One of the most amazing bits of good fortune I’ve had working in the movie business was becoming friends with actor James Karen.
Jimmy just passed away on Tuesday at age 94. He epitomized what we in The Biz call a “working actor”. Jimmy worked constantly. If you live in the northeast you probably know him as “The Pathmark Man“. He made over 5000 Pathmark supermarket commercials.
Sci-fi/horror genre fans know him from his roles in Poltergeist, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (an early role, billed as “Jimmy”, not “James”), Capricorn One, the 1995 Piranha and, most recently, Cynthia. Mr. Karen has a whopping 204 film and television credits on IMDB — and that doesn’t include his enormous amount of stage work (including more than 20 Broadway shows).
I first worked with Jimmy on Return of the Living Dead in which he played Frank.
He impressed me by showing up on days he wasn’t working, there just to keep the rest of the cast pumped up. One day, he brought his friend Jason Robards to our set.
After working with Jimmy on Return of the Living Dead, I never wanted to make another movie without James Karen. I recommended Jimmy for the role of General Wilson in the remake of Invaders From Mars. During shooting, Jimmy came up to me, beaming.
“Bill,” he said, “I just wanted to thank you for suggesting me for this role.”
“It’s going okay?”
“Better than okay! My role as the general was supposed to be a two day shoot. I’ve been here two months now. I’ve paid for the college educations for all of my grandchildren thanks to this film.”
There are some hilarious James Karen stories I can’t share in a public forum. The following, though, I can. It is one of my favorites.
I am a regular guest at my favorite U.S. convention: WonderFest in Louisville, Kentucky. WonderFest was celebrating Return of the Living Dead, a film that takes place in Louisville. Even though I’ve had many Louisville fans tell me they know and have visited all of the Louisville locations where we shot the film, in actuality we shot everything here in the Los Angeles area, never setting foot in Louisville (we shot most of the film in a warehouse in Burbank) until it was time for director Dan O’Bannon and I to promote the finished film.
Nevertheless, WonderFest invited me, James Karen and actress Linnea Quigley (Trash in the film) to represent the movie to a Louisville audience.
There was a Return of the Living Dead panel that weekend. I made my way up to the room where that was happening. Just before I entered the room I was stopped by our moderator, my dear talented friend, writer/actor/artist Frank Dietz.
Jimmy and I are going to play a little trick on Linnea,” Frank confided. “We’re going to pretend that Return was actually shot in Louisville. Are you in?”
“I’m totally in!”
The panel began. At one point fairly early on, Jimmy stated, “I just want to thank the kind folks of Louisville for hosting our production. Shooting here was a dream. You were all so nice to our cast and crew.”
Linnea’s eyes went wide, and I joined in.
“You guys were fantastic here. You really made us feel welcome and made our shoot so much easier than it could have been.”
Linnea was now looking at both me and Jimmy in disbelief.
“…and your mayor!” Jimmy continued. “He was such a great guy.”
“Wasn’t he?” I added. “So kind, so helpful.”
Linnea responded. “He was a very, very nice man.”
“And generous,” said Jimmy. “An absolutely incredible guy.”
“He was great,” said Linnea.
“So generous,” deadpanned Jimmy. “You know he had a wooden leg which was hollow. He filled it with the finest Kentucky bourbon. If you wanted a nip he would come over to you on set and do a handstand. There was a little spigot near his knee that you turned to fill your cup. Extraordinary!”
James Karen had now taken our tale into the comedic stratosphere. I could hardly contain myself. I had to look away from Linnea so that she couldn’t see the expression on my face. I was trying as hard as I could to hold it all in. She was now having and sharing false memories of our supposed time making the film in Louisville.
We finally couldn’t hold back our laughter. Jimmy, Frank and I confessed to our prank. Linnea at first looked confused — and then very, very relieved (“I thought I was losing my mind”). She was (and is) a sweet gal and the greatest of sports.
I’ll miss my friend Jimmy forever. Making movies won’t be nearly as fun without him. My love goes out to his dear, sweet, talented wife Alba Francesca and to his family — and to all of the people in this crazy biz we call “show” who had the very good fortune to work with the absolutely extraordinary James Karen.
RIP, my dear friend. Don’t forget to tell the Karen Black story up in Heaven.