Monday, July 01, 2019

Happy Birthday Karen!

The Anniversary of Karen's 80th Birthday.

Saturday, July 01, 2017


Karen Black, 1965
Karen arrived in New York city in 1962.  She worked odd jobs, performed Shakespeare in the Park, off-Broadway productions, came close to a Broadway debut in the original version of "Something Happened on the Way to the Forum,"  but didn't last past the previews.  Then in 1965 at the age of 24, she got a phone call that changed her life for the Broadway play The Playroom.  From her unpublished biography:

A woman who had witnessed one of my auditions, singing with my guitar, wanted me to go up for a play called “The Playroom”.  She knew I was very young,  not only looked young, and the part was for a fifteen year old character. Okay, I rose from my couch and readied myself.

I went by subway to a tall building, one of the top floors, actors were given scripts to study before going across the street to a Broadway theater and getting on stage to audition.  I read the scene without enthusiasm.  It was bunches of teens singing and talking.

In the course of time, I was walked across the street.  Waiting, waiting. I was told later that hundreds of girls auditioned.  So there I was in a huge mass of “being teen” girls.  I’ve never seen so many blonde ponytails in my life.  Waiting waiting. I found some stairs backstage and climbed them and there before my weary eyes:  a black leather couch!  I lay down and almost immediately went to sleep.

The stage manager, a handsome gay fellow who seemed to grasp the amusing quality of the moment awakened me and handed me the other scene.
 Okay, drowsily, I sat up to read it.  Oh my God!  This was a role.  Of course she’s saying that and doing that - she is frightened down to the depths of her being that she will lose her father, Lose him, if he goes on that trip.  Fear drives her; why it could drive her clear across the stage.  Oh my god she would do anything, anything to make him stay.
Enormously inspired, I rose and I paced.

It was my turn next.  I went behind the curtains and could hear the girl auditioning onstage. Well she was very Bryn Mawr.  I’ll never forget the comfortable drawling of her words.  “NO!” I said to myself. “All wrong!´ There’s nothing comfortable here.  This moment here is life and death for our character.

 I got out on stage and they wanted me to do sing, talk teen scene.  I sang “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” acapella in my soprano range.   Joseph Anthony’s voice then rose from the back of the pitch dark theater, “Do you know anything a bit more - Rock and roll?”  I sang the new Beatles hit, “We Can Work it Out.”

Well they seemed to like that okay because they then invited me to continue and to do the scene.  

In the scene, my dad way across the stage. I ran up to him as I spoke.  I ran in desperation, hardly knowing I was moving. It was fear driving me to him.  I begged him to stay, and every word held beneath its sound the depth of fear urging me to speak.  I finished the scene.

I won’t forget what happened next.  Because what happened next was nothing.  Silence.

Then Joseph Anthony’s voice came out of  the darkness, “Where have you been?” he asked.

“Why, I’ve been right here, “ I answered. “Right here in New York City.”
Rehearsals were intense.  I would get on the subway with the toast and hardboiled egg still in my mouth, and sometimes it was hard to swallow it.  I was concerned!  I wanted to do the best that I could. Seeing Peter Kastner there everyday mde my insides rise to an exotic delight.  It was if a light shone from his Canadian sweater right into my eyes when I would see him every morning onstage.  And Joseph Anthony was a proud handsome and wonderful director.  He would say to the kids- Peter Kastner, Bonnie Bedelia, Christopher Norris, Augusta Dabney And me,  “Nothing! is easier to play than fear.  Just about anyone can produce fear in his or her belly and feel it.”  For some reason I never forgot those words and they helped me to feel a comfortable latitude in pulling up my fears in shows such as  “Trilogy of Terror!”

