Karen Black Dies at 74

Karen Black dead

Actress-singer starred in 'Nashville,' 'Easy Rider,' 'Five Easy Pieces'

Karen Black, who was supporting Oscar-nommed for “Five Easy Pieces” and starred in films including “Nashville” and “Easy Rider,” died Thursday after a long battle with ampullary cancer. She was 74.

Her husband Stephen Eckelberry announced her death on Facebook, saying “It is with great sadness that I have to report that my wife and best friend Karen Black has just passed away, only a few minutes ago. Thank you all for all your prayers and love, they meant so much to her as they did to me.”

The offbeat, intense actress also tried singing, songwriting and playwriting, and was nominated for a Grammy for writing the songs “Memphis” and “Rolling Stone,” which she performed in character in Robert Altman’s “Nashville.”

She often played women on the edge, prostitutes and lower-class women who were not always bright and wore their hearts on their sleeves.

SEE ALSO: Altman always made pix his way

Her first major film role came in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1966 “You’re a Big Boy Now,” playing an uncharacteristic role as a sweet and innocent girlfriend of the hero. Early in her career, she also appeared in TV shows including “Adam 12,” “Mannix,” and “Judd for the Defense.”

After a small role in the huge hit “Easy Rider,” her film career was propelled with her performance as waitress Rayette Dipesto in the 1970 “Five Easy Pieces,” one of several works in which she appeared opposite Jack Nicholson.

She starred in the 1972 film of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” though the film didn’t live up to the wit, notoriety or success of Philip Roth’s novel.

Roles in major studio releases included two from 1974: as the stewardess who is forced to fly the plane in  “Airport 1975”  and as Myrtle Wilson in “The Great Gatsby,” starring Robert Redford. In 1975, she continued on her streak in high-profile works, including the lead, an aspiring actress in John Schlesinger’s big-budget “The Day of the Locust”; Altman’s ensemble “Nashville”; and she starred in the 1973 TV movie “Trilogy of Terror,” including a memorable segment in which she battled a devil-doll that’s come to life.

In 1976, she appeared as a kidnapper in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, the comedy-suspenser “Family Plot.” She had a memorable role somewhat later in Altman’s 1982 “Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” but hit films were elusive. After the big-studio releases dwindled, she continued to work in smaller films, which were sometimes arty, sometimes exploitation pics, sometimes both.

She talked to Paper magazine recently about working with iconic directors in the 1970s, as well as the numerous brooding and anti-establishment films that were inspired by the success of “Easy Rider.” She said, “We were just doing our thing. I happen to have an acting style that is very spontaneous and very un-self-conscious, and it went with the movies of the ’70s. It was a great time, it was a very beautiful time. There was a way of loving freedom — or loving spontaneity.”

Born Karen Blanche Ziegler in Park Ridge, Ill., she attended Northwestern U. before moving to New York to appear in Off-Broadway productions and studied with Lee Strasberg. She took the name Black from her first husband, Charles Black.

Black was also married briefly to actor Robert Burton and to screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, with whom she had a son, Hunter Carson. She married Eckelberry in 1987, with whom she adopted a daughter, Celine.

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    1. occultology says:

      I’ll always remember your Karen Black Magic! She was always beguiling, beautiful, & bewitching; that little zuni devil doll never stood a chance up against her, no matter what scribe Richard Matheson wrote. Thank you for the indelible cinememories: “I’m a bit of a Freak, myself.” “I’m not a Freak, but I like to freak!”

    2. Justafan says:

      am I imagining things or did she sing “Don’t touch me there” in Nashville?

    3. Judy says:

      I do not care who knows it, I LOVED her as the “Mother” in a House of a 1,000 corpses. How wonderful for older actresses to look sexy and foxy even when playing someone shall we say, slightly demented? Of course, as the hillbilly girlfriend of Jack Nicholson in 5 Easy Pieces, she was also sublime.

    4. Frank W says:

      As a kid, I didn’t appreciate her and probably only saw three of her films in the theater: Airport ’75, Capricorn One and Invaders from Mars. BUT Trilogy of Terror! The fight with the Zuni Doll, we ALL remember that!

      You now know all the secrets of the universe.

    5. Mat Ether says:

      I am fascinated by how many movies she made after her fame dissipated. She was still hugely in-demand and I really look forward to checking out her back-catalogue.

    6. clydee says:

      willl miss u baby.
      u were my buddy….

    7. margie-rose dalton says:

      Beautiful talented lady & actress. May she R.I.P. So many have suffered & died of monster cancer. My deepest sympathy.

    8. Dan Hynes says:

      Karen was so offbeat hot,those eyes&cheeks,her bizarre,delicious femininity made me weak with want. Who can forget her? just a fan

    9. Karen was a wonderful woman, actress, and friend. I was very fortunate to work with her last year and marveled at her work ethic, graciousness, and, of course, her talent. She will be greatly missed. Rest in peace, Karen.
      Lee Sankowich

    10. Max says:

      Very sad. She was a great actress. As a kid I liked her movies and as a grown up I really appreciated her virtuositic performances and range. RIP Karen.

    11. nerdykiss says:

      I’m not usually moved by “celebrity death” but Karen Black gets me, maybe because she represents the last of the risk-takers…
      Karen Black seemed to be the kind of person who would live forever. She was so devoted to BEING KarenBlack, how could it ever end?
      She made the most of it, and I think she was aware of our deep affection for her.
      I could go on about how, with how homogenized & cookie-cutter everything is now, we’ll never have another Karen Black… But that holds true for so many of The Greats she worked with…. So lets just say: There will NEVER be another Karen Black, and aren’t WE the fortunate ones to have grown up WITH her talent.

      Love you forever, Karen.

    12. Michael says:

      Just saw her ib her last role, filmed in Maine called Vacationland It was good, she played a somewhat eccentric mother/grandmother who is re-united with her estranged daughter and grand daughter, her performance was very good!

    13. Tony Spera says:

      A beautiul and talented actress. May he be at peace with God in Heaven.

    14. robert says:

      Always liked her! Especially in Trilogy of Terror fighting the little voodoo doll with spear…

    15. Photographer says:

      I went to a great party at her house when Hunter was really young. Maybe five or six. Anyway,
      I was thrilled to be there.

    16. rgold02 says:

      Rest in Peace Karen. I am praying for your husband as I know he will miss you. See you on the other side some day.

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