Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces actress Karen Black dies from cancer aged 74

Despite a successful crowdfunding campaign to which fans contributed $60,000 towards the actresses' treatment, Black died of complications from ampullary cancer

The Oscar-nominated actress Karen Black who appeared in more than 100 movies from Easy Rider to Five Easy Pieces has died in Los Angeles at the age of 74.

The prolific actress died from complications as she was being treated for cancer, her husband Stephen Eckelberry confirmed.

Black was known for portraying women who were quirky, troubled or threatened. Her breakthrough role was as a prostitute who takes LSD with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in 1969's Easy Rider.

This helped her win the role for which she became best known: Rayette Dipesto, a waitress who dates (and is abused by) Jack Nicholson’s upper class dropout in 1970 film Five Easy Pieces –for which she received an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe award.

Black was diagnosed with ampullary cancer in November 2010. Shortly after, she had to undergo an operation to remove a third of her pancreas before extensive chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Despite seemingly overcoming the disease in July 2011 it returned and in June last year began to spread.

The actress spoke publicly about her condition for the first time in March earlier this year when her husband launched an appeal to crowdfund her spiralling medical costs.

Eckelberry turned to the money-raising website site GoFundMe to seek $32,000 to cover the costs of the actress’s treatment, which he called “her best and only shot”. He wrote: “If you’ve ever enjoyed her work, now is your chance to reach back to Karen – because Karen needs your help.”

Karen Black in 2012 Karen Black in 2012

Fans of the actress responded in their hundreds, beating the target to raise $45,829 in under a week, and donating more than $60,000 in four months to fund treatment in Europe – which in the end Black was too ill to undergo.

A blog post from Eckelberry on 7 August revealed: “Karen's health continued to deteriorate at an alarming pace. She became bed-bound: the spreading cancer having eaten away part of a vertebra and nerves in her lower back. Her left leg stopped functioning.  We could not go to Europe as we had hoped. It would have been almost impossible to travel to the airport.”

Yet her husband remained hopeful: “My daughter and I have both stopped working so that we can be by her side and we have hired someone to help as well. Thanks to your generous support through this process we can be there for her all the time.  We are supplementing traditional medicine with all the alternative care we can afford.  This would not have been possible without your generosity.”

This morning Eckelberry wrote on his Facebook page: "It is with great sadness that I have to report that my wife and best friend, Karen Black has just passed away, only a few minutes ago. Thank you all for all your prayers and love, they meant so much to her as they did to me."

Black was born Karen Ziegler on 1 July 1939 and grew up in Park Ridge, Illinois. Her father was a sales executive and violinist, her mother the children's novelist Elsie Reif Zeigler. She enrolled in Northwestern University to study drama and by the early 1960s had moved to New York.

She made her film debut in The Prime Time and had married Charles Black, whose last name she kept even though they were together only for a short time.

She studied acting under Lee Strasberg and through the '60s worked off-Broadway and in television, including Mannix and Adam-12. Her first Broadway show, The Playroom, lasted less than a month, but brought her to the attention of a young director-screenwriter, Francis Ford Coppola, who cast her in the 1966 release You're a Big Boy Now.

Karen Black poses in 1973 Karen Black poses in 1973

Black, who was married four times, tied the knot with Eckelberry in 1987 and the couple adopted a daughter.

Although she was most famous for playing Rayette in Five Easy Pieces the educated, articulate Black, raised in a comfortable Chicago suburb, had little in common with her relatively simple-minded character.

"If you look through the eyes of Rayette, it looks nice, really beautiful, light, not heavy, not serious. A very affectionate woman who would look upon things with love, and longing," Black told Venice Magazine in 2007.

"A completely uncritical person, and in that sense, a beautiful person. When (director) Bob Rafelson called me to his office to discuss the part he said, 'Karen, I'm worried you can't play this role because you're too smart.' I said 'Bob, when you call "action," I will stop thinking,' because that's how Rayette is."'

In 1971, Black acted alongside Nicholson again in Drive, He Said. In the coming years she worked Hollywood leading lights such as Richard Benjamin (Portnoy's Complaint), Robert Redford and Mia Farrow (The Great Gatsby) and Charlton Heston ("Airport 1975").

She was nominated for a Grammy Award after writing and performing songs for Nashville, in which she played a country singer in Robert Altman's 1975 ensemble epic. Black also starred as a jewel thief in Alfred Hitchcock's last movie, Family Plot, released in 1976.

"We used to read each other poems and limericks and tried to catch me on my vocabulary," she later said of Hitchcock. "He once said, 'You seem very perspicacious today, Miss Black.' I said, 'Oh, you mean "keenly perceptive?" 'Yes.' So I got him this huge, gold-embossed dictionary that said 'Diction-Harry,' at the end of the shoot."

The actress later claimed her career was ruined by The Day of the Locust, a troubled 1975 production of the Nathanael West novel that brought her a Golden Globe nomination but left Black struggling to find quality roles. By the end of the '70s, she was appearing in television and in low-budget productions.

Black received strong reviews in 1982 as a transsexual in Altman's Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. But despite working constantly over the next 30 years, she was more a cult idol than a major Hollywood star.

Black was also a screenwriter and a playwright whose credits included the musical Missouri Waltz and A View of the Heart, a one-woman show in which she starred.

She is survived by Eckelberry, a son and two daughters.

Additional reporting from AP

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on