Celebrating Seniors - James Karen is 93, Part 1
All the President’s Men to Wall Street (1923-1987)
Veteran American character actor (with over 200 film credits) James Karen was born Jacob Karnofsky on November 28, 1923 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
In an interview for Pitch Weekly, James Karen said that his Sicilian immigrant father would take him to the (silent) movies so he could read the titles for him. Karen has said that he became a fan of silent movie comedic actor Buster Keaton and even began imitating Keaton’s “stone face” as a child.
James Karen told The Citizen’s Voice that he was walking home from Union Street School in Wilkes-Barre, when part-time actor and U.S. Congressman Dan Flood stopped him on the street. Flood told him to go home and ask his parents if he could be in a play with the Wilkes-Barre Little Theatre. They agreed and James Karen worked on sets and performed with the Wilkes-Barre Little Theatre for several years while he attended Coughlin High School. In 1939 letter, Dan Flood invited 16-year-old James Karen to join Wilkes-Barre Little Theatre officially.
Karen left Wilkes-Barre in 1940 and joined the U.S. Air Force during World War II. When WWII ended, James Karen landed in New York City and began pursuing a career acting on Broadway. He has said he studied acting under Sanford Meisner at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse where he told Cryptic Rock he became friends with director Charles Dubin (M*A*S*H), and was a classmate of Marilyn Monroe’s at the Actors Studio. During this time he became lifetime friends with another struggling actor and budding screenwriter and producer called Robert Ludlum (Robert Ludlum published his first novel The Scarlatti Inheritance in 1971).
His first Broadway stage break came in 1947, when 24-year-old James Karen understudied Karl Malden in the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Marlon Brando. Almost 30 years later, James Karen guest-starred on Karl Malden’s hit TV series The Streets of San Francisco in 1976, co-starring in an episode with Michael Douglas, Bill Bixby, and Christopher Stone.
Throughout the remainder of the 1940’s, 1950’s, and early 1960’s, James Karen continued to work steadily in theatre, accumulating numerous Broadway credits. In 1956, James Karen finally met his childhood idol Buster Keaton in New York. He became close lifetime friends with Buster and his wife Eleanor Keaton, and they toured together in a production of Merton of the Movies.
James Karen broke into television in 1948, appearing in an episode of The Philco Goodyear Television Playhouse. Karen worked with fellow New York-based theater and film actress Charlotte Rae when he appeared on an episode of the series Car 54, Where Are You? in 1962.
The Billboard announced the marriage of James Karen to blacklisted actress (Glamour Girl, 1948) and 40s folk singer Susan Reed, had taken place on May 22, 1950 in New York. Susan Reed and James Karen worked together in regional theatre, and had son Reed Karen, who has since made James Karen a grandfather.
In addition to working in theatre and the occasional television episode, during the 1960’s James Karen began appearing in commercials as a spokesperson for the northeast grocery chain Pathmark. It was a long professional affiliation that would last 30 years and earned him the nickname “Mr. Pathmark.”. Karen has said he has appeared in more than 5,000 commercials over his career, many of them for Pathmark.
When Nobel Prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett came to New York in 1963 to kick-start a short film project, it was James Karen that suggested Buster Keaton for the lead character. (Photo: YouTube). When Film was played at the 1965 Venice Film Festival, Karen said it earned a standing ovation, and it was the only time he ever saw Buster Keaton cry. James and his wife Susan Reed both appeared in the movie.
Susan Reed and James Karen divored in June 1967 after 17 years of marriage. Susan Reed was an octogenarian senior citizen when she died from natural causes in a New York nursing home in April 2010.
Buster Keaton had become like a father to James Karen, and he was godfather to Karen’s son Reed. Buster Keaton was a septuagenarian senior citizen when he died in Feb. 1966 at the age of 70 from lung cancer. James Karen was later presented with “The Buster Award”, by The International Buster Keaton Society, for the person who demonstrates professional excellence in the tradition of Buster Keaton. Karen appears as himself in several documentaries and biographies about Buster Keaton, including most recently as an octogenarian senior citizen in So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM (2004).
James Karen began his film career in 1965, playing Dr. Adam Steele in the low budget horror film Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster. It was the first of what would be many horror movies in his career. Almost 50 years later, Karen recalled his experience filming Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster for the New York Film Academy.
According to Hans Conried: A Biography author Suzanne Gargiulo, it was while touring in a summer 1965 production of Absence of a Cello that James Karen met fellow character and voice actor Hans Conried, and another lifetime friendship was formed between Conried and Karen.
