Karen Black was born Karen Ziegler in l945 and is the second daughter of Norman and Elsie Ziegler. She was raised in the Midwest in Park Ridge, Illinois.
Karen’s mother Elsie Reif Ziegler, is an award winning novelist , her grandfather was the renowned Arthur Ziegler, first violinist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Seemingly born to write, her best aptitude may have been for the English language. In her fourth grade tests, she was reading and constructing sentences at Sophomore High School level. Tiring of high school, she managed to enter College by taking equivalency exams at the age of sixteen. Not only did she qualify, she rated so high that she had only one class in English required of her for college completion.
Karen followed neither inherent aptitude, however, (at least, not for a while) but turned her back on music and the written word and even college – and abruptly left for New York city and life on the stage at age seventeen, never dreaming she would end up in the movies. (See Karen’s story of LIFE OF AN ACTRESS, NEW YORK MID 60’S)
She wasn’t long in New York before Karen hooked up with Joseph Papp , and did Shakespeare in the Park and also Olivia in “Twelfth Night” at Papp’s off Broadway Heckshire House. After appearing in a few off-Broadway plays as well, she landed a lead on Broadway in the play by Mary Drayton, “The Playroom,” playing an angry, jealous fifteen year old. For this role, Karen was nominated best actress for a Drama Circle Critics award. She also met someone she says she was almost more in love with than any fella before or since, Canadian actor Peter Kastner, the lead in the play. (See Karen’s story HOW NEW, YOUNG ACTRESS GETS LEAD ON BROADWAY)
Karen was seen in “The Playroom” by someone helping Francis Ford Coppola put together his master’s thesis, which Francis had decided would be a film entitled, “You’re a Big Boy Now.” Karen and Peter were requested to go meet with college student Francis Coppola and they each got the leads in Coppola’s first film shot in New York City.
One of Karen’s friends, even in those sixties years in New York, was Henry Jaglom. Henry asked if his agent friend, Kevin Casselman, wouldn’t like to fly into New York to see Karen in the play. Mr. Casselman did and signed her with his L.A. agency at lunch the next day. So Karen was bound for Los Angeles.
First she did another Broadway show for Mr. Anthony – “Happily Never After.” Then she arrived in Hollywood to live in a tiny bungalow on Hayworth Avenue with her five cats. Ironically, that bungalow was exactly the same kind as that in which lived Faye Greener, Karen’s character in “Day of the Locust.”
Now in L.A., and looking about fifteen years old, Karen was sent up for and got many TV guest shot appearances, mainly as virgins on wagon trains, or virgins victimized by a crime ring, or virgins from outer space.
One bright day , at the Old World restaurant, Henry Jaglom introduced her to Jack Nicholson. Soon after, she got a call saying that a friend of Jack’s, Bert Schneider, would like Karen to meet someone named Dennis Hopper, for a film he was making, “Easy Rider.” She thought Dennis was a fabulously spontaneous actor and couldn’t wait to work with him. They guaranteed her 300 dollars, but her agent was out of town. So Karen went to Mr. Casselman’s agency and typed up a contract for herself! She then went to New Orleans for one of the most tumultuous professional experiences of her life. Convinced that the shoot was too extraordinary to result in any movie she could be proud of, Karen kept it off her resume for the two years that it took “Easy Rider” to be released to become the surprise blockbuster that it was!
Soon after, Bob Rafelson asked that Karen audition for the part of Rayette, in “Five Easy Pieces”. She got the part which led to an Academy Award nomination and her first Golden Globe Award. (See Karen’s story of getting “5 EASY PIECES”)
Karen’s next few years were filled with fine roles in fine films: Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, Robert Altman’s “Nashville,””Airport 75” for Universal Studios, “The Great Gatsby” (her second Golden Globe) by the legendary late Jack Clayton , “Day of the Locust”(nominated for a Golden Globe) for John Schlessinger, and so forth. Three films for the brilliant Czech director, Ivan Passer, and two horror pics for Dan Curtis, the extraordinary science fiction director, “Trilogy in Terror”, and “Burnt Offerings”. Jack Nicholson also took her to meet Mike Nichols for a part that she simply wasn’t buxom enough to get. (See Karen’s story on MEETING MIKE NICHOLS)
Even during the shooting of “Burnt Offerings”, Karen was pregnant. When the baby came, she took off from show business, not putting any attention on her career, but instead, on family matters. She is from a Midwestern family, not one of whom have ever been in show business, and she had no sophistication in the workings of Hollywood. Taking what came, in order to support her family, she often took the wrong films in an almost unbelievable absence of common sense.
