To yesteryear Hollywood actor Karen Black who passed away recently at 74

She acted in over 200 movies, and was a popular star of Hollywood for a while. In the disaster genre hit film Airport, she proved that she was not merely a glamorous star, but also a consummate actor. In the film, she takes over the controls of the plane and saves it from disaster. This sequence remains one of the finest in her career, and is fondly remembered by moviegoers of the day. Besides acting, she wrote lyrics and produced television shows. That’s Karen Black for you. She passed away recently in Hollywood due to cancer. She was 74.

The route to fame

Karen Blanche Ziegler was born on July 1, 1939, in Park Ridge, a suburb of Chicago. Her father was a businessman and her mother wrote novels. Black was the surname of her first husband. At first, she acted for theatre troupes in Chicago and relocated to New York early 1960s. Though she had a few misses early in her career, the cult-road movie Easy Rider made her a star. Movies such as Five Easy Pieces, Nashville and The Great Gatsby took her further up the ladder of fame. Jack Nicholson, a close pal, called her “the most lucid actress I have ever worked with… you tell her where it is and she gravitated towards it!”

She received some of the best reviews for Nashville, director Robert Altman’s ambitious movie that won many Oscar nominations. Set in the country-music capital, Karen played a singer in the film. She revealed her talent when she wrote and recorded several songs for the movie, including the famous ‘Memphis’. The Time once described her as “a freewheeling combination of raunch and winsomeness. Sometimes she is kittenish. At other times she has an overripe quality that makes her look like the kind of woman who gets her name tattooed on sailors”.

Over the years, she took on any role that came her way, which affected her career, but she did not bother about it. Her other major roles included that of the wife in Drive, He Said (1971) — Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut, and the promiscuous ‘Monkey’ in Portnoy’s Complaint (1972), starring Richard Benjamin. She played the adulterous Myrtle Wilson in the 1974 screen version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated novel The Great Gatsby, which starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. The film was a big-budget lavish production and picturesquely produced, but critics tore the movie to shreds. A noted critic called the movie “a cinematic deadweight!”

One of her ‘high-five’ roles was in Alfred Hitchcock’s swansong Family Plot, in which she played a kidnapper. The Master of Suspense and she got on well, and in his characteristic way, he played games with her, as he did with the actors he liked. “He found out that I had a good vocabulary, so he would try to catch me not knowing the meaning of a word,” she once told The New York Observer. “He would say, for example, ‘Your work today, Ms. Black, has been most perspicacious,’ hoping to catch me up. I would say, ‘Oh, Mr. Hitchcock, you mean keenly perceptive.’ And he’d get all deflated because he’d lost his own game.”

She married four times and her fourth husband Stephen Eckelberry, a film editor, was with her when she passed away. She has left behind a vast family of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

About herself, she once remarked to a friend, “Some people are comfortable with creating, some are comfortable with changing, and some with stopping, For instance, policemen stop things. They’re into stopping. I’m not into stopping, and I’m not much into changing. Mainly, I like to start things. I like creating. I think you’ll find that actors like to become things, to imagine things, to get a laugh...”

That really is Karen Black for you!

(This writer met Karen the pleasure meeting her a couple of times during his one-year innings in Los Angeles - Hollywood. She was planning to direct a movie, and a common friend who worked as the casting assistant on this writer’s movie project brought them together. Apparently, the discussions however did not produce any results because she remarked that the this writer’s scripts lacked what she called described as ‘Americana’!)