Karen Black, who stirred movie audiences in the late 1960s and '70s with her ripe performances in a series of cutting-edge, independent movies like Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and Nashville, died Thursday, her husband announced on his Facebook page. She was 74.
Black was diagnosed with ampullary cancer in November 2010 and had one-third of her pancreas removed. She had two more operations this year to minimize the cancer, and her husband, Stephen Eckelberry, said in March that she was “mostly bed-bound” and down to 96 pounds from 156. The couple turned to a crowdfunding website and raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay for an experimental treatment in Europe.
Black’s rapidly declining health prohibited her from traveling, so she never made it to Europe. In June, she entered St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, and the Motion Picture Television Fund helped place her in a nursing facility, where she died.
Black’s association with some of the era’s most original projects began with Easy Rider (1969), where she played a New Orleans prostitute who romps with bikers Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda and new friend Jack Nicholson near the end of their cross-country trek.
She then earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress for her portrayal of a kind-hearted, small-town waitress in Five Easy Pieces (1970), a part that Nicholson recommended her for. Black also won a Golden Globe and a New York Film Critics award for her rich portrayal of dimwitted waitress Rayette Dipesto.
“You know, Rayette is not very smart; I don’t think you can play her,” Black, in 2011, recalled director Bob Rafelson telling her. “I said, ‘Let’s make a deal. When you say action, I’ll stop thinking.’ ”
Multi-talented and with an earthy sensuality that embodied the “Make Love, Not War” ethos of the era, Black was a natural for offbeat productions. She was part of the eclectic ensemble cast in Nashville (1975), Robert Altman’s inspired, Americana roundelay. She also composed and performed two songs for the films Memphis and Rolling Stone, and was nominated for a Grammy.
She recalled meeting with Altman about another film.
“He said, ‘I’m doing a picture in the fall where everybody has to write their own country-western music.’ And he said to come back and sing,” she remembered. “And I said, ‘I’ll sing now.’ And he said he could have a pianist or guitarist come tomorrow. And I said, ‘No, I’ll sing it now.’ ”
“I got up in front of the fireplace and sang. ‘Well I’d like to go to Memphis, but I don’t know the way. And I’d love to tell you how I feel, but I don’t know what to say.’ And he said, ‘You got the part. Welcome aboard.’ ”
In a career that spanned more than five decades, Black performed in a wide variety of movies, from seminal independent films to hackneyed horror fare.
During the peak of her popularity in the 1970s, Black’s roles capitalized on her voluptuous looks and adventurous persona. She won a Globe for best supporting actress for The Great Gatsby (1974) for her portrayal of an adulteress. In a similar use of her talents, Black played a promiscuous woman in the movie adaptation of Philip Roth’s sensational best-seller Portnoy’s Complaint (1972).
Black’s career peaked in the mid-’70s when she played in an array of movies: She co-starred in Airport 1975 as a flight attendent forced to fly the plane, then played in the popcorn actioner Capricorn One (1977).
More auspiciously, she performed in The Day of the Locust (1975), based on Nathanael West’s scabrous treatment of Hollywood. A year later, she played a black-hatted, blonde-wigged kidnapper in Alfred Hitchcock's last film, Family Plot (1976).
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In 1975, she starred as several characters in sections of Trilogy of Terror, an ABC movie of the week that was originally designed as a horror anthology series. The success of that triggered a rash of performances in such generic horror films as Burnt Offerings (1976) with Bette Davis, Killer Fish (1979), It’s Alive III (1987), Night Angel (1990), Children of the Night (1991), Dead Girls Don’t Tango (1992), Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996), House of 1000 Corpses (2003), Some Guy Who Kills People (2011) and Dark Blood (2012).
“Scary movies I’ve done -- there have been about 14 out of 175. They are not dominant in any way, shape or form,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2008. “I can tell you what happened, but it was sort of like a mistake. It’s like I went on a bad path and couldn’t find my way back.”
A glam-punk band paid homage to this portion of her career, naming itself The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black in 1990.
On TV, she guest-starred on numerous series, including The Big Valley; Mannix; Adam-12; Murder, She Wrote; Family Guy and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
Black also wrote screenplays: She received credits on Men (1997) and Charades (1998), and she ventured into playwriting, penning Missouri Waltz, which was performed in 2007 at the Blank Theatre in Los Angeles.
Born Karen Blanche Ziegler in Park Ridge, Ill., on July 1, 1939, she dropped out of high school to marry but soon divorced. At 15, she enrolled at Northwestern University, where she studied drama for two years. She acted in summer stock and local productions, including a low-budget Chicago-based film, The Prime Time (1959).
She left school and moved to New York, where she toiled in a number of odd jobs while pursuing acting. In 1962, she was selected for a role in The Tempest as part of Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park. Also for Papp, she played Olivia in Twelfth Night at the Hechter Theatre.
She won notice for her singing when she appeared in an off-Broadway musical, We’re Civilized? which spoofed Hollywood jungle movies.
She made her Broadway debut in 1961’s Take Her, She’s Mine, which starred Art Carney and Elizabeth Ashley, then appeared in The Playroom, playing a 15-year-old who instigates a kidnapping.
In the mid-’60s, Black moved to Los Angeles and had a role in You’re a Big Boy Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Her first TV dramatic performance was in 1967 in a segment of Run for Your Life, starring Ben Gazzara.
In Southern California, she also did theater, appearing with Jane Wyatt in The Decent Thing at the Pasadena Playhouse and in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real at the Mark Taper Forum.
During this period, Black performed in the thriller film Hard Contract (1969) and in three movies in 1971: A Gunfight, Drive, He Said and Born to Win.
In 1973, she performed in The Outfit and The Pyx, where she played a hooker involved with devil worshipers. She also wrote the theme song and supporting songs for the film. She also ventured back to Broadway to play in Keep It in the Family.
In more offbeat projects, she played in Eugene Ionesco’s farcical Rhinoceros and in Ivan Passer’s Law and Disorder, both from 1974.
Black, who for years was affiliated with the Church of Scientology, had four husbands, including fellow Trilogy of Terror actor Robert Burton and writer L.M. (Kit) Carson, with whom she had a son, Hunter.