Karen Black, Quirky Star of Iconoclastic Films, Dies at 74

News   Karen Black, Quirky Star of Iconoclastic Films, Dies at 74
Karen Black, a film actress who, through her singularly quirky, sensuous, cross-eyed charm, came to epitomize the roguish spirit of American filmmaking of the late '60s and early '70s, died Aug. 8 following a long battle with cancer. She was 74.

Karen Black
Karen Black

Among her films—many of them touchstones of their iconoclastic era—were "Easy Rider," "Cisco Pike," "Nashville," and, most symbolic of all, "Five Easy Pieces." In the latter 1970 classic by director Bob Rafelson, she brought an aching emotionality and vulnerability to Rayette Dipesto, the long-suffering, good-hearted waitress girlfriend of Jack Nicholson's disaffected drifter. She was nominated for an Oscar for her work. Nicholson would direct her a year later in "Drive He Said."

Ms. Black's characters were often luckless misfits struggling on the outskirts of society. In the 1974 Robert Redford movie of "The Great Gatsby," she was Myrtle Wilson, the unhappy mechanic's wife who has an eventually fatal affair with blueblood Tom Buchanan. In the 1975 film of Nathaniel West searing Hollywood novel "The Day of the Locust," she played the fame-crazed bombshell Faye Greener. Alfred Hitchcock cast her as a jewel thief and serial kidnapper in his final film "Family Plot."

She was a natural fit for Robert Altman's seemingly random, but powerfully thematic filmic canvases. She played country music star Connie White in "Nashville," in which she wrote her own songs, and experienced a comeback of sort in Altman's 1982 film “Come Back to the Five & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," playing alongside Cher and Sandy Dennis. In it, all three repeated parts they had created on Broadway.

Born Karen Blanche Ziegler in Park Ridge, IL, on July 1, 1939, she entered at Northwestern University at the age of 15, but did not graduate. Restless, she moved to New York. She studied under Lee Strasberg, but proved unimpressed by the acting guru. She began to win roles Off-Broadway in the early '60s, including a 1963 Joe Papp-directed staging of Twelfth Night at the New York Shakespeare Festival in which she played Olivia. She was an understudy in the 1961 farce Take Her, She's Mine on Broadway. Ms. Black (she took the last name of her first husband) made her Broadway debut in 1965 in The Playroom, winning good reviews as a privileged teenager who, for kicks, connives to kidnap a little girl. It was followed by Happily Never After and Keep It in the Family. All were flops.

She had her first important film role in Francis Ford Coppola's early work "You're a Big Boy Now," in 1966. But it was Dennis Hopper counter-culture fluke hit "Easy Rider," in which she and Toni Basil played acid-tripping prostitutes, that made her a star. Talking to the New York Times about her performance in "Five Easy Pieces," she said, "Bob Rafelson thought I might be too complex for Rayette, but I told him that I'm essentially simple; that really, everybody is essentially simple, that we are all just beings who, uh, be. Certainly Rayette can just be. I dig her, she's not dumb, she just isn't into thinking. I didn't have to know anybody like her to play her. I mean, I'm like her, in ways."

Her heyday was the early 1970s. The fine reviews she earned from "Come Back to the Five & Dime," notwithstanding, her career faded with that eclectic decade. In the years to come, he credits included many "B" movies and horror films. After a while, he name became a sort of cherished punch line. A 1990s punk band called itself The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black.

Ms. Black's third marriage, to L.M. Kit Carson, produced a child. She adopted a child with her fourth husband, Stephen Eckelberry. Mr. Eckelberry survives her, as do her two children.

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