it turned out Another World was the only acting credit for Gail Brown who left the show at year's end and never again acted.
But playing the vulnerable Clarice on the show for several years had been enough for her. I often wondered in subsequent years what had happened to her.
"TV eats an actor up," Black said ."I should know. I've had to do a lot of it. Especially in the beginning."
I subsequently checked her TV credits which included stints on the F.B.I. (1967), Run For Your Life (1967), Even The Big Valley (1967). Imagine Black and Barbara Stanwyck sharing the TV screen!
She was also in one of prime time TV's strangest series 1967's The Second Hundred Years all about a prospector frozen in suspended animation in 1900 and returned to his family that includes his 67-year old son. The stars were Monte Markham and Arthur O'Connell.
"Yes, I do remember it," she said, her smiler fading fast.
Two years later she had her first smash movie role in Easy Rider brilliantly cast as "Karen".
In 1970 came the Oscar nomination for Five Easy Pieces cast memorably as Rayette. Then there was Drive, He Said (1971), A Gunfight (1971), Cisco Pike (1972), Portnoy's Complaint (1972), The Great Gatsby (1974) as Myrtle and The Day Of The Locust  and Nashville (both 1975).
"I can't complain," she said her smile returning.
We talked about Nicholson, we talked about Gatsby a film she found difficult to make. But she won her second Golden Globe for it.
She even made a mainstream hit with Airport 1975. "Chuck Heston is a nice man," she said.
When we spoke she'd just received raves for Altman's Come Back To the Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean cast as a troubled transsexual..
The surprise is how many dozens of films she made  in the next 30 years all of which I've never seen. She was working on a film with River Phoenix called Dark Blood when he died in 1993.
She was born Karen Ziegler in 1939 in Park Ridge, Illinois. "People think it's funny, two sisters one named Black the other Brown. We think it's funny, too."
Then she got up and vanished into the crowd. "Thanks for listening to me," she said as she went off with her husband LM Kit Carson.
She worked continuously until 2009 when she began battling cancer.
She is survived by her fourth husband Stephen Eckelberry.
I'm glad I met her even if it was for such a short time. I never saw her again. But when I recently revisted 1974's The Great Gatsby I thought how well she did as Myrtle.

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