Pop Quiz

What do Samuel Beckett, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Paul Michael Glaser, Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson, Al Pacino, OJ Simpson, James Garner, Steven Spielberg, Michael Landon, John Houseman, Robert Redford, Oliver Stone, David Lynch, Will Smith and Bryan Singer all have in common?


All of them did projects with one of my favorite character actors, James Karen.

With 164 credits to his name, James Karen was a Hey! It’s That Guy! when JT Walsh was still in short pants.

One of his first credits (after episodes of Car 54, Where Are You? and The Defenders) was to appear in Samuel Beckett’s 1965 Film, a baffling whatsit from the soon-to-be Nobel Prize-winning author. Film starred Buster Keaton, and apparently the two of them were good friends, so much so that Karen would go on to impersonate Keaton from time to time. In Film, Karen wears extensive aging makeup that makes him look as old as he is now.

What’s an actor to do after he works with Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton? Why go on to Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, of course. Then, after working with a young Arnold Schwarzenegger in Hercules in New York, he got into a groove of television appearances, including Starsky and Hutch, Police Woman, McMillan and Wife and The Rockford Files.

Then came what may have been a breakthrough role in All the President’s Men, where he plays Stephen Collins’ lawyer on a television Redford is watching, and also provides (uncredited) the voice of a slippery politician, the one who protests that he’s got “a wife and a kid and a dog and a cat.”  He worked with OJ Simpson in 1978’s Capricorn One, and also in 1979’s The China Syndrome.  But the first time I noticed him was in Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, where he played Craig T. Nelson’s unscrupulous boss.  After appearances on Little House on the Prarie and The Paper Chase, he gave what I consider the greatest of his performances in Return of the Living Dead, where he gets to go completely nuts while battling brain-eating zombies in a mortuary.  (One of the amusing things about this performance, for me, was that it was in theaters while Karen was also appearing on television as the Pathmark Drugstores spokesman in New York.  I couldn’t watch the commercials, where he is paternal, friendly and blithely reassuring, without thinking of him sweating, turning yellow and trying to eat the brains of some teenagers.)  He appears in no fewer than three Oliver Stone movies (Wall Street, Nixon and Any Given Sunday) and also in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.  Bryan Singer directed him in Superman Returns but then cut his scenes.  He remains in the titles but does not appear in the movie, bitterly disappointing at least one filmgoer.  Finally, he is featured in Will Smith’s upcoming The Pursuit of Happyness.

I don’t know about you, but that’s what I call a career.  And it’s not over yet.
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33 Responses to “Pop Quiz”
  1. rjwhite says:

    At one time or another, Orson Welles threw dish heaters at each of them in anger.

  2. popebuck1 says:

    Okay, I admit it. I had sex with each and every one of those people.

    I’m not saying I’m proud of it – but it was pretty hard to do.

  3. greyaenigma says:

    I was going to say they all did work for the far-seeing box, but that seems like too easy of a category.

  4. seijiwolf says:

    Just how far reaching is your influence?

    They’ve all been involved with movies I hate?

  5. Urbaniak does above-average impressions of all of them?

    • eronanke says:

      For reals? Damn. I can pull off an OK Tim Gunn, and a passably Sean Connery, and if I try real hard, a good Junichiro Koizumi.

      • greyaenigma says:

        You should hear his Beckett. It’s uncanny.

        • eronanke says:

          You’ve heard it? In person? I’m jealous!

          • greyaenigma says:

            I haven’t, actually. I was just extrapolating from how long he must have had to practice.

            • Todd says:

              Mr. Urbaniak has, indeed, brilliantly performed the role of Samuel Beckett for me, often in the context of Beckett rapping in a thrash/metal band called The Unnamable, once as the first guest on a talk show hosted by a cat. In all cases, I must say that while his interpretation of the role was spot-on, he was not doing a literal impression of the Nobel-Prize-winning author. He read his lines in a gruff Irish murmur while Beckett had a rather nasal, high-pitched, pinched, professorial accent.

  6. chrisdon says:


  7. toku666 says:

    Henry II wants them all DEAD.

  8. urbaniak says:

    They were all on the very special episode of “The Love Boat” that I dreamt last night.

  9. robolizard says:

    They’re known for having something to do with the theme of death, and OJ Simpson’s being very much in the real world? Nyargh.

  10. clayfoot says:

    They’ve all enjoyed an obscure reference on The Venture Bros?

  11. greyaenigma says:

    Modification of earlier guess — all nominated for Emmy awards?

  12. They are all… short? Gay? Jewish?

  13. kokoyok says:

    Ties to the Nazis?

  14. robolizard says:

    They all hate the uglies?

  15. Anonymous says:

    Robolizard speaks.

    They all directed an X-Men film?

    If I was a bad comedian circa fall 2003, I could say they all ran for governor of California…

  16. mcbrennan says:

    It’s way too late to do my patented Jay Leno “they all had sex with Paris Hilton…at once?” joke. Rats.

    Its interesting, I was just thinking about him–both “F*I*S*T” and his “Simon and Simon” were on last week. When I think of the number of times I’ve seen this man in movies and on TV, especially in the 70s and 80s–it’s staggering. What a body of work. And his imdb credits start in 1962. When he was 39! He’s done all that work just since he was 40. Amazing.

    (I don’t remember him offhand in Hercules In New York, possibly because I was blinded by Arnold Stang’s raw sexual magnetism or deafened by the robotic Jeffrey Hunter wannabe who dubbed Arnold’s dialog. Or the bear-wrestling scene. Colbert would appreciate that.)

    I admire actors like this a lot. Thanks for this post.

  17. robolizard says:

    Hey! I saw you comment on…da beat. It… FREAKED ME OUT MAN! YOU BROKE THE FOURTH WALL! [dies]

  18. No idea why I thought he’d died — glad to know he hasn’t.

    I remember seeing Poltergeist for the first time (here in the NYC Tri-State area) and hearing the entire audience make a subtle “Ahhhhhh!” sound as something about one of his line readings made everyone think, “Oh, right, it’s the Pathmark guy!”

    One of the great character actors of our time – thanks for pointing out to even a fan like me how deep his catalogue is.

  19. In my house, he is known only as “Mr. Pathmark,” just as he has been since the late 70’s. Is that just an east coast thing?

  20. urbaniak says:

    Love the Karen!

  21. r_sikoryak says:

    I was also going to mention his beloved Pathmark commercials, which were my first exposure to him. I’m sorry to hear he was cut from Superman Returns; now I’m disappointed before seeing it.