James Karen, 94, character actor from ‘Poltergeist,’ ‘Return of the Living Dead’
WASHINGTON — James Karen, who began a long career as a character actor at the suggestion of a congressman and who appeared in thousands of commercials and more than 200 film and television roles, including ‘‘All the President’s Men,’’ ‘‘Poltergeist,’’ ‘‘The China Syndrome’’ and the cult classic ‘‘The Return of the Living Dead,’’ died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 94.
He had a respiratory ailment, said his wife, Alba Francesca.
Mr. Karen did not became established in Hollywood until he was in his 50s, but he found his career path early, when he was walking home from school in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
‘‘A guy stuck his head out the window, with a big wax mustache, and he said, ‘Hey you!’ ” Mr. Karen said in a 2013 profile in the Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice.
“I said, ‘Yes, sir?’
“He said, ‘Are you a Boy Scout?’
“I said, ‘Yes, sir.’
“He said, ‘You got a uniform?’
“I said, ‘Yes, sir.’
‘‘He said, ‘This is the Wilkes-Barre Little Theatre. Go home and ask your father and mother if you can be in a play, that Dan Flood wants you in a play.’ ’’
Mr. Karen, then known by his original name of Jacob Karnofsky, got his first acting job, thanks to the talent-spotting eye of amateur actor and longtime US Representative Daniel Flood.
‘‘It was terrific for me,’’ Mr. Karen said of his early theatrical experience. ‘‘It gave me a real reason to exist, and to live. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.’’
By the late 1940s, Mr. Karen was appearing on Broadway and in early television shows. He began acting in films in the 1960s and, after moving to the West Coast in 1975, was constantly in demand.
He played a lawyer in ‘‘All the President’s Men’’ (1976) and ‘‘Kiss Me Goodbye’’ (1982); a TV news producer and the boss of Jane Fondaand Michael Douglasin ‘‘The China Syndrome’’ (1979); a judge in ‘‘Frances’’ (1982), with Jessica Lange; a business mogul opposite Will Smith in ‘‘The Pursuit of Happyness’’ (2006); a TV executive in Garry Shandling’s ‘‘The Larry Sanders Show’’ (1992-98); a stricken-faced real estate agent, ‘‘Mr. Teague,’’ in Steven Spielberg’s ‘‘Poltergeist’’ (1982); and a warehouse foreman who knows where the bodies are (supposedly) buried in ‘‘The Return of the Living Dead’’ (1985).
‘‘Let me ask you a question, kid,’’ he says in an early, eye-opening scene in the zombie-film spoof. ‘‘Did you see that movie ‘Night of the Living Dead’?’’
‘‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’’ says an eager young man played by Thom Mathews. ‘‘That’s the one where the corpses start eating the people, right? What’s weird about it?’’
‘‘Did you know that movie was based on a true case? . . . What really happened was, back in 1969 in Pittsburgh at the VA hospital, there was a chemical spill, and all that stuff kinda leaked down into the morgue . . . ’’
Along the way, Mr. Karen appeared in three films directed by Oliver Stone: playing Charlie Sheen’s boss in ‘‘Wall Street’’ (1987), Secretary of State William Rogers in ‘‘Nixon’’ (1995), and a football executive in ‘‘Any Given Sunday’’ (1999).
He was also a living link to Hollywood history, as a close friend of silent-film star Buster Keaton, whose career he helped resurrect in the 1950s when they appeared together in a play.
In later years, Mr. Karen was a mentor to younger actors, including George Clooney, who cited him this year while accepting the American Film Institute’s lifetime achievement award.
Clooney said Mr. Karen’s wife had asked him to prepare an obituary of her ailing husband. After four years, Clooney called to ask how Mr. Karen was feeling.
‘‘Jimmy’s doing fine,’’ Clooney quoted Francesca as saying. ‘‘He just wanted to know what everybody thought about him while he was still around. He got a bunch of people to do it.’’
Jacob Karnofsky was born Nov. 28, 1923, in Wilkes-Barre, where his immigrant father sold produce. His mother was a homemaker.
He was a nephew of stage actor Morris Carnovsky, who encouraged his career and recommended that he change his name. After serving as a cryptographer in the Army Air Forces during World War II, Mr. Karen moved to New York to study acting and dance. In 1947, he was an understudy to Karl Malden in the original Broadway production of ‘‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’’ with Marlon Brando.
He appeared in various stage roles before becoming a regular on TV soap operas, including ‘‘As the World Turns’’ and ‘‘All My Children.’’ After moving to Hollywood, he had frequent roles on ‘‘Hawaii Five-O,’’ ‘‘Magnum, P.I.,’’ and ‘‘Jake and the Fat Man.’’ He continued to act until shortly before his death.
His marriage to folk singer and actress Susan Reed ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 29 years, actress and producer Francesca of Los Angeles; a son from his first marriage; and two grandchildren.
For more than 20 years, Mr. Karen was the TV pitchman for Pathmark, a supermarket chain in the Northeast for which he made thousands of commercials.
‘‘This is the best job an actor can have,’’ he said in 1984. ‘‘It pays very well and it’s steady.’’
That year, Mr. Karen appeared in the made-for-TV movie ‘‘Little House: The Final Farewell,’’ playing a rapacious real estate developer who destroys the buildings in the quaint prairie village of Walnut Grove.
‘‘Hundreds of letters came in to Pathmark asking the store to do something about me,’’ Mr. Karen said. ‘‘The customer relations department couldn’t believe it.’’
Mr. Karen called or wrote to many Pathmark customers to make amends.
‘‘I guess I can’t go around destroying towns like Walnut Grove,’’ he said.