Karen Black was oddly alluring, with that wide, sly smile and those slightly off-kilter eyes. The New York Times once called her "something of a freak, a beautiful freak." Her friend Peter Fonda says that's what made her so intriguing.
"She wasn't a conventional-looking woman," he tells NPR. "And she took that unconventional look and made it interesting, made you want to see more of it."
On screen, she parlayed that allure into quirky character roles that in many ways captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s and '70s. Black starred in some of the most important movies of those decades, at a time when American independent film was becoming a real artistic and commercial force. Later, in a career that encompassed Broadway, TV and more than 100 films, she went from being a counterculture darling to a queen of kitsch horror. She died this week at age 74, of complications from cancer.
Her breakthrough was with Fonda in the 1969 hippie classic Easy Rider, playing a New Orleans prostitute who drops acid with him and Dennis Hopper — in a cemetery. Their trip was disturbing, intriguing and unforgettable.
That wild scene, shot on grainy 16 mm film, was edited down from 16 hours of footage. Fonda was impressed by Black's performance in it.
"She was great at improvisation and always pushing the limits," he says. "It was thrilling to see. She had the highest octane."
Black also impressed Jack Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson, who later cast her in the classic Five Easy Pieces.
"I have rarely worked with an actress who was as easy, as imaginative, and as unpredictable," Rafelson tells NPR. "Whatever Karen did, she made it unique and original and very often, spontaneous."
In Five Easy Pieces, she played a simple-minded waitress, devoted to the alienated upper-class dropout played by Nicholson. He doesn't treat her very well — but her portrayal won her an Oscar nomination, a Golden Globe and a New York Film Critics Circle award.
She was often cast as the doomed girlfriend, as she was in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby; later, opposite Sandy Dennis, Cher and Kathy Bates, she put her uncanny stillness and striking bone structure to work as a transgender woman in Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.
When disaster films were all the rage in the 1970s, Black played a stewardess in Airport 1975, and she was a femme fatale jewel thief in Alfred Hitchcock's final film, Family Plot. She was also a country singer in Robert Altman's Nashville, for which she wrote and performed two songs, and was nominated for a Grammy.
In the 1980s, happy to work and always game for almost anything, Black specialized in horror movies and thrillers — most notably as a single New Yorker attacked by a hilariously creepy fetish doll in the TV omnibus Trilogy of Terror. As a lasting tribute to her singularly compelling screen presence, a 1990 cult glam-punk band named themselves The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black.
"She managed to play kooky, she managed to play sexy, she managed to play crazed," Peter Fonda says. "She managed to play all the different ways of human nature."