Celebrities | Movies | Pop Culture | TV | 80s | 90s | 70s
James Karen, Legendary Actor Known For 'Poltergeist' And So Much More, Dead At 94
You probably don't know his name, but you definitely know James Karen's face.
The prolific character actor, best known for his role as the unscrupulous developer Mr. Teague in 1982's Poltergeist, passed away in his Los Angeles home on Tuesday at the age of 94.
Over the course of his seven-decade career, Karen racked up over 200 acting credits across movies, television, and even video games. If you watch just about any of the most popular television shows from the 1970s, 80s, or 90s, you're guaranteed to see him pop up sooner or later.
Born Jacob Karnofsky on November 28, 1923, he was the son of Russian-born Jewish immigrants living in Pennsylvania. Karen took up acting after returning home from serving in the United States Air Force during WWII, studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre in New York.
After starting out on Broadway, Karen moved on to television, starring as Dr. Burke in As the World Turns as well as playing the original Lincoln "Linc" Tyler on All My Children.
Over the 1970s and 80s, Karen quickly became one of the most recognizable faces that no one could name thanks to appearances on TV shows like Starsky & Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, the finale of Little House on the Prairie, M*A*S*H, Cheers, and more.
But it would be his roles in 1982's Poltergeist and 1985's Return of the Living Dead that he would become best-known for.
Karen once admitted that his role as Frank in Return of the Living Dead was the most fun he ever had working as an actor. He revealed in an interview that he was actually responsible for his character's crematorium death scene, saying,
I helped to write the ending for my character, Frank. 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.
He continued acting right up until his death, appearing on TV shows like Golden Girls, Murphy Brown, Coach, Touched by an Angel, Seinfeld, and American Dad!, as well as movies like Wall Street, Piranha, Mulholland Dr., and The Pursuit of Happyness. His final completed role was in the horror-comedy Cynthia, released this past August.
View this post on Instagram
Yesterday, we learned of the passing of a great friend, actor James Karen. Over the years, James joined us for a TCM Classic Cruise and he made numerous appearances at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. He was always willing to share stories about his career and his experiences in Hollywood. We will greatly miss those moments and we will certainly miss spending time with him. Thank you for everything you did onscreen and for being so approachable offscreen. You will be missed. #tcmremembers #jameskaren
As news of his death began to spread, tributes began pouring in, showing just how significant a legacy he left behind.
Bit of sad news for POLTERGEIST fans. Actor James Karen, whom you'll remember moved the cemetery, but left the bodies in Cuesta Verde as land developer Mr. Teague, has passed away at 94. https://t.co/3MFiZHFP72 #Poltergeist #JamesKaren #MrTeague pic.twitter.com/mHbZQWWOGa— Amblin (@amblin) October 24, 2018
Jimmy Karen was my friend, and it was a privilege to hear his stories. His joie de vivre was contagious. I hope this obituary does him justice, though I hoped I would never have to write it. I still can't believe he's gone. https://t.co/iT80qDRley #JamesKaren #MaltinOnMovies pic.twitter.com/lbvDByK5am— Leonard Maltin (@leonardmaltin) October 24, 2018
RIP James Karen. Former podcast guest and good friend. Continued working into his 90's. Just chatted with him on the phone a few days ago. He was the same Jimmy. Friendly and charming. pic.twitter.com/wLK0pgzZtm— Gilbert Gottfried (@RealGilbert) October 24, 2018
Saddened to learn of the passing of James Karen. A talented actor and great guy.— Joe Mantegna (@JoeMantegna) October 24, 2018
Not only was James Karen a great actor who gave me hope to be as good as him, he was always happy and positive. I was just talking about him the other day and feel very heavyhearted. I love you James. RIP. pic.twitter.com/fwTR2z9pVs— Linnea Quigley (@LinneaQuigley) October 24, 2018
So sad to hear of James Karen's passing today. He gave the horror genre some incredibly memorable characters. pic.twitter.com/VyYE22JMmp— Fangoria (@FANGORIA) October 24, 2018
His longtime friend and film historian, Bruce Goldstein, confirmed his cause of death was cardiac arrest caused by respiratory problems. James Karen is survived by his wife, Alba Francesca, his son Reed from his first marriage, and two grandchildren.
RIP James Karen, Hollywood's truly lost one of its unsung best.
Sources: The Hollywood Reporter; DVDTalk; IMDB