A lot of character actor greats are of the “Hey, it’s that guy!” variety: You may see them in a lot of movies but never think to look up their name. Yet you always recognize them, and you’re always glad your paths have once again crossed. James Karen was definitely one of those “hey, it’s that guy!” guys. You don’t fully appreciate them until they’re gone. And Karen’s now gone, too, as per The Hollywood Reporter, having just passed at the age of 94.
Where do you know James Karen from? Take your pick from over 200 credits. Specifically you may remember him as the crooked real estate agent who sells a nice suburban family a haunted house in the original Poltergeist, and who comes pathetically undone when patriarch Craig T. Nelson finally shakes him down. He was Jane Fonda’s semi-supportive boss in The China Syndrome. He played at least mildly hissable authority figures in three Oliver Stone movies: Wall Street, Nixon, and Any Given Sunday.
One of Karen’s biggest and funniest roles was in 1985’s Return of the Living Dead. A darky comedic meta-spin-off of the George A. Romero original, written and directed by Alien co-creator Dan O’Bannon, it featured an ensemble cast fighting off a new and very real rash of zombies. One of them was Karen, who played the bumbling medical supplies office foreman who accidentally releases the gas that causes the undead to spread.
One of his first victims is himself; he spends most of the movie slowly, step-by-step succumbing, all while weeping and complaining. Karen actually returned for the first sequel, as another character. Watch his carefully misplaced confidence in one of the opening scenes, before things go hilariously awry:
If Karen was typecast, it was as authority figures, ones you couldn’t trust but whose saving grace, of sorts, was that they were incompetent, in over their heads. That made them endearing, or at least worthy of a modicum of pathos. Watch his one scene in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. He plays an old school casting director who coaxes Naomi Watts’ up-and-comer into a steamy audition. She hits it out of the park, but Karen is the scene’s secret scene almost-stealer. His nervous energy suggests a character’s whole history in miniature.
Karen’s CV is a character actor’s dream of steady work and walking alongside giants. Just a handful of his films: All the President’s Men, Capricorn One, the Neil Diamond The Jazz Singer, Frances, Jagged Edge, Up Close & Personal, The Pursuit of Happyness. No one else can say they acted in both one of John Cassavetes’ finest films, 1977’s Opening Night, and in 1965’s Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster, to say nothing of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s screen debut, 1970’s Hercules in New York.
And then there’s TV: He pops up in episodes of [deep breath] As the World Turns, The Streets of San Francisco, Hawaii 5-0, Police Woman, The Jeffersons, Knot’s Landing, Dallas, M*A*S*H, Trapper John, M.D., Family Ties, Dynasty, Cheers, Moonlighting, Webster, Amazing Stories, Magnum P.I., Sledgehammer!, Golden Girls, Murphy Brown, Matlock, L.A. Law, Designing Women, Coach, Melrose Place, Seinfeld. He even had a repeated, show-stealing stint on The Larry Sanders Show.
Two other notes about James Karen. He was, as with many character actors, a theater hound, but one with a helluva Broadway debut: As the understudy to Karl Malden in Elia Kazan’s original 1947 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, alongside Marlon Brando. And if you don’t recognize him from movies or TV, you may recall one of the thousands of ads he cut as spokesperson for East Coast supermarket chain Pathmark, where his catchphrase was “Why pay more?” We leave you with one of those.