Several years ago I got a phone call no one ever wants to receive: it appeared that Jimmy Karen was on death’s door. He wanted a “proper” obit and asked me to write one. As difficult as it was, I wanted to do right by him. Jimmy had a wide circle of friends, so I wasn’t surprised when his wife Alba put me in touch with George Clooney, Morgan Freeman, and Oliver Stone for quotes. Then a miracle occurred: Jimmy rebounded and regained his health! George Clooney even referred to this false alarm in his thank-you speech at this year’s AFI Awards dinner.
Although his energy was limited in recent years, Jimmy was not the type of person to stay home when something fun was happening. He was happy to attend screenings, lunches, and parties. He was in good humor just yesterday, but breathing was difficult, and he died peacefully in his sleep. He was 94 years old, just one month shy of his next birthday.
I grew up watching him pitch weekly specials for the Pathmark supermarkets and never dreamed that one day my wife, daughter and I would regard him as family. (He even attended Jessie’s baby-naming ceremony 32 years ago.) Here is the remembrance I wrote when we had our “scare” several years ago. I wanted to do him justice, but part of me hoped I would never have to use it. I still can’t believe he’s gone:
He was born Jacob Karnovsky but changed his name to James Karen when he set out to become a professional actor in 1940—and worked in the theater, television and movies for the next seventy years. Jimmy was also one of the most social animals on the planet and had a rare gift for acquiring—and keeping—friends. My family and I felt lucky to have been among them.
“His friends have been there for the long haul,” says Morgan Freeman. “It’s one of the things you notice.” George Clooney adds, “I met him when I was 21 and I was already too old for him. Old was not something Jimmy believed in. Age, yes. Old, no. He was filthy and raunchy and loving and kind and everything you could draw up if your job was to draw up a perfect life.”
If his name isn’t familiar to you, his face probably is; he appeared in countless TV shows and had some memorable movie roles as well. He’s the realtor who sells Craig T. Nelson and family their ghost-ridden house in Poltergeist, Jane Fonda’s boss in The China Syndrome, the man who gives newcomer Charlie Sheen an office tour in Wall Street, and one of Will Smith’s first benefactors in The Pursuit of Happyness. He worked with everyone from Marlon Brando to Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his first American movie), for directors ranging from Elia Kazan to David Lynch, and needed little prodding to tell stories about any or all of them.
If you lived in New York or the Northeast, you knew him as the Pathmark man, a friendly fellow who touted the current price of chicken fryers and produce at that giant supermarket chain for nearly thirty years. At one time, market research revealed that he was the most familiar figure on New York television. After all, local newscasters only appeared on one channel, while Mr. Pathmark was on every station in town. Fortunately, West Coast casting directors didn’t know of this familiarity when they started giving him guest shots on TV series in the 1970s, so it never proved to be a hindrance. After he and his devoted wife Alba picked up stakes and moved to Los Angeles, Jimmy commuted back to New York on a regular basis to continue shooting those commercials. He accumulated a zillion frequent-flyer miles.
He was born and raised in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and, to hear him tell it, couldn’t wait to get out. He started acting with a local theater group and, he says, was encouraged to leave after an angry husband learned that he was having an affair with the man’s wife. Arriving in New York in 1940, he went to see his cousin, the celebrated actor Morris Carnovsky. Jimmy had seen ads for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in a theater magazine, but Carnovsky dissuaded him from going there. Instead, he picked up the phone and called Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. That was all it took for Jimmy to be welcomed there. When he explained that he had no money, one of the company’s benefactresses covered his tuition and gave him a weekly allowance.
On his first day in Manhattan he met Bill Darrid, a fellow acting student who became his closest friend. (Bill later married Kirk Douglas’ first wife Diana; as a result, Jimmy has known her son Michael Douglas his whole life.) When they heard of the Pearl Harbor attack in December of 1941, they both decided to enlist, Jimmy choosing the Army Air Corps because of all the aviation movies he had seen and loved while growing up. After his discharge at the end of the war he picked up where he left off at the Neighborhood Playhouse. He made his Broadway debut in Elia Kazan’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, taking over the role of the Young Collector after the original actor left the cast. When the play came to Los Angeles two years later, Jimmy was summoned to a meeting with Louis B. Mayer at MGM, but turned down the opportunity to sign a long-term contract; he thought of himself as a theater man, and that’s where he worked most often for the next two decades.
Like many other performers at that time, he thrived on the annual employment that summer stock provided. In 1957 he prevailed on playwright Marc Connelly to allow him to rewrite his old stage chestnut Merton of the Movies as a vehicle for Buster Keaton, and Connelly readily agreed. Jimmy toured with Keaton that year and called the experience “the most glorious time I’ve ever had in the theater. The most creative. Buster worked all summer improving the play. It was a creaky piece and it just got better and better and better.
“He was my boyhood idol who turned out to be everything you want a boyhood idol to be: kind, a great teacher. Great teacher.”
Jimmy remained friendly with Buster and appeared in one of the comedian’s last pictures, the Samuel Beckett short Film (1965). He was devoted to Buster’s widow Eleanor for the rest of her life. In later years, it gave him great pleasure to participate in the annual Keaton Festival in Iola, Kansas, near Buster’s birthplace. He also hosted a 2004 documentary, So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM, for his friend, British film historian Kevin Brownlow.
He appeared in twenty Broadway plays and formed long-term friendships with fellow actors Barry Nelson and Jason Robards.
