Interview – James Karen

ROTLDKarenThere is a saying, if one loves what they do, they never truly work a day in their life. Perhaps that has been the key to longevity in life and entertainment for accomplished American actor James Karen. Recently celebrating his ninety-second birthday, Karen has attained an impressive resume on Broadway, in television, in film, and in commercials. Predominately recognized for his roles in classic Horror films such as 1982’s Poltergeist, 1985’s The Return of the Living Dead, and the loyal commercial spokesman for Pathmark Supermarkets, Karen has kept himself extremely busy through the years. With a comedic delivery, inviting personality,. and distinctive voice, Karen continues to be adored by dedicated fans to this day. Recently we sat down with the actor for a personal look into his career in entertainment, his experience working on Return of the Living Dead, desire to still act, and more. – You have attained quite an accomplished career as an actor over seventy plus years. You have worked a lot in films, television, and commercials. Tell me, what has this incredible journey been like for you?

James Karen – I have been very fortunate. I never really thought too much about it. I was not ambitious, I just loved to work. I never thought of a job being a big step forward, I thought only of the work. How rewarding it is to be working with other actors and, for the most part, everyone I have worked with has been lovely. I have run into very few bad apples, and I think that’s fortunate. It has been a lovely journey, I hate to think it is ending. At ninety-two, you have to think about that. I am very happy with the way it went, for the most part, it was very rewarding. I was happy I went into movies later in life, I was 50 when we came out here from NY. By that time, the NY theater was invaded by English musicals, I found out I was not as happy getting work.

My wife and I came out here, we had an offer of a movie, of a television show. An old friend of mine said come on out and I will give you a job, He was a television director. He said, “We’ll have some fun, we’ll visit.” He had visited with us in NY, that Winter he had directed a play House 90, which I was in. I thought, “Why not!” So I thought we would drive out and do a job or two and go home. Never made it home, started to work out here. Charlie Dubin, the director I was speaking of, is a wonderful director. He and I had gone to the Neighborhood Playhouse together before the war, he took us to Hawaii for Hawaii Five-O; I played a husband in it. We then just started to work and never got back to NY. Although I got back every two weeks for about thirty years doing the Pathmark commercials.

james karen 1
FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER, James Karen, 1965 – It is quite an amazing story you tell there. You have accomplished a very balanced career in television and in film. Did you prefer film over television? Which platform do you enjoy most as an actor?

James Karen – I am happy when I am working. It is very hard to say, but I love movies. Television is not as much fun because you are rushed and I do not think they allow you to work at your optimum. In movies, it is more relaxed, you are usually on them longer. Television is a week’s work usually. – Understood, completely. Of your extensive resume, you have attained some recognizable roles in the Horror community: 1982’s Poltergeist, and you also have the cult classic of 1985’s The Return of the Living Dead.

James Karen – Both those pictures are wonderful pictures. The Return of the Living Dead has a life of its own, most of my fan mail is based on it.

POLTERGEIST, Steven Spielberg, Craig T. Nelson, & James Karen, 1982 – It does quite have a life of its own. The Return of the Living Dead recently celebrated it’s thirtieth anniversary. It has become this Pop culture phenomenon, as you had mentioned, you get a lot of fan mail about it. What do you think has made this film have a sustainable impact over the years?

James Karen – It was just a heavenly cast, everybody was awfully right for their parts and it was a very creative time. It was Dan O’Bannon’s first picture, he never had directed before and just let us go. He did not try to be a great director who had big information for us every day, he let us fly. It was a happy company, we loved each other and that does not always happen. Sometimes you run into a situation where it is not a happy cast. Everybody was crazy about everybody else, there was no competition. There was only, “Let’s go baby,” you know? It was fun and it is apparent in the picture.

Certainly, nobody thought it was going to be a great cult classic. I saw the script and I never thought it was going to become that, although I should have known because there was so much joy working. Thom Matthews, who played my sidekick in it, never did a movie before and he just turned out to be a wonderful guy. One of the wonderful things about that picture was when you work, when the director has written it, usually he has his ear to the loudspeaker. If you change one word he goes crazy, Dan was not like that. We ad-libbed like crazy. I would say to Tommy, “Watch your tongue if you like this job,” which was a line I threw in. Liked his job? I mean his face was so wonderful, it was just great to go back and forth. Tommy and I ad-libbed like crazy.

Thom Matthews & James Karen Return of the Living Dead (1985)
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, Thom Matthews & James Karen, 1985 – The chemistry that you and Thom Matthews shared on screen certainly projected to the audience.

