James Karen is 93, Part 2 (1988-2016)

From Up Close & Personal to The Pursuit of Happyness

Despite his new senior citizen status in 1988, American character actor James Karen showed no signs of retiring. Over the next 5 years, he appeared in no less than 8 feature films, 5 made-for-TV movies, and guest-starred on 12 different TV series. He began to be known for his small parts or cameos in big movies and appearances in horror comedy movies, which had begun in his 50+ years. 

James Karen was in the mini-series Drug Wars: The Camarena Story (1990), co-starring Steven Bauer, Miguel Ferrer, Benicio Del Toro, Treat Williams, Craig T. Nelson, and J. Kenneth Campbell. Karen and Craig T. Nelson had co-starred in the feature film Poltergeist in 1982, and they would work together again when Karen guest-starred twice on Nelson’s series Coach in 1992 & 1994, in episodes with Nanette Fabray

Dana Ashbrook (Twin Peaks) and James Karen co-starred in 3 horror comedy feature films between 1985-1990, beginning with the sequel horror comedy movie The Return of the Living Dead II (1988). Thom Matthews reprised his character of Joey and James Karen returned as Ed, in The Return of the Living Dead II. Dana Ashbrook and James Karen were onscreen again in Girlfriend from Hell (1989) and The Willies (1990), albeit a cameo performance only for James Karen and Clu Gulager, their co-star in the original movie The Return of the Living Dad (1985).  

The many TV series James Karen guest-starred on during this era included appearances on popular baby boomer TV series such as MacGyver, as well as:

  • 3 appearances on Charles in Charge starring Scott Baio, with Willie Ames, James T. Callahan, Ellen Travolta, and Richard Sanders. In the 1970’s, James Karen had guest-starred on Willie Ames’ previous series Eight is Enough, and they had co-starred in the 1987 reunion movie for that series.  
  • Recurring twice in 1993 as Gil Murphy on Bodies of Evidence, starring Lee Horsley, George Clooney, and Kate McNeil. 
  • A 2-part episode in 1993 as Kearney on Designing Women. Karen’s Designing Women costars included regulars Annie Potts, Jan Hooks, Judith Ivey, Mesach Taylor, and fellow guest-stars Sheryl Lee Ralph, Gail O’Grady, and Alice Ghostley. Gail O’Grady and James Karen had co-starred in the movie Billionaire Boys Club (1987).
  • Matlock starring Andy Griffith; Andy Griffith and James Karen had guest-starred on the same episode of The Bionic Woman in 1976, starring Lindsay Wagner and Richard Anderson

Other films of this era:

  • Rich Men, Single Women (1990) co-starring Suzanne Somers, Heather Locklear, Deborah Adair, and Larry Wilcox. James Karen had guest-starred twice on Dynasty in 1984 as Avril Dawson; his co-stars on Dynasty had included both Heather Locklear and Deborah Adair, as well as Peter Mark Richman. 
  • Shattered Dreams (1990) co-starring Lindsay Wagner, Michael Nouri, and Patricia Heaton. Karen had guest-starred on Lindsay Wagner’s series The Bionic Woman.
  • Lies Before Kisses (1991) co-starring Jaclyn Smith, Ben Gazzara, Nick Mancuso, Greg Evigan, and Lisa Rinna. Lies Before Kisses co-stars Ben Gazzara and James Karen had co-starred in the featured film Opening Night (1977), with Gena Rowlands.
  • Absolute Strangers (1991) co-starring Henry Winkler, Patty Duke, Alan Oppenheimer, and Karl Malden. James Karen had understudied Karl Malden on Broadway 44 years earlier!

Karen continued to work at a fierce pace on television and in the movies in his 70s. He had a recurring role as Patrick Kirkland on the TV series Ned and Stacey (TV series) from 1996-1997. His Ned and Stacey co-stars included Thomas Haden Church, Debra Messing, and Greg Germann. Karen’s TV movies and episodic guest-starring television appearances in his 70’s included:

  • A recurring role as Sheldon Davidoff on The Larry Sanders Show, appearing 4 times between 1992-1993. He worked with The Larry Sanders Show regular and recurring cast members and guest-stars Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor, Rip Torn, Robert Hays, Dana Carvey, and John Pleshette. 
    • James Karen had appeared on an episode of Knots Landing in 1982 with John Pleshette. He also co-starred with John Pleshette in the movie Once Upon a Family (1980) with Barry Bostwick and Marcia Strassman.
    • Robert Hays and James Karen had co-starred previously in the feature film Take This Job and Shove It (1981) with Barbra Hershey, David Keith, Tim Thomerson, and Martin Mull; and in the TV movie The Day the Bubble Burst (1982).
  • James Karen and Earl Holliman were reunited in the TV pilot movie NightMan (1997); James Karen had guest-starred in 1976 on Earl Holliman’s series with Angie Dickinson, Police Woman
  • Staying Afloat (1993) TV movie co-starring Larry Hagman, Gregg Henry, and Claire Yarlett (The Colbys). Larry Hagman and James Karen were in Nixon (1996), and Karen had played the recurring character of Elton Lawrence 3 times on Larry Hagman’s series Dallas, between 1982-1983. 
  • Bonanza: Under Attack (1994) TV movie co-starring Michael Landon, Jr., Richard Roundtree, Jack Elam, Dirk Blocker, Dennis Farina, and Leonard Nimoy. James Karen and Dirk Blocker had co-starred in the movie Poltergeist in 1982. 

The feature film Congo (1995) saw James Karen in a small role as a college president in a movie starring Laura Linney, Tim Curry, Ernie Hudson, and Joe Don Baker. Karen worked with two of his Congo co-stars again in feature films – Laura Linney in Sympathy for Delicious (2010), and Ernie Hudson in the western Ambush at Dark Canyon (2012). 