He had recurring roles in two daytime soap operas, As the World Turns and All My Children, but worked most often in guest spots on a staggering number of series over the decades: The Waltons, The Streets of San Francisco, Hawaii Five-O, The Rockford Files, The Jeffersons, Dallas, M*A*S*H, Cheers, Magnum P.I., The Golden Girls, Murphy Brown, L.A. Law, Designing Women, The Larry Sanders Show, Coach, Seinfeld, and Cold Case, to name just a few. He enjoyed being cast in the Supreme Court series First Monday (2002) and reveled in spending his days in the company of costars James Garner, Joe Mantegna, and Charles Durning.
Jimmy never disdained work of any kind. He and his wife Alba happily accepted roles in Hardbodies 2because it meant a free trip to Greece. He made himself available to appear in student films, and took a liking to one fledgling filmmaker from USC, going so far as to write a letter to the director’s parents to assure them that their son was on the right path. Bryan Singer repaid Jimmy by casting him in Apt Pupil and Superman Returns, although his scenes were cut from the latter film when it had to be drastically shortened.
Another film, Return of the Living Dead, unexpectedly gave Jim a certain notoriety among horror-film fans. Decades after making this low-budget film he fielded invitations to fan conventions around the globe. (The hardcore aficionados also appreciated the fact that he costarred in Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster in 1965 and Invaders from Mars in 1986.) It seems as if every gig inspired at least one great anecdote—about John Carradine leaving a shelf of prosthetic noses in Jimmy’s refrigerator, or Arnold Schwarzenegger struggling with his English in a movie called Hercules in New York, where he was billed as Arnold Strong, alongside comic actor Arnold Stang. It also seemed to me that he knew everybody in the world; six degrees of separation were too many for Jim. My wife’s father was a window cleaner who spent years zipping around Manhattan on a motor scooter. Imagine Alice’s reaction when Jimmy remembered him—because her father cleaned Jimmy’s windows when he ran an antique shop in Greenwich Village!
Like so many character actors, Jimmy endured the indignity of seeing some of his roles cut or nearly eliminated in the editing room. Alice and I were with him when he discovered this at a screening of the Kennedy-era drama Thirteen Days. He played President Kennedy’s Undersecretary of State, George Ball. Despite working on the picture for several months, all that was left onscreen was a series of shots of Jimmy looking thoughtful while seated at a long conference table. His only utterance was the last line of the film, “Thank you, Mr. President.” Still, I was struck by the fact that in every casual cutaway he was actively participating in the scene, listening intently. It was a brief but memorable lesson in acting for me.
Whenever I mentioned Jimmy’s name to directors who’d worked with him, they would smile. Michael Landon, who employed him many times, said what a blessing it was to have a thinking actor on his set who could help solve problems—especially under the pressure of a television schedule. Mark Ruffalo, making his directorial debut with Sympathy for Delicious, expressed the same gratitude when Jimmy helped him work out a scene that didn’t read well on the page.
On the day Jimmy was to shoot his key scene in Wall Street he arrived on the set with an elegant, silver-topped walking stick, which he intended to use for emphasis. Oliver Stone knew better than to take it away from him. The director used Jimmy again in Nixon and Any Given Sunday. Oliver Stone says, “Through the course of our three films together, James became a valued friend. His human qualities, a combination of warmth, professionalism, and depth of life experience, come through in each of his performances. He was a true gentleman, and very few of his generation remain with us. I will miss him deeply.”
Jimmy, in turn, was generous to younger actors, taking them under his wing and offering a variety of life lessons. Campbell Scott once told me that Jimmy staked him for $300 when he needed it desperately and he never forgot the gesture. (Jimmy, in turn, said Campbell was the only person who ever paid him back!) A young man who appeared with him in Hardbodies 2 told a story at Jimmy’s 80th birthday party about accepting an invitation to join Jim and Alba for dinner. When Jimmy stopped in the actor’s dressing room and saw that he’d tossed his wardrobe on the floor, he closed the door behind him and gently explained that the costumer had arrived early in the morning, long before the actors, and would probably be there cleaning up while they were having dinner. The least he could do, Jim advised, was to hang up his clothing.
But Jimmy’s greatest alliance was with his wife, Alba Francesca, whom he first met when she was a girl in East Hampton, New York. They were great partners who loved acting, traveling, and living well, an art they perfected years ago. Their age difference never seemed to be an issue, all the more so as Jim enjoyed good health up to his 91st birthday.
“They were quite a couple—they are quite a couple,” says Morgan Freeman, who was introduced by a mutual friend more than 25 years ago. He has especially fond memories of their dinner parties. “The people you would meet there: eclectic without being eclectic. They were all somehow involved in some artistic endeavor.” What attracted him to Jimmy in the first place? “We spoke the same language,” he explains. “I always found him very warm and ingratiating…totally likable. I think of somebody who’s very alive.” Who else would have thrown a rooftop champagne party for the neighbors in his apartment building the morning of the Northridge earthquake in 1994? I believe Freeman speaks for many of us who refuse to accept a world without Jimmy Karen in it. George Clooney wrote his feelings in a kind of blank verse, and it seems fitting to give him the last word.
So they tell me James Karen is gone. Ok. Maybe. But Jimmy? He’s still holding court
Asking me what I think of Uranus as a whole?
That man…that 13 year old boy means everything to me.
To all of us
He lowered the bar to exactly where we all really exist.
12 years old.
You made everything better.
I love you my friend.