Karen Black, whose most notable work in over 100 films include Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and Nashville passed away on Thursday at the age of 74. One day earlier, on August 7th, Karen’s husband Stephen Eckelberry posted an entry on her official blog stating, “I have given up predicting what is going to happen to Karen. In June family members flew in fearing the worse, but Karen is still here.” The following day I spoke to Stephen two hours after she had passed away while I was attending the Locarno Film Festival. He had announced her death on Facebook, saying, “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 had been battling ampullary cancer for several years and recently, with the help of the Motion Picture Fund, had moved into a nursing facility. I visited her there just a few days before her 74th birthday. In spite of being bed-ridden, Karen remained the perfect hostess and nurturer, successfully persuading her visitor (me) to drive to the neighborhood grocery store and assemble a cheese and charcuterie plate so no one would go hungry while keeping her company. This was the same Karen who would welcome hundreds of friends to her and Stephen’s home with a feast that she had cooked herself earlier that day. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine that Karen’s abundant generosity and kindness might have inspired many friends to join her fans in a rally of support to raise funds through a GoFundMe campaign for medical treatment this past spring.
Born Karen Blanche Ziegler in Park Ridge, Illinois, she entered Northwestern University at the age of 15. After two years of studies, the cerebral Midwesterner headed for New York and would later study at the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg. Karen appeared in a number of Off-Broadway shows until landing her first film role in You’re A Big Boy Now directed by Francis Ford Coppola, followed by a breakout performance alongside Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in the iconic 1969 film, Easy Rider. She won a Golden Globe and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of a waitress in Five Easy Pieces opposite Jack Nicholson. Robert Altman’s Nashville gave Karen the opportunity to play a country singer and the chance to write and perform two of the movie’s songs, Rolling Stone and Memphis.
Her professional accomplishments span over five decades but she will always remain in my mind, a woman with a wide smile and effervescent personality, talented and whip-smart, possessing abundant Midwestern frankness and loyalty, who challenged the world with her unconventionality but who remained until the end, a kind and generous soul.
We send our love and support to her husband Stephen Eckelberry, and her kids Celine Black, Hunter Carson, and Diane Koehnemann.