James Karen, the prolific character actor known for his work as a horror movie veteran and supermarket pitchman, has died at age 94. The beloved actor died in Los Angles after suffering cardiac arrest caused by respiratory difficulties, his longtime friend film historian Bruce Goldstein told the New York Times.
Karen was a familiar face on the big and small screen for more than 50 years. The Pennsylvania-born actor’s most memorable roles included playing Jane Fonda’s character’s boss Mac Churchill in The China Syndrome (1979), real estate agent Mr. Teague in the original Poltergeist (1982), and roles in 1985’s The Return of the Living Dead and its sequel in 1988. Karen also had a high-profile role in Little House: The Last Farewell, a TV movie that doubled as the finale of Little House on the Prairie, in which he played development tycoon Nathan Lassiter, a villainous man set to take over Walnut Grove, the tight-knit small town that was ultimately blown up.
But James Karen also had an alter ego. For nearly three decades, Karen starred in hundreds of TV commercials for the East Coast Pathmark supermarket chain, where he earned the nickname “Mr. Pathmark.” The West Coast-based actor would fly to New York every two weeks and run off 20 30-second commercials at a time.
“This is the best job an actor can have,” Karen told United Press International in 1984. “It pays very well, and it’s steady.”
Karen once revealed that after his evil turn on Little House on the Prairie, cab drivers wouldn’t pick him up and Pathmark received “hundreds of letters” asking that he be fired as the spokesman for the grocery store chain. The actor personally contacted angry viewers to remind them that Mr. Pathmark was not the evil tycoon depicted on Little House.
In addition to his movie roles, James Karen had several regular TV roles as Dr. Burke on the soap opera As the World Turns and primetime series such as Dallas, Cheers, The Rockford Files, and Eight Is Enough. Karen also had guest spots on hit shows The Waltons, Beverly Hills 90210, Charles in Charge, Seinfeld, The Golden Girls, L.A. Law, and Murphy Brown.
James Karen is survived by his wife of 32 years, Alba, and his son Reed.