James Karen co-starred with William Katt and Monte Markham in the horror movie Piranha (1995); Karen appeared as a governor. In 1994, James Karen and Monte Markham had guest-starred on the same episode of Melrose Place

The feature film Nixon (1996) had a star-studded cast that included Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, Ed Harris, Mary Steenburgen,  Tony Goldwyn, Larry Hagman, Dan Hedaya, Tony Lo Bianco, Saul Rubinek, and John C. McGinley. Nixon‘s White House staff members were played by James Woods, Powers Boothe, Paul Sorvino, J. T. Walsh, E. G. Marshall, David Paymer, David Hyde Pierce, and James Karen. Saul Rubinek and James Karen had both been in Nixon director Oliver Stone’s earlier movie Wall Street (1987). And 32 years before they both appeared in Nixon, James Karen had appeared on episodes of the 1964 TV series The Defenders starring E. G. Marshall. 

The romantic drama Up Close & Personal (1996) was inspired by the life of late news anchor Jessica Savitch, and starred Robert Redford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Stockard Channing, Scott Bryce, Kate Nelligan, and Joe Mantegna. James Karen appeared as Tom Orr in Up Close & Personal. He’d worked in Robert Redford’s movie All the President’s Men (1976) 20 years earlier. 

Joe Mantegna and James Karen would go on to co-star on the TV series First Monday in 2002, along with Linda Purl, Lyman Ward, James Garner, and Charles Durning. Karen’s wife Francesca Alba guest-starred on an episode of First Monday.

The feature film comedy Joyride (1997) starring Benicio Del Toro featured Adam West and James Karen in small roles. Joyride was a reunion for Benicio Del Toro and Karen; they had been in the 1990 miniseries Drug Wars: The Camarena Story.  

In the thriller Shadow of Doubt (1998), James Karen co-starred with Melanie Griffith, Tom Berenger, Craig Sheffer, Huey Lewis, Nina Foch, and John Ritter. Karen had guest-starred on John Ritter’s comedy series Three’s a Crowd in 1984, and they had both co-starred in the movie Hearts Afire (1994) with Markie Post (Night Court). 

Oliver Stone’s football movie Any Given Sunday (1999) was James Karen’s third movie with the famed director, after 1987’s Wall Street and Nixon (1996). Karen played an advisor to Cameron Diaz’s character in Any Given Sunday. Any Given Sunday starred Al Pacino, Dennis Quaid, James Woods, Jamie Foxx, Lauren Holly, Ann-Margret, Aaron Eckhart, Charlton Heston, and John C. McGinley. James Woods, John C. McGinley, and James Karen had all ben in Stone’s previous movie Nixon, and John C. McGinley had also been in Wall Street.

James Karen had a recurring role for 3 episodes on HBO’s Unscripted in 2005 as “Dante’s friend”; co-starring with regulars Diane Baker (Dante), and Frank Langella. 15 years earlier, Diane Baker and James Karen had both been in the feature film The Closer (1990) with Danny Aiello, Michael Pare, and Michael Lerner.

Feel-good movie The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) was based on the real-life story of entrepreneur Chris Gardner and starred Will Smith and Thandie Newton. The Pursuit of Happyness was James Karen’s biggest movie during his octogenarian senior years.

Other work of note for octogenarian James Karen between 2003-2012 included: 

  • The short Heart Medicine (2007) co-starring Karen and his wife Alba Francesca. They had last appeared together on film 17 years earlier in the movie Road Lawyers and Other Briefs (1990).
  • The feature film Jack and the Beanstalk (2009) co-starring Christopher Lloyd, Katey Sagal, Gilbert Gottfried, and Chevy Chase.
  • The short Pride (2011) co-starring Susan Blakely; Karen appeared as a homophobic father now suffering from dementia due to Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • The Butterfly Room (2012) starring Ray Wise; another horror movie for Karen.

After entering his 9th decade in 2013, James Karen finally began to show signs of slowing down. Still, his baby boomer and senior fans may have caught him in these most recent movies:

Rain from Stars (2013), a horror-thriller starring French Stewart (3rd Rock From the Sun), Brian Krause, Stuart Damon, and Allan Rich. Karen had worked with Brian Krause 24 years earlier, on an episode of Highway to Heaven in 1989. The movie trailer for Rain from Stars (above) features James Karen, Stuart Damon, Brian Krause, Eddie Applegate, Allan Rich, and other cast members. 

Bender (2016), a historical thriller with Bruce Davison and Linda Purl. Bender was a reunion for James Karen with both of these actors; he had co-starred with Linda Purl on the TV series First Monday in 2002. He had worked with Bruce Davison twice previously, beginning 39 years earlier with the 1977 movie The Gathering. Bruce Davison and Karen also co-starred in the feature film thriller Apt Pupil (1998) starring Ian McKellen.

Most of James Karen’s 200+ film and television credits have been acquired in his 50+, senior citizen, septuagenarian, octogenarian, and nonagenarian years – a remarkable accomplishment. As he told The Citizen’s Voice in 2013: “I like to work, and I’ve had a good time of it.”

Karen and his wife Alba Francesca celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary in 2016, and he turned 93 that same year.

Previously: James Karen is 93, Part 1: All the President’s Men to Wall Street (1923-1987)

Anita Hamilton

50+ World editor & writer Anita Hamilton's articles are inspired by real historical events, places, and people. Her travel experiences, a lifelong keen interest in history, art, vintage music, books, silent films, classic movies, "golden age" television shows, fashion, & entertainment in general - combined with years of research - make her a subject matter expert with acquired knowledge & expertise on these topics. This, and a loving and supportive family complete with 3 mini-dachshund minions, keeps her busy.

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