Karen Black, the iconic Hollywood character actress whose career spanned over five decades has died from bladder cancer at 74. She leapt to the public’s attention after she worked with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in the 1969 film Five Easy Pieces.
According to Blacks husband, Stephen Eckelberry, the actress lost her battle with ampullary cancer, which is a rare form of pancreatic cancer. Her illness became public knowledge in March 2013 after Black and her husband asked joined a fundraising website for money to try experimental treatment of the disease.
Karen Blanche Ziegler was born in Park Ridge, Illinois (she took the name Black from her first husband) the daughter of Elsie Mary who wrote several award winning children’s books, and Norman Arthur Ziegler. She attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois for two years. She started her university studies at age 15 and after her two years she moved to New York to work off Broadway.
While Karen Black started her career on stage, she she was better known on television where she worked steadily until she made the jump to film with her debut the 1969 movie Hard Contract. It was her next film though that really got her started. In Five Easy Pieces she played Rayette, Jack Nicholson’s girlfriend. This film was responsible for catapulting several careers, Nicholson especially benefitted from his role in the film.
Karen Black was an iconic Hollywood character actress who worked steadily until her death at age 74.
Ms Black specialised in odd quirky roles. Her characters were often brash and usually centered around men. Her “skewed” facial features meant that the actress rarely played the main love interest, but the power of her acting kept her steadily employed in some of the most iconic films that Hollywood put out.
Apart from Five Easy Pieces, she worked on Alfred Hitchcock’s last film Family Plot as a kidnapper, Robert Altman’s Nashville and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust to name just a few. She also worked on the disaster film Airport 1975, where she played a stewardess who takes over the controls of a passenger jet, a part that was mercilessly lampooned in the comedy film Airplane.
She seemed to be very suited to the horror genre and made her name in horror when she played multiple roles in the television horror anthology Trilogy of Terror. The film was written by the iconic Richard Matheson and each segment of the anthology was named after the women who featured in that particular plot. Black played all three characters and her most memorable performance was in the segment Amelia where she comes into the possession of a cursed Zuni fetish doll that comes to life and chases her throughout the entire segment.
It was in the field of horror that Karen Black made her name. She worked steadily in the genre and her last horror role of note was as Mother Firefly the matriarchal head of the murderous Firefly family in Rob Zombie’s House of a 1000 corpses. Sadly a contractual dispute kept her from appearing in the sequel The Devil’s Rejects. Karen’s last film was In the Woods which is still in post production.
Ms. Black married and divorced three times before she married Stephen Eckelberry in 1987.
Karen Black, the iconic Hollywood character actress has died aged 74 and she is survived by her husband, Stephen Eckelberry, three children and her brother and sister as well as four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
By Michael Smith