Thursday, June 30, 2016


I auditioned for Five Easy Pieces just like any other actress might and it was just one of those things that couldn’t stop going right.
I used to bring changes of wardrobe along with me in my large purse when I had more than one audition in a day.  After the first one, I’d slip into a bathroom, say, on the Paramount lot, change into the outfit that better suited the character I was about to audition for, get in my car and drive away, careful not to drive into anything. (I’ve always been a lousy driver.) 
On the day I auditioned for Five Easy Pieces, I just happened – seriously folks- to be wearing the perfect outfit, though I hadn’t read the script yet.  These guys knew me, of course, as I’d done Easy Rider with them. But the whore I played in Easy Rider had nothing to do with the gentle, mindless sexuality of Rayette Dipesto.
I was wearing a ruby-colored satin blouse with a pair of silly ruby satin ruffles all down its front and flowing slightly see-through crazy pink and purple floral print pants Rayette would’ve died for.
I went home and to my new plush (for ME) apartment and read the script. I  talked it out loud a little, laughed a lot, loved it.  Being a comic since my childhood, I can’t help but bring light-hearted aspects to any character.  If Rayette takes herself seriously, you’ve lost the performance.  She is foolish.  She doesn’t, of course, know this.  And that gives the audience a kind of distance from her: they can laugh at her, but at the same time, love her.
When I went in for the reading, quite relaxed, Fred Roos was there, one of the all time great casting directors – (Black Stallion - producing eventually with Francis Ford Coppola The Godfather, Lost in Translation)—along with the great genius Bob Rafelson. I got all the laughs I’d intended so I felt this was going well, as this is a very good gauge for me of the efficacy of a performance – tragic OR comic !  I remember sitting on Fred Roos’s lap as Rayette.  Made it part of the scene.
Well, they wanted to give me the part! But there was a problem.  Rafelson had me come into his large but cozy office again, this time in the evening and this time to “accuse” me of being smart - too smart to play Rayette Dipesto.  He made this very clear to me, looking at me seriously and yet with tenderness.  “Well”, I responded, “and I’ll be smart. Right up until the very last moment before you say, ‘Action!’ and then I’ll simply stop any and all thinking.”  Rafelson could see that I wasn’t being cute.  I meant it and he knew somehow that I could accomplish this.  I got the part. 
There are certain very workable things to be recognized about film that just never get stated. So I’ll state them now:
I’ve made at present (2008) one hundred and seventy-five films in my life and never before Five Easy Pieces nor after this film have I experienced shooting a movie entirely in sequence.
The opening scenes of the movie script were shot in Bakersfield, L.A. and then we all got into a car and shot the movie, again, in exact sequence as we traveled northwards up the west coast of the U.S.  We stayed at hotels along the way, and the next scene in the script was tomorrow’s scene and the next, the scene written for the day after!  The movie culminates at Bobby’s ( Jack Nicholson’s) home which again, was the true end of our journey, in Vancouver Canada.  Even the motel where Bobby planted me for his return to his family, was, in fact a motel outside of that city.
I had already met and fallen in love with Toni Basil ( one of the lesbian hitchhikers Robert and Rayette picked up along the highway) as we’d been driven to  the point of insanity together making Easy Rider and the hilarity of doing something that made no sense to either of us day after day has made us loving friends to this very day.
She had gone into the closet of the house she shared with Dean Stockwell and had screamed for hours to break her voice and lower it to suit the character she played. 
Helena Kalioniotes was a great favorite of the group.  Carole Eastman had heard this endless intense rap of Helena’s about how “man” was dirtying up his environment so many times she just put it into the screenplay. Helena was hilarious.
Evenings we’d order up food, and then gather together in Jack’s room and dance to the Beatles. “…Something in the way she moves..” 
Oh God the way Jack moved.  What a great dancer! I can see him now in the big warm room, his leg up, knee bent , making those slow ass-first turns. I in my jeans and little top, watching as I ate my breakfast for dinner repast of bacon , eggs and no carbs.  This was the only outfit I wore of which Toni approved.  
