Articles & Notes — August 9, 2013 at 11:01 am

Cult actress Karen Black loses cancer battle, dies at 74

Karen-BlackKaren Black, an actress whose roles in several signature films of the late 1960s and ’70s included a prostitute who shared an LSD trip with the bikers played by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in “Easy Rider” and a waitress unhappily devoted to the alienated musician played by Jack Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces,” died on Thursday in Los Angeles at age 74, NY Times reported.

The cause was complications of cancer, her husband, Stephen Eckelberry, said. Ms. Black’s battle with ampullary cancer, a rare form similar to pancreatic cancer, became public in March when she and Mr. Eckelberry sought contributions on a fund-raising website to pay for an experimental treatment.

Karen Blanche Ziegler was born in Park Ridge, Ill., on July 1, 1939, to Norman Ziegler and the former Elsie Reif, the author of a few novels.

She studied drama for two years at Northwestern University before decamping for New York City, where she appeared in a pair of Off Broadway revues – she composed the music for one of them – and took classes with Lee Strasberg, though the two did not get along.

She was hired for the role of Philia, the virgin courtesan (and the ingenue lead), in the Stephen Sondheim musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” but was replaced (by Preshy Marker) during a pre-Broadway tryout. She did land on Broadway in a 1965 thriller, “The Playroom,” starring as a youthful kidnapper, and in 1967 she appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s early film “You’re a Big Boy Now.”

Black began her career as a stage ingenue but was never really the ingenue on the screen. A rangy, imperfect beauty – her eyes were set ever so slightly off-kilter – she spent the better part of a decade as one of the movies’ most vivid character actresses.

At a time when the women’s movement was surging, she rarely played the self-liberating woman – as did, say, Ellen Burstyn or Jill Clayburgh – but she was often a brassy, attention-grabbing presence in films whose main characters were men.

“Black brings to all her roles a freewheeling combination of raunch and winsomeness,” Time magazine wrote about her in 1975. “Sometimes she is kittenish. At other times she has an overripe quality that makes her look like the kind of woman who gets her name tattooed on sailors.”

Black was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actress for her performance in “Five Easy Pieces” as a tenderhearted woman who was out of her intellectual league with her boyfriend, a gifted but angry and restless pianist, and his highbrow family.

That film was released in 1970, just a year after her brief but provocative turn in “Easy Rider” as a companionable hooker who swings between agony and ecstasy after she’s fed a tab of acid by Mr. Fonda in a New Orleans cemetery during Mardi Gras.

By the time the 1970s turned to the ’80s, her career had taken a sideways turn. She never stopped working – her list of credits, largely in independent films, is extensive – but her roles in ambitious, groundbreaking films were largely behind her.

After starring in a 1975 television movie, “Trilogy of Terror,” in which she played the lead role in three different tales of creepiness, she seemed to specialize in horror movies and thrillers, appearing in films like the 1986 remake of “Invaders From Mars” and Rob Zombie’s “House of 1,000 Corpses.” On television, she made guest appearances on series including “In the Heat of the Night,” “Profiler,” “Party of Five” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”

Black was married and divorced three times before marrying Mr. Eckelberry in 1987. In addition to him, survivors include a son, Hunter Carson; two daughters, Celine Eckelberry and Diane Koehnemann Bay; a sister, Gail Dugan; a brother, Peter Ziegler; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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