Mr. Anthony invited me to stay over at his wonderful home out of town - a white house with windows galore in the living room overlooking forestry.  After breakfast one morning and after what he called our “Ablutions” we  all went for a walk through the  trees, beautiful forlorn trees of November. Mr. Anthony then said, “Didn’t this come on rather suddenly?” meaning Peter and myself.
I suddenly wasn’t alone anymore.  There were calls for interviews.  The New York Times came over to the shabby place where Peter and I were living and mentioned in the paper that it was a railroad apartment on the 55th Street and 10th Avenue (an awful section of town in the mid sixties) and that the rent was $85 dollars a month.  Well what did they expect?  I had lived on as little as believe it or not 30 dollars a week in my time there in New York!  Was I suddenly to be a rich Broadway star??  

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

Monday, October 07, 2013

Karen and Nina

About a year ago, Karen reunited with her biological daughter.  The last time she saw her before that was the day she was born.

You see, many years ago during her first year at Northwestern, still a teenager, Karen gave up a girl for adoption.  She called her Nina.  Her father was a young Drama student, Robert Benedetti, with whom she remained friends till the day she died.

Illinois had, until recently, very strict closed adoption laws.  It made it virtually impossible for biological mother and child to connect.  What made it even more difficult for Karen was that in the 80s two different people approached her through her agent saying that they were her real daughter.

But the dates didn't match.

That made me her a little gun shy about trying to find her daughter.  Her brother Peter and I both tried going through the Illinois authorities, but it was not fruitful. 

Then on August 7th, 2012, I checked Karen's FB fan site and found the following message:

"Hi Karen, Illinois has recently allowed adoptees like me to access their original birth certificates. I just received mine today. I was born on March 4, 1959 at Cook County Hospital, and the name listed for my mother is Karen Blanche Black. Would this happen to be you?"

The dates matched.  And this is what Karen wrote back:

"I am. Been a long time. I hated leaving you behind, turbulent waves of sorrow. thank you for making this possible Diane. Your father is still a good friend, a genius, a professor, a television producer. you will love him. we will all love each other. I'm kinda stunned."

Since then Karen and Diane reconnected, she stayed at our house a number of times, even managed to paint together.  She help care for Karen when she could, helping us when she visited when the cancer started taking its toll.    The talked emailed and texted many time, staying close until the end.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Stephen Eckelberry's Eulogy of Karen on her Memorial, September 17th, 2013

I recently found 1996 Chicago Tribune press clipping of an interview Karen did - one of those where you have short answers to questions - favorite childhood memory, my heros, etc.  The last question was "three words that best describe me."  Karen's answer:  Light, present, non-derivative.  I couldn't have said it better myself.
On the subject of light, she was essentially, to her core, a happy person.  She could work really hard and often did.  But she loved having fun.  She would put as much energy into having fun as she would into her work. Her parties where legendary - people still come up to me and say what a great birthday party we had in 1989.  She loved seeing friends and going on picnics - and playing party games - especially games that involved performing - like one she invented "Are You Pleased?"  Of course the answer was always 'no'.  "What would it take to please you?"  - "sing me a song that expresses how you feel about flowers" ' "Stand on your head" or "do you an improv that you are a barking dog trying to get a steak off the table."

Let's talk about present - what she means by that is being present - and to me that was the biggest lesson I learned from Karen - Be there - engage life! There's an exercise in Scientology where you have to sit in front of another person and do nothing - just be there comfortably without fidgeting.  It's a lot harder than you think.  When you first do the exercise you typically do it a couple of hours a day for a few days.  Karen loved that exercise so much that when she first did it in the early sixties she did it for a whole year.  'I think you are done Karen'  "No, I love this!"  She was present right until the very end.  She was actively engaging life until the very end, which astounded the doctors, they never saw anything like it - most in that stage just nod out on morphine.  She was in major pain, and yet took less pain killers than most housewives - she wanted to be there!  A few hours before she died she had me doing her leg exercises, she wanted to get strong so that she could walk again. 
I learned more about living watching her die than watching anyone else live.
She had been writing her autobiography with Linda Kandel, finished the last interview the night before - but she remembered one sentence she wanted to add.  -  by this point she could barely breath, and I couldn't understand what she was saying, but she dictated to me over the course of 15 minutes, a whole paragraph, one word at a time.  Here is what she had me transcribe - now mind you, this is not some deep philosophical statement, it was just a sentence that she wanted inserted in to the section about her love life - or rather her unrequited passion as a young woman:
"But these beautiful deep and bright red wooden apples that I gazed upon where the very ones that kept me from going across the slender hallway and into the television room and having sex with Charlie's brother Tommy, just as I stared at the bannister along the hallway at the room in which classes where held in daylight at Perdue U. which kept me from rolling on the cement walkway with Jim Stevens at midnight." 
That was her last creative act, 2 hours before she died.

