"There aren't any more movie stars, which is terrific with me, it's very healthy. A lot of love now occurs in the business, people helping each other to do good work, getting high on each other's success. Isn't that great?"
Born Karen Blanche Ziegler in Park Ridge, Illinois, she took her stage name from first husband Charles Black, whom she married at the tender age of 16. The marriage would last only seven years, but she would keep the name for the rest of her career. And she was advanced for her age in more ways than this, as at the time of her marriage she was already a student at Northwestern University. However, she was bitten by the acting bug early, and dropped out of college to head to New York and Lee Strasberg's world famous acting studio at age 17.
She started appearing in a number of off-Broadway roles in her late teens and early twenties, and even had her first bit part on screen in 1959 in the exploitation flick The Prime Time, at the age of 20. By 1965, she had debuted on Broadway to acclaim in the short-lived critical darling The Playroom. The following year, she got her first major screen role in the early Francis Ford Coppola film, You're a Big Boy Now.
Black turned her heads with her self-named role, and followed it up the next year with another turn co-starring with Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. This time, she earned an Oscar nomination, and the first of two Golden Globe awards she would receive in her career. Karen Black had become one of the most buzzworthy actresses of the new decade--a decade in which she would participate in changing the face of American film.
excellent book on '70s cinema.
She would also begin to dabble in the horror genre, beginning with the horror-tinged thriller The Pyx in 1973, but starting in earnest in late 1974, when she took a major role in the TV movie Trilogy of Terror--mainly because her second husband, Robert Burton, had landed a part. The two would be divorced by the time the movie aired, but Black's sojourn into the realm of the dark and bizarre had begun. She followed it up in 1976 with starring roles in Dan Curtis' Burnt Offerings with Bette Davis, and in Family Plot, the final film of Alfred Hitchcock.
Her resume during the 1980s would include such movies as Tobe Hooper's Invaders from Mars remake and It's Alive III: Island of the Alive. By the 1990s, she had settled firmly into B-horror shlock territory--her films of that era include the likes of Children of the Corn: The Gathering and other obscure direct-to-video fare. It was a far cry from starring roles in Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman pictures, but she continued to work steadily and had found a niche for herself which endeared her to legions of fans like never before.
Black's most memorable role of the new century, and perhaps the part for which she is most known to younger horror fans, would come in 2003 thanks to horror aficionado Rob Zombie. A fan of the genre--particularly the '70s and '80s era of splatter and exploitation, Zombie had been a big fan of Black's work and decided to thrust her back into the horror mainstream along with other cult favorites in his debut picture, House of 1,000 Corpses. As the unforgettable Mother Firefly, Black was the best thing about the film, and it instantly reminded fans of just what a talent and a gift to the genre she truly was.
However, by that point, Black had already been forced to curtail her career thanks to a diagnosis of ampullary cancer in 2010. Through surgery and treatment, she was able to beat it within months, but it returned aggressively last year, and on August 8, 2013, with fourth husband Stephen Eckelberry by her side, it claimed her life.
Although her career trajectory did not follow the same path as many of her compatriots from those exciting game-changing days of the late '60s and early '70s, in her own way Karen Black left a mark that will never be forgotten. She found a niche and a formula that worked, keeping her working and beloved by fans of horror and B-movies for decades.
All in all--a legacy most actors would kill for.
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