Tuesday, November 6, 2018

In Tribute to a Classic Character Actor: James Karen


The late James Karen (who left us on October 23 at age 94) was not a winner of major acting awards. But, especially in the post-Halloween season, he’s highly worthy of a salute. The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films nominated him for a Best Actor honor in 1986 for his role in The Return of the Living Dead. (A decade later, the group bestowed upon him its Life Career Award.) In 1991, he was a nominee for Fangoria’s prestigious Chainsaw Award for playing the evil Dr. Richard Meyerling in The Unborn.

I worked on The Unborn, when I was Roger Corman’s story editor at Concorde-New Horizons Pictures. It’s a creepfest of which I have always been guiltily fond, because it takes women’s all-too-natural fears about pregnancy to their most extreme conclusions. Among other things, The Unborn launched the career of Rodman Flender, a busy Hollywood TV director who may be better known today as Timothée Chalamet’s uncle. It was written by screenwriters Mike Ferris and John Brancato, who in those days concealed their identities behind the pen name Henry Dominic. It did not destroy the career of Brooke Adams, in the leading role of a woman with a major problem pregnancy, nor that of Lisa Kudrow, who played a small role early in her pre-Friends days.

 What really made The Unborn a success, though, was the ultra-creepy James Karen as an obstetrician who has more on his mind than delivering healthy newborns. (Yes, shades of Rosemary’s Baby – originality was never a prime Concorde virtue.) Karen was adept at walking the line between avuncular and sinister, and I marveled at his skill, to the point where I was a bit nervous when meeting him in an office hallway. Afterwards, though, I was excited to talk about our little chat when I went home for the day. My children—fans of the Math Net segment of the terrific kids’ math program, Square One—vividly remembered him as a sneering prosecutor trying to pin good-guy George Frankly to a robbery at the Next to the Last National Bank. (See below, about 25 minutes in.)

Karen was also a Broadway presence, usually as a standby or understudy for leading roles in plays like Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Always a lively presence onscreen, he was featured as Jane Fonda’s TV producer boss in The China Syndrome and as a realtor in Poltergeist. His most unusual appearance came in Film, an almost totally silent short movie from 1965, written and directed by Samuel Beckett and starring Karen’s longtime friend, screen legend Buster Keaton.

Yet television watchers in the Northeast best remember Karen as a friendly supermarket pitchman in commercials for the Pathmark supermarket chain. He shilled for the company for 28 years, flying east every two weeks from his L.A. home to tape a batch of TV spots. His so-called Pathmark Man was a likable guy, but Karen ran into trouble when he appeared in the finale of the Little House on the Prairie series as a real estate tycoon who aims to take over the town of Walnut Grove. His scheming on that show so disturbed Pathmark customers that he found himself in trouble with Pathmark management.  It was only when he personally wrote to shoppers, reassuring them of his good intentions, that they accepted his continuing role as the store’s spokesman.

Jim Karen was a classic. His wife, my friend Alba Francesca, once told me he loved toys, the more intricate the better. I only know that audiences—and the camera—loved him. May he rest in peace. 

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