October 25, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
When my son texted me yesterday with the message: “Very sad news, James Karen died at 94,” it was not unexpected, but it still made me stop in my tracks while walking down Broadway. And I know that Jimmy, as he was known to all his friends, would have liked that I was “on the street where he lived,” since — let’s face it — back in his day, Broadway was Broadway! Ironically, even though he spent years working between 41st and 65th Street, it wasn’t where he became a famous face: that was film, television and oh my god so many commercials. Between the late 1960s into the ’80s, Jimmy was “the Pathmark Man,” spokesman for the now-defunct Pathmark chain of grocery stores, appearing in hundreds of spots (no exaggeration). At one point, according to friend and film and TV historian Leonard Maltin, “market research revealed that he was the most familiar figure on New York television.”
Luckily, the commercials only aired in the northeast, so Jimmy’s career in L.A. in film and television weren’t affected by being so overexposed. He appeared in more than 200 films and TV shows, and worked for such directors as Alan Pakula, Oliver Stone and David Lynch, and did guest shots on everything from Car 54, Where Are You? to Seinfeld.
But Broadway (and the theatre) were where his heart and affections laid. To get Jimmy to talk about his days working on the original productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — just to name two — felt like you were hanging with the title character of Woody Allen’s Zelig; the guy who was there whenever you turned around at the site of some major event. But unlike Zelig, a quiet man who wished to remain in the background, Jimmy would put himself front and center in his stories due to his having such a dynamic personality. He really didn’t know how to be any other way, which was not only part of his charm, but was his essential soul. And how many people are willing to share their souls so openly, even with a perfect stranger, as I was when I first sat down to talk with him in April of 2014, just after he had passed his 90th birthday.
So who was this wonderful actor whose face you saw a thousand times, but whose name you might never have committed to memory? He was born Jacob Karnofsky on Nov. 28, 1923, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, cousin of another fine actor, Morris Carnovsky, whose family spelling went a different way. He told me: “My parents were born in this country, and my grandfather came here from Russian in 1872.” And though the New York Times in their printed obituary today, stated that his father was a saloon keeper, when I asked him on our first afternoon together if that was the full story, Jimmy told me “Of course not. My father was a bootlegger!”
Coming up through the ranks as a utility actor, his Broadway debut came in early 1948, six weeks after the opening of Tennessee Williams’s explosive A Streetcar Named Desire. He was initially hired by its director, Elia Kazan, to be the assistant stage manager and to understudy both the Doctor (who comes to take Blanche away at the end of the play) and the Young Collector (who Blanche attempts to seduce). But the story that he told me, was that when Williams broke up with his boyfriend at the time, Vito Christi, he was the actor playing the role of the Young Collector. So poor Christi was fired from the production, prompting him to take off in anger and humiliation. His disappearance from the show allowed Jimmy to successfully take on the part, though sadly — again according to Jimmy — Vito Christi was found shortly thereafter dead; a suicide.
For a number of years, Jimmy became known as the best understudy (or standby) for leading actors in New York, which he described to me as both “a blessing and a curse.” His credits include the aforementioned Virginia Woolf?, where due to a unique look for someone his age (he was thirty-nine), he was chosen to cover for both George and Nick in the original 1962 Broadway production. He went on many times, mainly as George (“I was terrible as Nick”), but adored playing George opposite Kate Reid, the wonderful Canadian actress who was the “Matinee Martha,” as that show had separate companies for afternoon performances. Over the course of many years, he also covered two of his best actor-friends in a number of shows: Barry Nelson in, among others plays, the hit comedy Cactus Flower, and Jason Robards, in revivals of Clifford Odets’s The Country Girl and Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten.
I got Jimmy’s number from a mutual friend and when he picked up the phone at his home in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, he immediately invited me over for lunch. When I arrived at his apartment building, he not only came downstairs to meet me and make sure I had parked in the right section, he then brought me up for a grand tour. As it turned out, Jimmy and his wife Alba, owned not one, not two, but three apartments on the same floor, that over the years they turned into quite a showplace. Partially their home and living quarters, partially Alba’s work studio for her art, and partially a museum for the collectables that Jimmy was fond of gathering, having to do with everything from old model trains to Buster Keaton memorabilia (who happened to have been one of his closest and most cherished friends). Although I didn’t have a photo taken of myself in one of Buster’s immortal hats, I did take one of my son Jeremy, who accompanied me on my second visit to the apartment for another lunch and talk-a-thon with Jimmy.
At that first lunch with Jimmy, I arrived confident in the knowledge that I knew what questions to ask about his long career (seventy-five years and counting at that point). What I wasn’t prepared for were the tangents. For when I would bring up A Streetcar Named Desire, it wasn’t enough that he worked with Brando, or that he and Brando became friends, he would then top it by saying, “Well, I lived with Marlon!” which is when the stories REALLY took off.
That’s the way it was with Jimmy Karen. And I’ll be back with more stories in another column next week. For now, my condolences to Jimmy’s beloved wife Alba Francesca, and to all who knew this sincerely marvelous man of the theatre.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.