Prolific character actor James Karen passes away at 94, leaving behind a career that included roles in Poltergeist and Return of the Living Dead. Born in 1923 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Karen began acting in the late 1940s, and remained at least somewhat active all the way to the present day. Karen’s resume consists of more than 200 film and TV credits, and he was often a stage actor as well. Notably, Karen also served his country in the Air Force during World War II.
While Karen appeared in many projects within many genres over the course of his career, there’s no doubt that his horror work came to define his legacy. Horror fans are extremely loyal, and once an actor has made a memorable impression within the genre, that person tends to be embraced by the horror fandom for basically the rest of time. It’s that loyalty that accounts for the large amount of horror-based conventions around the U.S., where one can regularly see performers who attained their greatest fame decades ago receive a heroes welcome.
Karen’s two most famous horror roles are undoubtedly warehouse foreman Frank Johnson in 1985’s horror/comedy classic The Return of the Living Dead, and Lewis Teague, the sleazy boss of main character Steven Freeling in 1982’s equally classic paranormal fright fest Poltergeist. According to THR, Karen died Tuesday in his Los Angeles home, with wife Alba Francesca by his side. No specific cause of death was reported.
Memorably, Karen’s characters in both films inadvertently end up causing the main conflict. In Return of the Living Dead, Frank accidentally releases the Trioxin gas that causes zombies to rise up and devour the brains of the living, while in Poltergeist, Teague makes the unethical decision to build the Cuesta Verde planned community on top of a cemetery. As Craig T. Nelson famously yells late in the film, Karen’s character moved the headstones and not the bodies, stirring up the spirits that plagued the Freelings. Karen would also return to play a character very similar to Frank in largely standalone sequel Return of the Living Dead Part II.
Outside of horror, Karen made appearances in enough TV shows and movies to fill multiple additional paragraphs. Just some of the highlights include All the President’s Men, The China Syndrome, Dallas, MASH, Dynasty, Cheers, Wall Street, Murphy Brown, The Larry Sanders Show, Seinfeld, Any Given Sunday, Mulholland Dr., and The Pursuit of Happiness. He also made a couple appearances on Coach, the sitcom starring his old Poltergeist co-star Nelson. That list still only scratches the surface of Karen’s long, enviable career.