James Karen – I think so, Tommy just amused the hell out of me. – Return of the Living Dead opened the door for Thom Matthews to do Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives a year later and a bunch of other films. He went on to some good things as well.

James Karen – Yes, he did. He sort of retired; I do not know how it happened, but he became a contractor and very successful. He built George Clooney and Bryan Singer’s house. He has worked a lot for George Clooney; he was a close friend of his. George was living in his closet when I first met him, he is one of the nicest men I have ever worked with or run into in this business. George just has all his old friends and Tommy is one of them; they go off motorcycling together. They are good guys. – That is very interesting. In 1988, you and Thom were asked to come back in Return of the Living Dead Part II. Your character’s names were different, but you essentially had the same roles.

James Karen – They just liked our characters, the money came from Japan for the second one. They insisted on Tommy and I being used as the leads despite the fact that we were dead, we just ignored it and went ahead. The second picture has a lot of good things in it and is not equal to the first either, I don’t think. It has a lot of good things in it. Tommy and I worked well together again. There are some very funny sequences when we are working with bodies; stealing rings and things from bodies. That was funny!

Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures
Lorimar Pictures – It is funny, you are right. As you said, not to compare it to the original, the original is excellent, but the second film was entertaining. Sometimes it does not get the respect that it deserves. It is a fun film; there were a lot of funny sequences in it.

James Karen – Absolutely, I think it is harder to be funny with kids. They were lovely in it. Children do not work out often as funny as hardened criminals as Tommy and I. – What makes Return of the Living Dead Part II work, like you said is the mixture of the kids involved. There are some likeable characters in the second film as well: the lead female character comes to mind as one.

James Karen – Yes, her name is Suzanne Snyder. I never ran into her again. I liked working with her. Also, the doctor, Philip Bruns; good actor and well known. I loved working with him. – Absolutely. Doc Mandel was a very funny character in the film. You have a good amount of humor in a lot of the roles you have played. Is comedy, as an actor, something that is important to you?

James Karen – Yes, I never liked to play heavy dramatic roles. I liked to play Comedy. I was a light Comedian on Broadway, it was nice to move it over into movies.

RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, PART II, Dana Ashbrook, James Karen, Marsha Dietlein, Phillip Bruns, 1988
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, PART II, Dana Ashbrook, James Karen, Marsha Dietlein, Phillip Bruns, 1988 – Right, and it worked well as far as the Comedy, because it is believable. You are very believable when you present your lines. Delivery of a line is key to everything. You have a very distinct delivery about you, that was even seen in your television commercials, such as the Pathmark commercials.

James Karen – Yes, we fooled around a lot in those. Murray, who was the creative director, was just wonderful to work with; we had a lot of fun. I loved doing those, I did them for thirty years. – Wow, that is a long time. You were essentially the spokesman for Pathmark for all those years?

James Karen – Yes, I was, they were nice people to work for. It was a very good company, they really cared about their stores and careful about their advertising. It was truthful and they liked the way Murray and I did the humor of it. It was a nice period, we all liked working with each other and stayed together the whole time. It was the same crew, Murray and Roman Mayer, who was the artistic director; it was a great period. When I moved to California, they were at a critical point and thinking of moving on to another advertising agency. That is one reason why I said, “Let’s go to California, Pathmark seems to be ending.” After we got out to California, we got a call from them saying that people are very unhappy that I am not on the commercials. I said, “I moved to California.” “Well we will fly you back and forth,” and they did, they flew me back and forth for eighteen years. Every other Sunday night I flew to NY for a day. It was a busy time. – That is really amazing; they actually flew you back and forth to come back and do those Pathmark commercials. That says a great deal for yourself, that people really enjoyed the sense of comfort with you and those commercials. I guess it really helped sell the product and people really enjoyed you.

James Karen – Business was good, the commercials were good. – Maybe they should have hired you back, because Pathmark looks to be coming to an end.

James Karen – Pathmark is finished, A&P bought them a couple of years ago. A&P went broke, they extended themselves too far. Pathmark is over, which is too bad because they were a wonderful store.

james pathmark
PATHMARK COMMERCIAL, James Karen – Yes, you are right. Since you have been in the film industry as long as you have, you have seen a lot of big changes, and a lot has happened in the way we see and buy movies. Everything about the way movies are delivered is different over the past many years. What are some of the biggest changes you have seen?

