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Friday, August 9, 2013

Karen Black in Heaven

Pee-wee Herman posted on Facebook, "You'll be starring in everything in Heaven, Karen." And no doubt flying the plane there on her own.

Karen Black died yesterday, August 8, 2013, at 74 years old, after battling bladder cancer.

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

Karen Black, born Karen Blanche Ziegler from Illinois (taking her stage name from one of her ex-husbands), was a star whose performances were filled with Method intensity (she studied with Lee Strasberg). She possessed a quirky sensuality and a certain neurotic vulnerability. She was a camp movie icon with a large gay following and even played a male-to-female transgendered person opposite Cher, Sandy Dennis and Kathy Bates in Robert Altman's Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

Ms Black first guest-starred on 1960s tv series including The Invaders, The Big Valley, Iron Horse, Mannix and Adam-12. Her camp status was already cemented.

Her film debut was in 1969's Easy Rider, playing the role of a prostitute along with Toni ("Hey, Mickey") Basil. The film starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, co-starred Jack Nicholson (nominated for a Best Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar) and featured Phil Spector.

Karen first received major attention opposite Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970).

She was notably in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby, then went camp with Airport 1975 (as the stewardess who has to fly a plane with her crossed eyes yet!) and the tv-movie Trilogy of Terror, the Zuni fetish doll sequence still a classic. Her larger-than-life portrayals continued in John Schlesinger's The Day of the LocustNashville and Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot. She chewed up the scenery with the best of them, including co-star Bette Davis in Burnt Offerings.

As her career waned in the 1980s, Karen notably appeared on Murder, She Wrote. She was a long way from her two-time Grammy Award wins and Oscar nomination, but she continued to give us her  trademark intensity throughout her later performances, including Rob Zombie's 2003 House of 1000 Corpses, though she waded through an enormous number of grade-z movies, many straight-to-video.

Karen Black was a trouper to the bitter end and even had her husband snap her picture, on her death bed, for her fans. Quirky, intense, vulnerable eternally.

You'll be starring in everything in Heaven, Karen.

R.i.p., Karen Black. We'll miss you.

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