In the film business, you have great days and terrible days and mostly days when you wait around to start working again. Once in awhile, something extraordinary happens that makes all the waiting and all the crappy times worthwhile. For me, that extraordinary thing was the day I worked with the actor Karen Black.
I say "the actor Karen Black," because time flies, and already, so many people don't know who she is. If she was Jack Nicholson or Warren Beatty or Dennis Hopper, she would have been one of the biggest stars of our time, they would have put her face on the front pages of newspapers today to let people know that she has died. She would have been awarded one of those great Presidential Medals of Freedom or Kennedy Center Honors that they give to Bob Dylan and Oprah. But Karen Black was born to a generation where you needed to have a penis to be one of the biggest stars, and so she had to settle for this: she was one of the best actors of her generation.
There will be many articles devoted to the work she did, so this one will be dedicated to talking about what a wonderful person she was. Years ago, I was making a small film called The Independent, and Karen agreed to do a cameo for a day. She was funny and professional and friendly and sexy and charming and good-natured. She was, no surprise, a great improviser. We became friends.
I had lunch with Karen many times in the 12 years I was lucky enough to know her. She would talk to me about doing work you cared about, about having to do work you didn't care about; about projects she was doing. She would talk about her children and her love for her husband Stephen. She would burst into song. She would quote The Vagina Monologues. She would talk about Altman. And often, she would just stop and stare at you.
Karen had incredible eyes. They looked through you and took you in. They said, "You can trust me." They were startling in the intimacy they could create, both vulnerable and intelligent. I would have followed her anywhere.
After losing touch with Karen for several years, I ran into her at a party in Santa Monica in late 2011. Her first words to me were, "I thought about you today. Are you related to a Dr. Kessler?" We had lunch a few weeks later. I commented on how thin and beautiful she looked. She did not mention her weight loss was due to the cancer that was slowly killing her. Go know.
There was nothing that told me she was ill that day, although she did order her broccoli very mushy, so that it would be easy to chew. She told me chewing was getting hard for her. I told her that it was her time to star in a great TV show. TV was built for stars who could create characters like Karen Black could.
As we left the restaurant that day, she said to me, "Stephen, how do I look to you?" She had never asked me anything like that before. I told her the truth.
"You look hot, Karen."
In April, I read that she had cancer, and I was shocked. She and Stephen had started a crowdsourcing campaign to pay for medical treatment. I meant to call her, and to see her. I never did. I was scared. I thought she would live longer. Shame on me.
There are so many wonderful parts she played; if you're looking for one, I recommend Henry Jaglom's Can She Bake A Cherry Pie, where she created a character that only Karen Black could create. She was a national treasure. Somebody call the President.