Karen Black 1939-2013
Born Karen Blanche Ziegler in Park Ridge Illinois, an affluent suburb of Chicago, her mother Elsie was an award winning writer of children’s books, her grandfather Arthur, was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first chair violinist. She attended Northwestern University for 2 years before turning her attention to acting and moving to NYC to study under Lee Strasberg where she worked in a number of off-Broadway productions. Karen took the name of Black after her first husband, Charles Black before embarking on a film career in 1959 which like many other actors, including Clint Eastwood and much later, George Clooney, began on television. Her appearances on television included roles in The F.B.I., The Big Valley and Mannix to name a few.
Karen Black emerged at the time when the disintegration of the old Hollywood studio system was almost complete and the onset of American independent filmmaking without studio restrictions was on the rise. Her first film, You’re a Big Boy Now 1966, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Geraldine Page and Julie Harris, was an early example of counterculture sensibilities that would become commonplace on the American film landscape from the late 60s until the mid 70s. She played a prostitute in Easy Rider 1969, an iconic film that totally defined the term counterculture, directed by Dennis Hopper, starring Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson.
Black teamed with Nicholson for a second time the next year in Five Easy Pieces 1970 playing his waitress girlfriend with dreams of country music stardom and earned herself an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Her participation in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces made her a counterculture goddess of imperfect beauty with a crazy eye, Black spent the better part of the 70s giving vivid characterizations in a broad spectrum of film fare including The Great Gatsby 1974, Airport 75, the fabulous Trilogy of Terror (a made for TV movie where she played the lead in all 3 storylines). It was in Robert Altman’s Nashville 1975, that starred everybody, where Black brought forth her talent for singing and songwriting by writing and performing her own material. It was during this time that she gained and maintained a strong cult following.
Karen Black seemingly found fulfillment in brassy, attention grabbing roles in films with mostly male main characters. By the time the 1970s moved into the ’80s, her career had taken a sideways turn. She never stopped working and her list of credits, largely in independent films, is extensive, but her roles in ambitious, groundbreaking films were largely behind her.
Her best-known later title was Robert Altman’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean 1982, about the reunion of a James Dean fan club in a small Texas town 20 years after his death. The film starred Sandy Dennis, Cher and Black, who played a transsexual. During the 90s she seemed at home in low budget horror films with great titles…Children of the Night 1991, Children of the Corn IV, The Gathering 1996, Rob Zombie’s House of a 1000 Corpses 2003 and My Suicidal Sweetheart 2005.
Karen Black was married and divorced three times before marrying Stephen Eckelberry in 1987. In addition to him, survivors include a son, Hunter, two daughters, Celine and Diane, four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. She battled with ampullary cancer, a rare form similar to pancreatic and in the end this disease claimed another vibrant life. Karen Black was truly an original. She was also a Scientologist.