From 1967-1970 James Karen played Dr. Burke on daytime soap opera As The World Turns. He originated the role of Lincoln Tyler on new soap opera All My Children when it debuted in January 1970. His co-stars on All My Children were well-known and long-standing daytime stars Rosemary Prinze, who had been Penny Hughes on As the World Turns; Ruth Warrick, and young actors Susan Lucci, Karen Lynn Gorney, and Richard Hatch.
Feature films for James Karen in the early 1970’s included the fantasy Hercules in New York (1970) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger; Rivals (1972) starring Robert Klein. In the movie I Never Sang for My Father (1970) starring Gene Hackman, James Karen played an old age home director.
In 1975, 52-year-old James Karen and his new love, 26-year-old Italian-American actress and textile artist Alba Francesca were invited to visit California by his old friend, director Charles Dubin. Steady work in television and the movies kept them there, and they still live in Los Angeles today. Both James Karen and Alba Francesca guest-starred in the same episodes of Hawaii Five-O (1976) as a married couple; and in Executive Suite (1976).
50+ James Karen co-starred in 3 feature films with veteran actors Hal Holbrook and Robert Walden between 1976-1987. All 3 were in the movies All the President’s Men (1976), and Capricorn One (1977). James Karen played a lawyer for Hugh Sloan (Stephen Collins), who was married to Debbie Sloan (Meredith Baxter), and Hal Holbrook was the legendary “Deep Throat”. All the President’s Men starred Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jane Alexander, Ned Beatty, F. Murray Abraham, and Nicolas Coster.
- Nicolas Coster and James Karen were co-stars in the TV movie The Day the Bubble Burst (1982) with Robert Hays, Rue McClanahan (The Golden Girls), Donna Pescow, David Ogden Stiers, and Robert Vaughn. 22 years later, Nicolas Coster and James Karen were both in the movie Freedom Strike (1998).
James Karen was Vice President Price and Hal Holbrook was Dr. James Kelloway, in the thriller Capricorn One (1977) starring Elliot Gould, James Brolin, Brenda Vaccaro, Sam Waterston, Karen Black, Telly Savalas (Kojak), Robert Walden, and James Sikking.
- In 1978, James Karen guest-starred on Edward Asner‘s series Lou Grant with regulars Robert Walden and Nancy Marchand; the third time in three consecutive years that Robert Walden and James Karen had worked together.
Wall Street (1987) had a huge star-filled cast – Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, Tamara Tunie, John C. McGinley, Martin Sheen, Sean Young, James Spader, Saul Rubinek, Richard Dysart, Millie Perkins, Daryl Hannah, Hal Holbrook, and Terence Stamp.
James Karen worked more than once with some of his Wall Street co-stars, including:
- Michael Douglas, in the thriller The China Syndrome (1979). Among their co-stars in The China Syndrome were Jane Fonda, Wilford Brimley and Richard Herd.
- Martin Sheen, in the mini-series Blind Ambition (1979). Their Blind Ambition cast mates included Michael Callan, Alan Oppenheimer, John Randolph, Peter Mark Richman, and Rip Torn.
- Richard Dysart, when James Karen guest-starred on L. A. Law, appearing in an episode with regulars Jimmy Smits and Susan Dey.
James Karen played a judge in Frances (1982) starring Jessica Lange, Kim Stanley, Sam Shepard, and Bonnie Bartlett. He had worked with Bonnie Bartlett previously, when he guest-starred on the TV series Rafferty in 1977.
Baby boomers may remember James Karen best from two horror movies he appeared in during the 1980’s.
The first was Steven Spielberg’s box office hit Poltergeist (1982), co-starring JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Dirk Blocker, and two young actresses – Dominique Dunne, and Heather O’Rourke – that co-incidentally died at a very young age. Dominique Dunne was only 22 when she died in November 1982, the same year Poltergeist was released; Heather O’Rourke was 12 when she died in February 1988.
The second horror movie James Karen co-starred in has become a cult classic – the zombie tale The Return of the Living Dead (1985). Karen co-starred with fellow character actors Clu Gulager, Thom Mathews, and Don Calfa in The Return of the Living Dead. The sequel feature film Return of the Living Dead II (1988) reunited co-stars James Karen with Thom Mathews, and introduced actor Dana Ashbrook (Twin Peaks) in his first credited film role. Below, a movie clip for The Return of the Living Dead featuring James Karen.
Jeff Bridges and James Karen were in 2 feature film movies in the 1980’s. Karen had an uncredited role as a lawyer in the comedy-fantasy Kiss Me Goodbye (1982) starring Sally Field, Jeff Bridges, and James Caan, with Mildred Natwick (The Snoop Sisters).
