James Karen – November 28, 1923 to October 23, 2018 – was an American character actor. He was best known by horror/fantasy fans, and probably by the wider public too, for his roles in Poltergeist (1982), The Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Invaders from Mars (1986). He died, aged ninety-four, having appeared in over two hundred TV and movies roles including a cameo appearance in 2018 comedy horror Cynthia.
Karen was born Jacob Karnofsky in Wilkes-Barre, in northeastern Pennsylvania, the son of Russian-born Jewish immigrants Mae (née Freed) and Joseph H. Karnofsky, a produce trader. As a young man, Karen was recruited into a production at the Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre. He later attended the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York.
His big break came when he was asked to understudy Karl Malden in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Beyond theatrical roles, Karen went on to play numerous characters on popular TV shows such as Starsky and Hutch, The Bionic Woman and The Rockford Files. He once remarked: “People don’t know my name, but they know my face because I’ve done so damn much work.”
His first notable film role, billed as Jim Karen, was in 1965 in the low-budget Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster playing Doctor Adam Steele. Often cited as one of the worst movies of all-time, Robert Gaffney’s sci-fi pic is undeniably great fun for fans of trash cinema.
As previously mentioned, one of Karen’s best-known roles were in the low-budget horror-comedy The Return of the Living Dead, in which he starred as the manager of a medical warehouse who inadvertently releases a military gas that re-animates the dead. Karen and Thom Matthews proved so popular with audiences, they both returned for the sequel in 1987, playing different roles because their characters were both killed in the first movie.
In the original 1982 Poltergeist he played Mr. Teague the greedy real-estate developer who built the Californian community of Cuesta Verde on the site of a former cemetery.
In a 2006 interview about The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Karen said that he helped write most scenes of his character: “It was the deal where he figures out he’s becoming a zombie and decides to incinerate himself in the crematorium…He kisses his wedding ring as he goes in. It was a very emotional scene, but it also got me out of being one of the rain-drenched zombies milling around outside the place at the end of the film. I didn’t really want to do all that muddy stuff”
America’s Most Haunted (2013)
Dark and Stormy Night (2009)
Trail of the Screaming Forehead (2007)
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Future Shock (1994)
The Unborn (1991)
The Willies (1990)
Girlfriend from Hell (1989)
Invaders from Mars (1986)
Jagged Edge (1985)
Time Walker (1982)
The China Syndrome (1979)
Capricorn One (1977)
The Bionic Woman (TV series, 1976)
The Invisible Man (TV series, 1975)