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James Karen, prolific character actor and Poltergeist baddie, dies at 94

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Feb 25, 2019, 5:02 PM EST (Updated)

James Karen, the character actor whose patriarchal presence and authoritative delivery brought him acclaim in hundreds of films, has died at 94. The actor passed away Tuesday at home in Los Angeles, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Karen notably played “The Man” in plenty of genre fare, whether it was a college president in Congo or a governor in Piranha. His long tenure in the profession and sense of gravity lent all of his characters plenty of power, even in the silliest films. The horror/comedy The Return of the Living Dead proved that as he accidentally unleashed zombies, while Mulholland Drive let him be the stunned punchline after a steamy audition scene.

But perhaps his most recognizable moment was as the catalyst behind the ghostly happenings of Poltergeist. As the developer Mr. Teague, Karen built the protagonists’ house on top of an old graveyard... without moving the dead bodies. He, as Craig T. Nelson screams in the film, only moved the headstones. You remember, this scene:

Karen’s career spanned over 200 films, including The Unborn, Wall Street, Nixon, Any Given Sunday, Opening Night, The Pursuit of Happyness, and Apt Pupil. He also appeared in several TV shows, including The Larry Sanders Show.

The actor’s pedigree ran deep, as he made his Broadway debut in Elia Kazan’s original production of A Streetcar Named Desire as Karl Malden’s understudy, appeared in the original production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and had Buster Keaton as the godfather of his son, Reed.

His final appearance on screen, aside from a still-filming television project, is listed as the horror-comedy film Cynthia.