In the early eighties, out of that marriage, and with her son Hunter- a well known child star of the eighties, she entered another era of better work: Robert Altman’s “Come back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” and Henry Jaglom’s “Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?” And Michael Raeburn’s critically acclaimed “The Grass is Singing” adapted from the African novel by Doris Lessing.
In the late eighties, Karen took off from the business again, and had her second family. This time the whole thing worked. She’s been with Stephen Eckelberry for seventeen years, and their beautiful twelve year old girl Celine is a softball star – winter nationals two years running.
When Celine became old enough not to need so much attention, Karen went back to her work, including writing now in her goals. She starred in “Crime Time” for George Sluizer with Steve Baldwin, wrote the film, “Movies, Money, Murder” starring Martin Mull and Lainie Kazan, played two parts in the Sundance film, “Conceiving Ada”, did her amazing show “A View from the Heart”, and continued her work ceaselessly, sometimes doing as many as ten independent features a year.
Noteworthy amongst them have been:
George Hickenlooper’s “Dogtown”, for which she won Best Actress at Hermosa Beach film Festival, l998.
Ron Cosentino’s “Fallen Arches” for which she won best actress at Chicago Alt Film Festival, l998.
” Karen Black, Actress at Work”, (2000) a documentary by director Kerry Feltham, winner Special Jury Prize Cannes and Berlin.
” Charades”, which she co-wrote and produced, Official Selection for the Austin Film Festival, Santa Monica Film Festival, and the upcoming Nashville Film Festival.
Karen wrote the short ,”Going Home” winner of the Golden Plaque, Chicago International Film Festival, 1997.
Co-starred in “Mascara” for Linda Kandel, new superstar Indie director “Men” for which Karen received great reviews as did the film which she co-wrote, starring Sean Young and John Herd. “Sugar” a comedy by James Frey, with Danny Nucci
April l5, 2000, “Red Dirt” the story of coming to peace with oneself, a gay coming of age film was an Official Selection of the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. The film has also been selected for the Seattle Film Festival. Miss Black has said that this part now, a lyrical beautifully written part of a Southern woman too afraid of life to leave her room, is the best part she may ever have had.
Karen Black is currently writing a screenplay for director Linda Kandel, and directing her first feature, “Zits” about adolescent romance problems. (See Karen’s story on HOW AN ACTRESS STARTS DIRECTING)
She is also completing her short, “Notes From the Underground”. She is working hard on the art of directing so that she can make “Deep Purple”, her script which was accepted at Robert Redford’s Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab in Utah, with the know how that will match the passion and seriousness of the writing.
Interrupting all of this will be her starring role in Rob Zombie’s horror film for Universal, “House of a Thousand Corpses” opening country-wide Halloween, 2000.
Karen Black, The Writer
” Movies, Money, Murder” starring Lainie Kazan, and Martin Mull
” Going Home”, a short, starring Jeanette MacDonald and John Randolph about the passageway that one enters just before death. Won the Golden Plaque for BEST LONG SHORT, Chicago International Film Festival, l997
” Deep Purple”, a researched screenplay about the role of women in the South circa l940, invited to ROBERT REDFORD’S SUNDANCE Screenwriter’s lab. (They pick eleven out of all sent in from all of the Americas)
” Men” An adaptation of the Margaret Diehl novel, starring Sean Young and John Heard. This film, “Men”, won the following awards:SPECIAL JURY PRIZE, Cine Jove Festival in Valencia Spain (chairman of the jury was Daniel Bergman, Ingmar Bergmans’ son)
BEST YOUNG FILMMAKER (For the film’s director Zoe Clarke Williams) at the Hollywood Film Festival, 97″Men” was invited to the following film festivals :
Played at Mann’s Westwood
RAVE REVIEWS from Kevin Thomas
Co-author of the film “Charades”, starring Erika Eleniak, Jack Scalia, and James Russo . Official selection for the Austin Film Festival, l999 and for the Santa Monica Film Festival, 2000, and for the Nashville Film Festival, 2000. www.charades.net
Karen Black, Singer/Songwriter
Background music for the Canadian Film, “The PYX”
Three songs for the Robert Altman film, “Nashville”. Karen, as well as those cast members who wrote their own music for the show were all nominated for a Grammy.