Born: November 28, 1923
Died: October 23, 2018 (at age 94)
Birthplace: Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, U.S.
James Karen (born Jacob Karnofsky; November 28, 1923 - October 23, 2018) was an American character actor of Broadway, film and television. Karen was best known for his roles in Poltergeist, The Return of the Living Dead, Invaders from Mars, and in The Pursuit of Happyness.
Karen was also known for his recurring television role as Tom Bradford's boss, Eliot Randolph, in Eight Is Enough. He appeared in commercials for Pathmark which earned his nickname "Mr. Pathmark". He was nominated for a Saturn Award for his 1985 role in The Return of the Living Dead.Karen was born Jacob Karnofsky in Wilkes-Barre, in northeastern Pennsylvania, the son of Russian-born Jewish immigrants Mae (née Freed) and Joseph H. Karnofsky, a produce dealer.
As a young man, Karen was encouraged to be an actor by U.S. Democratic Congressman Daniel J. Flood, who was an amateur thespian himself, recruiting him into a production at the Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre. He attended the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York.
Karen's big break came when he was asked to understudy Karl Malden in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
On television, he played Dr. Burke on As the World Turns and was the original Lincoln Tyler on All My Children. He was perhaps best known for his recurring role on the television series Eight Is Enough. He is also well-known on the East Coast for his 20 years as television and radio spokesman for the Pathmark supermarket chain. On the streets of New York, Karen was known as "Mr. Pathmark".
Karen appeared in an episode of the 1977 NBC situation comedy The Kallikaks, and played Earl Silbert in the 1979 miniseries Blind Ambition. A decade later, he appeared in an episode of The Golden Girls as a prospective love interest for Dorothy. He is also known for having played Herbert Purcell, a businessman and leader of a local Ku Klux Klan chapter, in a 1981 episode of The Jeffersons; and the evil tycoon Nathan Lassiter, who killed the town of Walnut Grove in the final TV movie of Little House on the Prairie. Karen was a lifelong member of The Actors Studio. Karen's other notable film credits include The China Syndrome and Oliver Stone's Wall Street.
Perhaps his best known roles were in the low-budget horror comedy The Return of the Living Dead, where Karen starred as the manager of a medical warehouse who inadvertently releases a gas that re-animates the dead, and in Poltergeist where he played the real-estate developer who built the California planned community of Cuesta Verde on top of a former cemetery.
In a 2006 interview about his role in The Return of the Living Dead, Karen noted that he helped write most scenes for his character: “It was the deal where he figures out he’s becoming a zombie and decides to incinerate himself in the crematorium...He kisses his wedding ring as he goes in. It was a very emotional scene, but it also got me out of being one of the rain-drenched zombies milling around outside the place at the end of the film. I didn’t really want to do all that muddy stuff".
Karen was set to appear in Superman Returns (2006) as Ben Hubbard, but his scenes were ultimately cut. Later in his career, Karen was recognized for his role as Martin Frohm in the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness. His final film roles were in the low-budget films Bender (2016) and Cynthia (2018).
He was married to Susan Reed (1926-2010), the actress and folk singer, with whom he had one son, Reed, whose godfather was Buster Keaton, Karen's good friend. Karen and Reed divorced in 1967. He married Alba Francesca in 1986.
Karen died on October 23, 2018, at his home in Los Angeles at the age of 94. The cause was cardiorespiratory arrest.
Karen was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Actor for his role in The Return of the Living Dead in 1985. For his contributions to the horror film industry, Karen received an honorary Saturn Award in 1998. He was nominated for a Fangoria Chainsaw Awards for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Unborn in 1991.