James Karen – A Gentleman of Horror Mastery
James Karen was one of those actors that when you heard his name, you thought “Who?” but I guarantee that if you’re into your films then you’ve seen him in various films and television roles over the decades there in the background, usually in a supporting role but he has been the lead actor on occasion. His films span multiple genres and, chronologically and most often as not, there will be a horror movie, then an espionage thriller, then a sci-fi, then a war film. James Karen was in that large but often over-looked club of actors and actresses that when you see them in a film you think “Now where have I seen them before?”
James Karen was born Jacob Karnofsky to Russian-born Jewish immigrant parents in the Pennsylvanian city of Wilkes-Barre on November 28th, 1923. He was encouraged into acting by U.S. Congressman Daniel Flood who recruited him into the Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre.
Theatre gave him his first big break when he became Karl Malden’s understudy in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Nationally known on U.S. Television Soap Operas and Dramas and a long-standing television and radio spokesman for the Pathmark Supermarket chain, it wasn’t until supporting roles in Capricorn One, The China Syndrome and The Jazz Singer that gained interest in him and he landed roles in The Poltergeist and The Return of The Living Dead. His character died in Return of The Living Dead, but he returned in a different, and leading role, in the sequel.
James Karen was a lifelong member of The Actors Studio and he was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Actor for his role in 1985’s The Return of The Living Dead but it wasn’t until 1998 that he received an Honorary Saturn Award for his contributions to the genre that he exceled the most in, Horror.
He was a good friend of Buster Keaton, the silent movie legend, who was also the Godparent to James’s only son, Reed.
James Karen had an illustrious career spanning 70 years, and not many actors can claim that accolade, he was always a desired talent and was working right up to his death (the low-budget film Cynthia in 2018). He died of cardiorespiratory arrest on October 23rd at his Los Angeles home at the grand old age of 94.