Okay, the last one - non-derivative:  Karen though about things in her own way, had her own conclusions and ideas about everything. Everything about her was completely original. 
She made up her own language, I tried to figure out what it was - seemed like a combination of Celtic and Swedish - it was usually when she was happy and wanted to express her affection and delight about something - so it would come out in various ways:
"Oh Sorsee sordid crinda!"  Just nonsense words that I guess had a certain satisfying quality when expressing them.

And she was completely original when it came to acting.  It really wasn't method, though she did that too, it was just a combination of an insane amount of prep and then a complete in-the moment expression. She would prep by researching her role - do a Texan accent - what part of Texas?  Pan handle?  Southeastern?  Dallas?  She would call people who knew people and then find someone that was from Southeast Texas - "I don't have accent anymore really" -  then Karen would proceed to write out using her own phonetic notation how each vowel was pronounced. She would memorize like crazy! 
When I first went with her she told me her rule:  Be able to say your lines flawlessly 10 times.  So she would have me run lines with her, and if she made one screw up, she would reset the counter to zero, and do it again, until she had it 10 times perfect. Then, when she was on set, she was free to be completely in the moment and there for the other actor.
Her work was an astounding combination of iron-willed discipline and freedom - complete control and complete lack of control at the same time.  It's a trick that few people are capable of doing.

Last thing I want to talk about is help.  Karen helped a lot of people - in her own way.  She never though she really helped anyone, she felt guilty that she was too hedonistic to go out and feed the homeless or raise money for earthquake victims - and yet she helped everyone she met.  She had an ability to become best friends with everyone she met, usually in less than five minutes.  She saw them for who they were deep inside and validated them for what they did. She gave you - you.  She certainly did it for me.  I was introverted when I first met her, reading books voraciously, but not going into the world - she made it okay to engage life, and led by example, which was a kind of joyous charge at existence.

Many wonderful thoughts and kind words and thoughts have made their way to us since Karen's passing.  I'll leave you with one, from my friend Noel Sterrett:

"Several years ago I was in the middle of writing a script, and I asked Karen to let me know what she thought of the story. In it, the female lead inadvertently  saves the life of a rock star she is stalking. As a result, her dream comes true and he falls for her, and...

Karen stopped me right there: 'NO NO NO, that's backwards. You don't love who saves you, you love who you save'."

Well, on that note, Karen must have loved a lot of people, because she helped everyone that had the fortune to cross her path.

Thank you.

Monday, August 12, 2013


Karen wrote many poems, in fact several poems made their way into the California Quarterly, a fact for which she was very proud.  "I'm a published poet!" she said when she got her copy in the mail.  Here is a poem I found that seem appropriate at this time - Karen, by the way, loved trees.  Stephen.


In a little month the men will come
and screw unscrew the screeching trees
uncorked, unable, not to grow again
Replaced by many many things that we call houses
we stupid angular masses that move only to the rhythm of success and failure
to build that which likens to us:
square houses , drab in colour, never fetching to the eye
square homes milky gray and khaki
vomit peach and sometimes a hope of blue
eight of them on the place where my trees have been.
I went , of course, for a talk,
a last goodbye.
There is one, oh there is one that I must mention.
I know it cradles, circles , embraces the old homestead
with a crafty needle- birch - eye!
For how else could it assiduously escape the roofing enclosure!
It bends back just now, moves over the rafters when it may!
And in so doing, paying little attention to the winding snakey direction of its own limbs,
it comes up more fragile, formed with attenuated grace,
in fact more of an explosion of bark and tiny greens than all the rest.
Ah well, that’s the nature of giving, isn’t it?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of that which gives.
And then: a Christmas tree! Two stories tall, sporting the pointed reflective leaf,
lacking only berries. All hail! The last Christmas!
But there are rattan trees
proffering only sprouts of fading green
one bony trunk and then another and another
pointing to the sky,
simple, like simple children pointing effortlessly with tiny bodies at the sky

