James Karen, veteran Hollywood actor featured in ‘Poltergeist’ and ‘China Syndrome,’ dies at 94

Veteran actor James Karen, shown in 2011, died Tuesday night in Los Angeles.
(Jason Merritt / Getty Images)

James Karen, a veteran star of stage and screen whose films included “Poltergeist,” “The China Syndrome” and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” died Tuesday night at his Los Angeles home. He was 94.

His death was confirmed by longtime friend and film critic Leonard Maltin.

Karen began his extensive career in entertainment in earnest in 1947 as part of the original Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He played the “young collector” in the play directed by Elia Kazan.

The actor often found himself playing stern men in positions of authority and worked with some of the most distinguished directors in Hollywood, including Oliver Stone (on “Wall Street,” “Nixon” and “Any Given Sunday”) and David Lynch (on “Mulholland Drive”). He was in the 1982 film “Poltergeist,” which was co-scripted by Steven Spielberg.


With a career spanning seven decades, Karen has 204 credits listed on IMDb, not including his more than appearances in more than 20 Broadway shows and more than 5,000 Pathmark Supermarkets ads.

Born in Wilkes Barre, Pa., on Nov. 28, 1923, Karen trained at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City in 1940 and served in the 11th Air Force, stationed in the Aleutian Islands in 1942.

The actor is survived by son Reed Karen, two grandchildren and his wife of more than 30 years, actress Alba Francesca.