New York Film Academy Los Angeles MFA Acting, BFA Acting, BFA Filmmaking and a mixture of other students had a special treat on November 4th when James Karen, a prolific stage and screen performer with over 200 feature film credits, graced our stage. Mark Sawicki, chair of the animation department, invited Karen to speak and had the pleasure and challenge of interviewing this amazing actor who has worked steadily in the industry for an incredible seven decades. The evening began with a screening of a Buster Keaton short Cops, a silent film directed by Keaton in 1922. The screening of a Keaton film may seem out of place except for the fact that James was a close friend of the legendary filmmaker, and played alongside of him as a stage actor in the 50’s. This made the event so special, as the students were able to span the years from silent cinema on up to today. James told of how Buster started by being a child actor thrown about the stage in his youth in a “rough” act. James said Buster worked every day of his life and enjoyed every moment, even though the MGM student wasted this great talent by forcing the actor to perform in the highly regimented studio system as a contract player. Karen shared that the documentary, Buster Keaton: A hard act to follow by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow, was an excellent snapshot of Keaton’s astounding career. James related that he wished he could have worked in the early silent era as performances were universal and creativity flourished.
The second screening was the Zombie comedy classic Return of the Living Dead, starring James Karen and directed by Dan O’Bannon. At the conclusion of the film, James spoke of his career and his Broadway debut alongside Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. From there, Karen became a longtime stage actor throughout the 50’s and began his film career in 1965 in the low budget film Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster. James went on to act in many landmark films such as Poltergeist, Wall Street, The Pursuit of Happyness and many others.
He related his experience working on the zombie film saying that much of the film was ad lib and the film was first performed in rehearsal in linear form as a stage play. As a stage play, both seasoned and first time actors in the film worked with the director and learned and memorized their emotional states throughout the script, so that when scenes were shot out of sequence the performances held together perfectly.
By the end of the evening, questions were turned over to the audience and James gladly shared insights into working with Brando, surviving the business and encouraging young actors to persevere — and first and foremost to get experience on the stage.
We’d like to thank James for spanning the ages and giving us a great sense of continuity and understanding of the craft — reaching back to the silent era that started it all.