And the fruit trees are pregnant.
They bulge with the fumes of life,

more highly scented and ambrosiac than a vagina.
And they will die
they will all be cast down by red metal in a month.
No I will continue:
I picked a small orange from one,
It was underneath the white thunderously scented white stars on branches above.
And now,
before its better birth,
the aborted ball in my hand smelled only of perfumed flowers.
It doesn’t know.
No one has told it:
The heavens will be empty soon.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

August 7th update from Stephen, Karen's husband

A lot of people have been asking me what's the latest with Karen, so here it is:
   Last post I did was mid-June, we were in St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. A week later, everything the hospital could do for Karen had been done; bacterial infections & anemia handled, heart & lungs working - everything but the cancer itself.  By the way, props to St John's, a top notch hospital with a great staff of doctor's and nurses.
  Karen's health continued to deteriorate at an alarming pace. She became bed-bound: the spreading cancer having eaten away part of a vertebra and nerves in her lower back. Her left leg stopped functioning.  We could not go to Europe as we had hoped. It would have been almost impossible to travel to the airport.  So we brought alternative treatments to her bedside.  Hardly as effective as doing a full treatment in a clinic, but I firmly believe that these treatments have been keeping her alive.  I can't tell you how many times doctors and nurses have pulled me aside and told me that I better start hospice, as she was about to die.  One doctor told me that he thought that Karen had only 24 hours to live when she arrive at St. Johns June 3rd, and yet here she is alive two months later.
   The kind people at the Motion Picture Television Fund helped place her in a nursing facility, where she is now.  The cancer is still spreading slowly and it takes its toll.
   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.  You look at the scans, they tell you one thing, then you meet Karen, and what you are left with is how amazingly alive she is. Maybe it's her belief system, maybe it's because she was never one to tune out with drugs in her life, but mostly it's her innate character. She can't help but take life head-on and be completely engaged in the moment, always interested, always curious, always present.
   My daughter and I have both stopped working so that we can be by her side and we have hired someone to help as well. Thanks to your generous support through this process we can be there for her all the time.  We are supplementing traditional medicine with all the alternative care we can afford.  This would not have been possible without your generosity.
  As a filmmaker I never remain idle, and have been filming this whole process from the beginning almost three years ago - it has been therapy for both Karen and myself, because after all, if cameras are rolling, it can't be really serious, it's just a movie, right?  I hadn't planned on doing anything with the footage, until a few weeks ago, Karen reached out to her old friend, Elliot Mintz. Elliot is considered a media guru who has offered advice to dozens of famous clients over the years including Karen. They spoke by phone about ways Karen could share her experience with others, in her own words, in her own way. I spoke with him about the many hours of film I had shot and within days, Elliot presented some ideas for us to consider.

Karen & Elliot screen grab
   On June 21st, Karen put on her make-up and her hair (chemo is not kind on hair) and had a heart to hear - a bedside talk with Elliot. They spoke for almost two hours. With my daughter shooting second camera in the tiny room, I filmed the deeply moving and candid conversation. Karen of course is very enthusiastic about finding the right platform for some kind of presentation. 'You can take the girl outta showbiz.....' so, we will see. It's still a little raw for me, I'm not sure. It would be an interesting and moving journey to share with a truly unique and original spirit. We are both grateful to Elliot for his support and guidance (He is representing us pro bono).
   So, that's where things are as we begin August. I wish I had better news to report. But cancer seldom allows for that. Karen and I have received hundreds of messages from you. Your prayers and well wishes help sustain us. We remain eternally grateful for all the love you continue to share.