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Karen Black2

Actress Karen Black, who portrayed memorable characters in “Five Easy Pieces,” “Easy Rider” and “Nashville,” has died. Black’s husband, Stephen Eckelberry, says his wife died from complications due to ampullary cancer. She was 74.

Black’s husband relayed the sad news via Facebook.  This is what he wrote.

“It is with great sadness that I have to report that my wife and best friend, Karen Black has just passed away, only a few minutes ago. Thank you all for all your prayers and love, they meant so much to her as they did to me.”

Karen Blanche Ziegler was born in Park Ridge, Illinois, on July 1, 1939, to Norman Ziegler and the novelist Elsie Reif.

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 landed her first film role in director Francis Ford Coppola’s “You’re a Big Boy Now” in 1966, and in 1969 she played a prostitute who takes LSD with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in “Easy Rider.”  This breakthrough role helped her land the part of a waitress who dates an upper-class dropout, Robert (Jack Nicholson,) in director Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces.” Black won critical praise and a Golden Globe for her role as Rayette , while scoring an Academy Award nomination for her performance.

She went on to have roles in other films such as 1971’s “Drive, He Said,” 1972’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” 1974’s “The Great Gatsby,” 1975’s “Nashville,” “The Day of the Locust,” “Airport 1975” and in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film “Family Plot” in 1976.

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For television audiences, Black scared millions playing four different roles in Dan Curtis’ “Trilogy of Terror.” The third segment “Amelia” featured Black as a woman trapped in her apartment by a pint-sized, rampaging and blood thirsty Zuni fetish doll. Heralded as the scariest made-for-television horror movie to date, people who viewed its premiere still have the image and sound of the Zuni doll ingrained in their memories.

With parts waning by the late ’70’s, Black’s best-known later feature was “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” about the reunion of a James Dean fan club in a small Texas town 20 years after his death. Directed by Robert Altman, Black played the transsexual Joanne. The film was critically panned.

Black was a chameleon when taking on roles. In 1975, Time magazine wrote an article claiming,

“Black brings to all her roles a freewheeling combination of raunch and winsomeness. 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’s career transitioned into independent films such as Tobe Hooper’s remake “Invaders from Mars” and Rob Zombie’s “House of 1,000 Corpses” while still making guest appearances on television series including “In the Heat of the Night,” “Profiler,” “Party of Five” and “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.”

Ms. Black was married and divorced three times before marrying Stephen Eckelberry in 1987. In addition to her husband, 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.

R.I.P. Ms. Black you played some unique characters and you had the ability to wrap people’s emotions around your little finger. You will be fondly remembered and sorely missed. 

Sources: CBS News, New York Times