James Karen, prolific character actor who appeared in such films as Poltergeist, dies at 94
James Karen, who had over 200 screen roles to his credit, died Tuesday at his home. He was 94.
Karen’s wife Alba Francesca confirmed the news to EW. Friend and film critic Leonard Maltin also noted Karen’s death, paying tribute to the late actor with an obituary on his website which described Karen as a warm, generous, lively hard worker.
Karen, perhaps best known as real estate developer Mr. Teague in 1982’s Poltergeist, was a prolific character actor appearing in a wide range of films, including Mulholland Drive, Wall Street, and The China Syndrome, as well as thousands of commercials and numerous television roles.
The actor’s deep voice and tall profile led him to often portray imposing authority figures in a vast range of films, including Jane Fonda’s news station boss in The China Syndrome, Secretary of State William Rogers in Nixon, and as a manager of a warehouse who inadvertently re-animates the dead in The Return of the Living Dead, a low-budget horror comedy.
Karen made his professional debut in the original Broadway production of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, in which he understudied Karl Malden’s Mitch. He continued to do stage-work throughout his career, appearing in the original Broadway productions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Cactus Flower.
Many television audiences recognized Karen as the TV and radio spokesperson for Pathmark, an East Coast supermarket chain. His television work was extensive, including originating the role of wealthy lawyer Lincoln Tyler on ABC’s All My Children in 1970. He also made regular appearances on Dallas, The Powers of Matthew Star, The Larry Sanders Show, Ned and Stacey, First Monday, and Eight Is Enough. He also had a memorable role on the Little House on the Prairie finale as the man behind Walnut Grove’s explosive end.
James Karen was born Jacob Karnofsky on Nov. 28, 1923, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Karen got his start acting at a small comedy theater after being spotted on the street by U.S. Representative Dan Flood. After serving in the Air Force in World War II, he moved to New York and studied under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse.
Other notable film roles include a scientist whose girlfriend falls in love with his robot creation in 1965 B-movie Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965); Hugh Sloan’s (Steven Collins) lawyer in All the President’s Men; Naomi Watt’s casting director in Mulholland Drive ; and Martin Frohm, the man who gives Will Smith a shot at employment in The Pursuit of Happyness.
Karen’s career spanned so many years of Hollywood history that he worked with an incredible slate of prominent directors from Elia Kazan and Steven Spielberg to John Cassavetes and David Lynch. He remained active in the Hollywood community throughout his life, regularly attending the Turner Classic Movies film festivals in Hollywood each spring.
At the AFI Life Achievement gala celebration of George Clooney this past June, Clooney shared a story about Karen, an actor he called a close friend. “Wonderful character actor, he’s been in everything, hundreds of films and television shows,” Clooney said in his speech while accepting the honor. He then recounted a story in which Karen’s wife called Clooney a few years ago telling the actor that Karen wasn’t doing well and had requested Clooney write his obituary as his “last wish.” Clooney quickly said yes and spent the whole night “writing about who I thought Jimmy was, his character, what he meant to us.”
When days passed and no bad news came, Clooney called Karen’s wife to find out what happened. She explained her husband was fine, but he just “wanted to know what everybody thought of him while he was still around.” Maltin described a similar story and included the original words Clooney wrote several years back in his tribute to Karen, writing in a tweet, “Jimmy Karen was my friend, and it was a privilege to hear his stories. His joie de vivre was contagious. I hope this obituary does him justice, though I hoped I would never have to write it. I still can’t believe he’s gone.”
Karen is survived by Alba, his wife of 32 years; his son by his first wife Susan Reed; and two grandchildren.