R.I.P.: Actor James Karen has passed away at age 94

Poltergeist James Karen

News came out yesterday that actor James Karen had passed away, and while it's sad to see the man go, there's no denying that he lived a full life while he was here. Born on November 28, 1923, he was just a month shy of turning 95 when he passed away in his Los Angeles home this past Tuesday. He packed more than 70 years of acting in there, racking up more than 200 screen credits - and when he couldn't find acting jobs (that didn't seem to be much of a problem), he made a living restoring cars.

Among those 200+ acting credits were a handful of genre films, starting with 1965's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACEMONSTER. His more popular horror film appearances came a couple decades later. In 1982's POLTERGEIST he played Mr. Teague, the man responsible for deciding to only move the headstones and not the bodies when the Cuesta Verde housing development was built over a cemetery. Three years later, he delivered a fantastic performance as the ill-fated Frank in THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, who shares the information that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was a true story and then starts to become a zombie himself over the course of the film. After appearing in Tobe Hooper's 1986 remake of INVADERS FROM MARS, Karen returned to play a character named Ed in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD II, but the different name didn't make the guy's fate any better.

Over the last thirty years, Karen continued to show up in genre movies here and there, appearing in films like GIRLFRIEND FROM HELL, THE WILLIES, THE UNBORN (1991), CONGO, a 1995 version of PIRANHA, the Stephen King adaptation APT PUPIL, David Lynch's MULHOLLAND DRIVE, and Larry Blamire's sci-fi comedy TRAIL OF THE SCREAMING FOREHEAD.

Most recently, Karen played a character named Frank Teague in the horror/comedy CYNTHIA, which was just released a couple months ago.

Residents of the northeastern part of the U.S. might also recognize Karen as the spokesman for the Pathmark grocery store chain. He did radio and television commercials for Pathmark for more than 20 years. About that job, he said, 

I go to New York every two weeks and run off 20 30-second commercials at a time. This is the best job an actor can have. It pays very well and it's steady."

Karen's connection to movies began when his father, a Russian-born immigrant who worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania, would take him to silent films when he was a child. His father was illiterate, so Karen would read the titles on the films to him. He fell into acting by chance; he was walking home from school when U.S. Representative Dan Flood spotted him and gave him a small role in a stage play because he was a Boy Scout. He quickly realized that acting 

gave me a real reason to exist, and to live. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do."

Karen continued to act in local plays, and after serving in the Air Force during World War II he made his way to New York. Within a decade he was on Broadway, and soon after he started getting screen work.

Karen said in interviews that working on THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD was the most fun he ever had working on a movie, and he noted that he came up with the tragic ending for his character Frank, which saved him from getting muddy and soaked with rain in the film.

It was the deal where he figures out he’s becoming a zombie and decides to incinerate himself in the crematorium. He kisses his wedding ring as he goes in. It was a very emotional scene, but it also got me out of being one of the rain-drenched zombies milling around outside the place at the end of the film. I didn’t really want to do all that muddy stuff."

Karen was married to the late Susan Reed from 1949 to 1967, and they had a child together. He was then married to Alba Francesca from 1986 until the time of his death.

It was always great to see James Karen at work on the screen, and I'm grateful that he left behind so much work for us to continue to enjoy. The fact that he made it to 94, almost 95, is awesome, and he really seemed to make sure he filled those years in a good way.

Our condolences go out to Karen's family, friends, and fans.

Source: THR



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