James Karen – Of course, people do not have to go out to the movies anymore, they have got big screens and everything is quickly on home delivery. There is even streaming of movies, I rather like it. I do not understand why anybody would want to build a movie theater today, I think the handwriting is on the wall. Movie theaters for the masses of people are over. I go to movie theaters when there is a big, epic picture that I want to see and it has the sound of armies clashing and things like that. I am an older person, I would think young people would want to go out on dates and things. I would think that they would be the bulk of the audience in your movie theater. –  You are very right. Times have certainly changes. There are many that still enjoy the movie-going experience though. That certainly gives hope that some still do enjoy that special platform.

James Karen – I think it is partly my age; It is harder for me to get out these days. I was sick this past Winter and it left me with a slight limp, I use a cane at the moment. We have a wonderful screening room in the house and that is awfully nice.

Cinetel Films
Cinetel Films
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox – Glad to see that you are doing well now, that is really important.

James Karen – I am, and we did not expect it. As a matter of fact, Leonard Maltin wrote my obituary, fortunately it was not used. – Well, that is very positive. Now you have film credits dating up until recent years. Do you perhaps have a new project that you would like to take part in at some point? Like you said, you do not like to think your career is over. I am sure people would love to see you in a film once more, or many times more.

James Karen – Well, I would take a job of course if I were offered it, but there are not a lot of jobs for people my age. It is hard for them to get insurance for older people, that is a big thing with film. They want to make sure they can get insurance on actors. I remember Henry Fonda said one time, “They can’t insure me anymore, I’ve had a heart attack. I guess I’m not going to work anymore.” I don’t think he did. – That is unfortunate.

James Karen – I do small pictures for young people starting out, no money in it. I just do it cause I like to help young people and I like to see them get started, and I like to work. I did a picture in Kansas last year for a young director, it was a wild experience. We were in the prairie for about two months shooting out in the open all the time. I think that may be where I got sick. I do like to do that, I like to work with young directors and young actors. – That is great that you give back like that and you are doing it cause you love it. You mentioned about insuring an older actor and such. Out of curiosity, as an older American citizen, how do you feel the country treats older American citizens? America tends to discount someone when they reach a certain age unfortunately, and it is unfair.

James Karen – I have not run into any discrimination. It is different for actors because if there is an old part then you get an old actor. In big business, they are looking at their people and they probably cold-bloodedly call them out when they get old because they want young people in there. I think that business in this country is pretty cold-blooded, for actors, it is a little different.  They cannot get a twenty-two year old boy to play an eighty-four year old man, not very well anyway. – (laughs) You are absolutely right.

James Karen – Then why do it? There are a lot of older actors that are still fit and able to work. The thing within an actor’s work life is when they cannot remember the lines. I remember old actors who used to say, “Well my boy, things are bad for me.” “I’ve lost my study,” they would say. Meaning, they could not study their lines anymore and have them. I think that is the turning point for most actors. – You have really kept your mind very sharp through the years. You recently turned ninety-two years old. What has been your key to keeping yourself sharp?

James Karen – I never drank cheap whiskey (laughs). I do not know, I think I am lucky. I have a wife who is marvelous in her adjustment to me, and she has been wonderful for me. She kept me alive when I was sick, if it had not have been for her, I would not have made it.  She is just a wonderful woman, that makes all the difference in the world. – It definitely does. When you have someone who cares for you and is there for you to help you when you need it, that is what matters most. I had one last question pertaining to movies. On we cover music and films, particularly Horror films. You do like Horror films, what are some of your favorites?

James Karen – Frankenstein (1931) is the greatest Horror film ever made. Boris Karloff is one of our greatest actors in Horror, or anything, he just was a great actor. With all that makeup on in Frankenstein and in The Mummy (1932), completely covered with cloth, his soul shined through somehow. Then I got to know him and he was just a wonderful man. I think Frankenstein is our finest picture because of him. I saw it when it came out and I remember everybody was frightened, the depth of him, and I just loved him. I was not frightened, I just thought, “Oh god, he’s so wonderful.” I was looking at him like he was a young actor that I admired so much. I was really glad I got to know him.

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures – Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, classic film. We actually had the opportunity to speak to his daughter Sarah to speak of her father Boris. It was an excellent interview.

James Karen – Did she tell you about his pig? – No, she did not say anything about the pig.

James Karen – He had a pet pig. The pig would hear his car approaching the house and would get all excited and start squealing and jumping around. It is a nice story, get her to tell it to you sometime. – We will ask her next time we speak again, that is pretty interesting he had a pet pig.

James Karen – Yes, he had a little pig pen on one side of the house, they always knew he was approaching in his car because the pig was jumping up and down trying to climb the fence and get to him.  Nice story, the pig loved him.

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