The dark mystery thriller Jagged Edge (1985) co-starred Jeff Bridges, Glenn Close, Peter Coyote, Lance Henriksen, Robert Loggia, John Dehner (The Doris Day Show), and James Karen. Robert Loggia and Karen had worked together previously when James Karen guest-starred on Emerald Point N.A.S. in 1983-1984, and they would work together again when Karen guest-starred on Robert Loggia’s series Mancuso, FBI in 1989.
Another frequent professional collaboration for James Karen was with actor-director-producer Michael Landon. James Karen had appeared with Michael Landon and Eli Wallach in the movie Sam’s Son (1984), which was also directed & written by Michael Landon. Landon cast James Karen in the TV movie Little House: The Last Farewell (1984) starring Melissa Gilbert, Michael Landon, Victor French, and Shannen Doherty. In Little House: The Last Farewell, Karen’s character Nathan Lassiter destroys the fictitious town of Walnut Grove. In 1989 James Karen guest-starred on Michael Landon’s new series Highway to Heaven, along with regulars Victor French, and Brian Krause.
Other feature films of note for James Karen during the 1970s and 1980’s include:
- F.I.S.T. (1978) starring Sylvester Stallone, Rod Steiger, Peter Boyle, and Ken Kercheval. James Karen was re-united with Ken Kercheval when he guest-starred 3 times as Elton Lawrence on Dallas in the early 1980s.
- The Jazz Singer (1980), starring Neil Diamond.
- Hardbodies 2 (1985), a comedy which featured James Karen in a rare leading man role.
- Invaders from Mars (1986), a sci-fi horror movie with Karen Black, Timothy Bottoms, Laraine Newman, and Louise Fletcher.
Senior citizens and baby boomer television fans may remember seeing 50+ actor James Karen in numerous TV movies, miniseries, and guest-starring roles on popular series like Magnum, P.I., McMillan & Wife, Serpico, Moonlighting, and many others during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Some of his work included:
- The Blue Knight starring George Kennedy, in an episode with Gerald McRaney. Gerald McCraney and James Karen worked together again when Karen guest-starred on Police Woman in an episode with Angie Dickinson, Earl Holliman, and James Darren; and on McCraney’s series Simon & Simon. 21 years after guest-starring on George Kennedy’s series The Blue Knight, Kennedy and James Karen were co-stars again in the movie Nixon (1996).
- Mary Jane Harper Cried Last Night (1977) starring Susan Dey (The Partridge Family) as an abusive mother and Karen as a psychiatrist. When James Karen had a recurring role as Admiral Lovell on Emerald Point N.A.S. in the early 1980s, he appeared in episodes with Susan Dey, Maud Adams, Andrew Stevens, Richard Dean Anderson, and Sela Ward.
- The Gathering (1977) starring Edward Asner, Bruce Davison, Veronica Hamel, John Randolph, Stephanie Zimbalist (Remington Steele), and Gregory Harrison. The following year, James Karen guest-starred on Edward Asner’s new series Lou Grant. In the early 1980’s, James Karen guest-starred on Trapper John M.D. with Gregory Harrison and Christopher Norris.
- Institute for Revenge (1979) starring Lauren Hutton, Leslie Nielsen, Ray Walston (My Favorite Martian), and George Hamilton.
- F.D.R: The Last Year (1980) starring Jason Robards, Olympia Dukakis, and Michael Gross. Michael Gross and James Karen worked together again when Karen guest-starred on Family Ties in 1984 with Meredith Baxter and Michael J. Fox.
- The Violation of Sarah McDavid (1981) starring Patty Duke, Ned Beatty, James Sloyan, Ally Sheedy, Robert Picardo, and Eric Stoltz. Karen worked with several of his The Violation of Sarah McDavid co-stars more than once:
- Patty Duke and Karen would co-star again in the TV movie Absolute Strangers in 1991.
- James Sloyan and James Karen co-starred in the TV movie Billionaire Boys Club (1987) starring Judd Nelson, Ron Silver, and Gail O’Grady.
- Robert Picardo and Karen co-starred in the TV movie Revenge of the Nerds IV: Nerds in Love (1994).
- A recurring role as Major Wymore on the fantasy television series The Powers of Matthew Star in 1983, co-starring Peter Barton and Louis Gossett Jr.
- An ABC Afterschool Specials 1983 episode with Marion Ross and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
James Karen married long-time love Alba Francesca in September 1986, a couple of years before becoming a new senior citizen in 1988.