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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