Karen Black

  • Born: July 1, 1939
  • Died: August 8, 2013
  • Location: Los Angeles, California

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This June 11, 2009 file photo shows actress Karen Black, a cast member in "Irene in Time," at the premiere of the film in Los Angeles. The “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces” star Black, 74, has died. Her husband, Stephen Eckelberry, says the actress died Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013, after battling cancer.

'Five Easy Pieces' star dead at 74

By HILLEL ITALIE

AP National Writer

Karen Black, the prolific actress who appeared in more than 100 movies and was featured in such counterculture favorites as "Easy Rider," ''Five Easy Pieces" and "Nashville," has died in Los Angeles.

Black's husband, Stephen Eckelberry, says the actress died Thursday from complications from cancer. She was 74.

Known for her full lips and thick, wavy hair that seemed to change color from film to film, Black often portrayed women who were quirky, troubled or threatened. Her breakthrough was as a prostitute who takes LSD with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in 1969's "Easy Rider," the hippie classic that helped get her the role of Rayette Dipesto, a waitress who dates — and is mistreated by — an upper-class dropout played by Jack Nicholson in 1970's "Five Easy Pieces."

Cited by The New York Times as a "pathetically appealing vulgarian," Black's performance won her an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe Award. She would recall that playing Rayette really was acting: The well-read, cerebral Black, raised in a comfortable Chicago suburb, had little in common with her relatively simple-minded character.

"If you look through the eyes of Rayette, it looks nice, really beautiful, light, not heavy, not serious. A very affectionate woman who would look upon things with love, and longing," Black told Venice Magazine in 2007. "A completely uncritical person, and in that sense, a beautiful person. When (director) Bob Rafelson called me to his office to discuss the part he said, 'Karen, I'm worried you can't play this role because you're too smart.' I said 'Bob, when you call "action," I will stop thinking,' because that's how Rayette is.'"

In 1971, Black starred with Nicholson again in "Drive, He Said," which Nicholson also directed. Over the next few years, she worked with such top actors and directors as Richard Benjamin ("Portnoy's Complaint"), Robert Redford and Mia Farrow ("The Great Gatsby") and Charlton Heston ("Airport 1975"). She was nominated for a Grammy Award after writing and performing songs for "Nashville," in which she played a country singer in Robert Altman's 1975 ensemble epic. Black also starred as a jewel thief in Alfred Hitchcock's last movie, "Family Plot," released in 1976.

"We used to read each other poems and limericks and tried to catch me on my vocabulary," she later said of Hitchcock. "He once said, 'You seem very perspicacious today, Miss Black.' I said, 'Oh, you mean "keenly perceptive?" 'Yes.' So I got him this huge, gold-embossed dictionary that said 'Diction-Harry,' at the end of the shoot."

The actress would claim that her career as an A-list actress was ruined by "The Day of the Locust," a troubled 1975 production of the Nathanael West novel that brought her a Golden Globe nomination but left Black struggling to find quality roles. By the end of the '70s, she was appearing in television and in low-budget productions. Black received strong reviews in 1982 as a transsexual in Altman's "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean." But despite working constantly over the next 30 years, she was more a cult idol than a major Hollywood star. Her credits included guest appearances on such TV series as "Law & Order" and "Party of Five" and enough horror movies, notably "Trilogy of Terror," that a punk band named itself "The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black."

Black was also a screenwriter and a playwright whose credits included the musical "Missouri Waltz" and "A View of the Heart," a one-woman show in which she starred.

Black was born Karen Ziegler and grew up in Park Ridge, Ill. Her father was a sales executive and violinist, her mother the children's novelist Elsie Reif Zeigler. By grade school, she already knew she wanted to be an actress and at age 15, she enrolled in Northwestern University to study drama. By the early 1960s, she had moved to New York; made her film debut, in "The Prime Time"; and had married Charles Black, whose last name she kept even though they were together only for a short time.

She studied acting under Lee Strasberg and through the '60s worked off-Broadway and in television, including "Mannix" and "Adam-12." Her first Broadway show, "The Playroom," lasted less than a month, but brought her to the attention of a young director-screenwriter, Francis Ford Coppola, who cast her in the 1966 release "You're a Big Boy Now."

Black was married four times. She is survived by Eckelberry, a son and a daughter.

___

AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


Condolence & Memory Journal

Candle

Thank you for the great pictures..talent missed. E

Posted by elissa - tulsa, OK - no   January 12, 2015

she was an easy piece herself.

Posted by morty tishman    June 19, 2014

She was a very talented actress she will be missed

Posted by ron seagreaves - coplay, PA - just a fan   September 24, 2013

Candle

I always enjoyed you in all of your movies. You complemented the other actors you played with. You are in a better place now. Rest in peace

Posted by anna moore - willingboro, NJ - fan   September 06, 2013

Candle

One of my favorite movies (not mentioned here) is "Day of the Locust". Karen Black was great in that! I think it's a little known masterpiece.
RIP, Ms. Black.

Posted by Gabriele Obkirchner - Manchaca, TX - Just a fan   September 04, 2013

Candle

RIP Ms. Black. You brought great things to the roles you played. In fact listed on my Facebook page under Favorite Movies is "Come Back To The Five And Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean". It was a beautiful and haunting performance. My prayers and sympathies to your family and friends. And also to your many fans; we lost a great one.

Posted by Daniel Hansen - Dallas-Fort Worth, TX - Just another fan   September 04, 2013

Candle

R.I.P DEAR KAREN,YOU WILL BE MISSED...

Posted by vernalynn mcgee - GULFPORT,, MS - JUST A FAN   August 22, 2013

To the Friends and Family.,

May the God of comfort provide support and strength... This is mentioned at 2Corinthians 1:3,4 - may you have peace.

Posted by Robyn - Atlanta, GA - TV fan   August 13, 2013

Candle

she was amazing. she did this tv movie in the mid 70s called 'trilogy of terror.' one of the three was about this little doll that comes to life and ends up killing her and transforming her into himself. scared me to death; i still remember the end of that with her squatting on the floor, stabbing the knife into the floor, waiting for her bf to come over so she could kill him. rip karen

Posted by william - san francisco, CA - a fan   August 09, 2013

Candle

I enjoyed growing up with you. A wonderful actress. To her family....I am so sorry for your loss

Posted by sheryl hall - Cross Plains, TX - no relation   August 09, 2013


Family Album

This June 11, 2009 file photo shows actress Karen Black, a cast member in "Irene in Time," at the premiere of the film in Los Angeles. The “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces” star Black, 74, has died. Her husband, Stephen Eckelberry, says the actress died Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013, after battling cancer.
In this May 14, 2012 publicity file photo provided by KPP, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Tom Sherak and actress Karen Black are seen during "Keeping the Promise," presented by California Disabled Veterans Business Alliance at Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles. The “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces” star Black, 74, has died. Black’s husband, Stephen Eckelberry, says the actress died Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013, after battling cancer.
In this Dec. 29, 1981 file photo, director Robert Altman, right, poses with actresses, from left, Karen Black, Sandy Dennis and Cher in New York City. The “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces” star Black,74, has died. Black’s husband, Stephen Eckelberry, says the actress died Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013, after battling cancer.
This June 11, 2009 file photo shows actress Karen Black, a cast member in "Irene in Time," at the premiere of the film in Los Angeles. The “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces” star Black, 74, has died. Her husband, Stephen Eckelberry, says the actress died Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013, after battling cancer.