Toni basil was and is on of the great all- time dressers.  I had visited her home and she took me down to her closets in the nice basement of ----home which were filled with outfits and clothing.
She had a way of predicting just what was about to come into fashion.  After Five Easy Pieces, at one of Jack’s parties up on Mulholland where Barbra Streisand would show up and everyone he’d ever worked with practically, Toni came into the darkened living room crowded with the stunning paintings Jack liked wearing a little round black hat perched on her head (with a slight veil) a suit from what seemed to be the forties and socks with heels.  It was only months later that I saw almost the same outfit in the fashion pages.  True. Believe it or not.
Jack was a magnificent soul. I was falling in love and the more I understood him the more I stood in admiration of him. Once I said to him, “Jack, some people just are not there!  I swear, no matter how hard I try to connect, they don’t come up to the point of being there.” 
“Blackie”, Jack replied, “you can always find the person.  Just keep looking.”
He had warmth, he had a great brightness of soul.  Jack shines.  And that ebullience of soul cannot be extinguished, ever.  
There were producers at that time who shall remain nameless who really scared me then.  Clever, well- suited execs that I just didn’t feel would ever be on the same wavelength as mine.   But Jack would just – how can I put this- just include them.  Just embrace them for whatever they were. And he would work with them.
I remember in one of motel rooms once, seeing the scripts that were being offered him.  It makes no sense that this occurred on the road shooting “Pieces”-because why would he lug around this huge lot of scripts?  But I remember seeing neat piles of them on two long pieces of furniture.  Even at that time there were tremendous numbers of offers.
Jack once talked about how his spot-on knowing of which scripts would make a great movie.  The fact of that never made its way into people’s understanding of him as a potential director.  In my opinion he was correct, and had this particular aspect of his brilliance been addressed differently, he would have become one of our great American directors. 
This was a very golden time.  Toni, Helena, Jack , Bob, myself- we were very happy; only in the making of “Nashville” with our beloved Robert Altman have I experienced the near ecstasy of happiness I felt on that long drive /shoot up the Northern coast.
As the sun was setting one day, we spied a huge hill of sand. We stopped the car, took out the oranges we were saving to eat on the drive and played catch with them as the sun went down.  Then all of us including, at least in my memory, Bob, lay down and rolllllled down the great hill, getting all dirty and sandy.  One after the other, rolled and rolled.
Nothing in “Five Easy Pieces” was improvised.  Carole Eastman’s dialogue was just so natural, it sounded that way.
Jack convinced me that I was a good actress.  He honestly believed in my work, saying “You got a lotta moves, Blackie.”  This is a great compliment because what he meant is that I have plenty of choices I can make as an actor at every given turn- choices of voice, expression, gesture, choices of character -while in the moments of the scene being shot.
His belief in me truly helped me and I’ll always love him and be grateful to him.
As my career diminished and his exploded as the years went by, I no longer was invited to his parties and only at odd hours in the morning might I get a call from Jack, still calling me Blackie.  When Jack was honored by the American Film Institute, I was not invited, but my amazing P.R. man at the time, the illustrious Elliot Minz, made sure I was present at the event.  I was not asked nor could this man convince anyone that I should sit at the long table where Jack was presiding and being photographed with others more acceptable now to be seen at such a prestigious event.  Afterwards I went up to the dais and gave him a hug, and he said, “Blackie. I didn’t know you were here.”

There were many endings for “Five Easy Pieces” and only toward the very end of the shoot did Bob Rafelson, Jack and all the members of their company -B.B.C.- agree upon which one it would be.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Eckelberry

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Karen is so adorable with everyone on 5EP and the wonderful special moments they shared while making the film and also Nicholson above all praising her acting talents.

Love and missing you so much Karen, from love from a late fan in this new generation of today.

I want to extend my thank you to Stephen, for sharing this entry of a great, remarkable, funny and gifted lady with a beautiful heart who touched so many others too.