Her husband Stephen Eckelberry announced her death on Facebook, saying “It is with great sadness that I have to report that my wife and best friend Karen Black has just passed away, only a few minutes ago. Thank you all for all your prayers and love, they meant so much to her as they did to me.”
The offbeat, intense actress also tried singing, songwriting and playwriting, and was nominated for a Grammy for writing the songs “Memphis” and “Rolling Stone,” which she performed in character in Robert Altman’s “Nashville.”
She often played women on the edge, prostitutes and lower-class women who were not always bright and wore their hearts on their sleeves.
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Her first major film role came in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1966 “You’re a Big Boy Now,” playing an uncharacteristic role as a sweet and innocent girlfriend of the hero. Early in her career, she also appeared in TV shows including “Adam 12,” “Mannix,” and “Judd for the Defense.”
After a small role in the huge hit “Easy Rider,” her film career was propelled with her performance as waitress Rayette Dipesto in the 1970 “Five Easy Pieces,” one of several works in which she appeared opposite Jack Nicholson.
She starred in the 1972 film of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” though the film didn’t live up to the wit, notoriety or success of Philip Roth’s novel.
Roles in major studio releases included two from 1974: as the stewardess who is forced to fly the plane in “Airport 1975″ and as Myrtle Wilson in “The Great Gatsby,” starring Robert Redford. In 1975, she continued on her streak in high-profile works, including the lead, an aspiring actress in John Schlesinger’s big-budget “The Day of the Locust”; Altman’s ensemble “Nashville”; and she starred in the 1973 TV movie “Trilogy of Terror,” including a memorable segment in which she battled a devil-doll that’s come to life.
In 1976, she appeared as a kidnapper in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, the comedy-suspenser “Family Plot.” She had a memorable role somewhat later in Altman’s 1982 “Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” but hit films were elusive. After the big-studio releases dwindled, she continued to work in smaller films, which were sometimes arty, sometimes exploitation pics, sometimes both.
She talked to Paper magazine recently about working with iconic directors in the 1970s, as well as the numerous brooding and anti-establishment films that were inspired by the success of “Easy Rider.” She said, “We were just doing our thing. I happen to have an acting style that is very spontaneous and very un-self-conscious, and it went with the movies of the ’70s. It was a great time, it was a very beautiful time. There was a way of loving freedom — or loving spontaneity.”
Born Karen Blanche Ziegler in Park Ridge, Ill., she attended Northwestern U. before moving to New York to appear in Off-Broadway productions and studied with Lee Strasberg. She took the name Black from her first husband, Charles Black.
Black was also married briefly to actor Robert Burton and to screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, with whom she had a son, Hunter Carson. She married Eckelberry in 1987, with whom she adopted a daughter, Celine.