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Stuart Karl: A Man Ahead of His Time Runs Out of It

Our library files at The Times are indexed by the subject’s name and an identifying word or phrase.

So when I heard that Stuart Karl had died Friday, I went to get his file.

Stuart Karl, millionaire.

That’s how the file reads. And even though in the wake of his premature death the description has a certain melancholy ring to it, it’s probably a designation that the fun-loving Karl would have enjoyed.

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Being a millionaire was something that Karl set out to do. And do before he hit 30. Blond and blue-eyed, Karl came out of Corona del Mar High School in 1971 looking every bit the part of the partying surfer dude. He dropped out of Chapman College after a year and a half and began a string of jobs in the trade-magazine business that would eventually lead him to the fledgling home video business.

Then, in the early 1980s, he persuaded Jane Fonda to put her exercise routine to video. It began as an idea to help raise money for the political causes of her then-husband, Tom Hayden. The rest, as they say, is video history.

The Jane Fonda workout tapes became video blockbusters. Stuart Karl had his million bucks.

Then the dream began to leak. Karl got embroiled in a roaring legal fight with Lorimar Telepictures, which had bought his video company after the Fonda success and given him an executive-level job. Then he got in trouble over illegal campaign contributions to Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign.

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Suddenly, Karl was reeling. The campaign violations cost him a $60,000 fine and probation. The Lorimar problem was messier, but the two sides settled.

By late 1988, Karl was planning a comeback.

For a profile on him in those days, I interviewed a two dozen or so people. As is often the case with controversial figures, conflicting images of Karl were presented.

One of his earlier associates said, “Stuart always had this dream of being a Howard Hughes. . . . I think the worst part of the trouble is that he got greedy. Not greedy--maybe hungry is a better word. Hungry to succeed.”

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That associate thought Karl had gotten “corrupted” by his brush with power and influence. “Deep inside, the Stuart Karl I knew before he got corrupted is a very gentle, good-hearted man,” the associate said. “I called him ‘Golden Heart.’ He always wanted to see people happy.”

Jane Fonda stayed in touch even after his fall from grace, but others abandoned him “like he was radioactive” after his legal troubles, his widow, Deborah, said. He read biographies of great people and saw that their lives often were pockmarked by the occasional tragedy. He was convinced that he would bounce back.

“He was never bitter,” Deborah Karl said. “But through all this, he was hurt. It did hurt him, but he always said he would put it behind him.

“He once said, ‘I’ve lost my job and my reputation and my house, but they can’t take my mind and my spirit.’ But the spirit was being affected.”

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A little more than two years ago, doctors diagnosed a malignant melanoma on Stuart Karl’s scalp. It is the worst form of skin cancer, and, as a blue-eyed blond, Karl was in the most susceptible group.

True to form, he thought he could beat it. But as 1989 turned into 1990, he told his wife that he didn’t expect to live out the decade.

He told Deborah that his life had become “a really bad Hollywood script.” By normal Hollywood standards, he said, the cancer should have hit while he was on top, instead of cruelly piling onto him when he was already struggling to rebuild his career.

I remember talking to Karl in 1988 about his plans for the future. In the midst of talking about various serious endeavors, he told me he’d love to make a Chipmunks movie.

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I remembered that while talking Friday to his wife. She spoke of his boyishness, his zest for work and for life. And of his zest for his sons, now 8 and 6, and how he sometimes acted more like a playful big brother than their father.

For Stuart Karl the father, it’s comforting to know that his sons will have that memory of him.

For Stuart Karl the entrepreneur, the Jane Fonda workout tapes ensure his place in the history of the video era. Remember, there was a time--and only about a decade ago--when it was thought that people wouldn’t rent anything for home use except movies.

So today, when you go to your video store and see shelves lined with workout tapes and videos on sports highlights, cooking and home repair, think of Stuart Karl.

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“Even on his deathbed, we couldn’t believe the things he was coming up with,” Deborah said. “He was giving me advice, and I started to ask questions to get him to be more specific, and he said, ‘No, no more video business. It’s time to sleep.’ ”

Stuart Karl died at 38, leaving behind his parents, two sisters, his wife and his two sons.

When I spoke to his mother, Barbara, on the phone Friday, she said they were watching home videos of Stuart.

That seemed appropriate.

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At one time, Karl was on top of the video world, the fresh kid with the great idea that went through the ceiling. Without question, a man ahead of his time.

He rose fast. He fell fast.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. From the start of his boy wonder days in the ‘70s, Karl’s timing was skewed. Almost always, he did everything too quickly and way ahead of schedule.

It was a trait he couldn’t shake, right up to the very end.

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