John Karlen, the Dark Shadows actor who loosed a 200-year-old vampire from a chained coffin and two decades later won an Emmy Award for playing a detective’s husband on Cagney & Lacey, died yesterday of congestive heart failure in hospice in Burbank, California. He was 86.
Karlen’s death was announced via Twitter on the Dark Shadows News page. The actor had been in declining health for a decade. Last March, the ShadowGram Dark Shadows newsletter posted that Karlen had suffered a stroke.
Kathryn Leigh Scott, the actress and author who played Dark Shadows‘ heroine (and frequent victim) Maggie Evans, has written books about the show and participated in the show’s many annual fan festivals, wrote on her blog, “Memories, memories… this morning I’m awash in memories of darling John Karlen, who left us yesterday. I’m told he passed peacefully, for which I’m grateful, but hardly seems in character for our Johnny. He was such a life force, God bless him! Farewell, my friend. Loved you.”
A frequent and favorite guest at Dark Shadows festivals over the decades, Karlen, a Korean War veteran born John Adam Karlewicz in Brooklyn, joined the supernatural ’60s soap in 1967 as the no-account, slightly menacing thief Willie Loomis. Soon after his arrival in the fictional Collinsport, Maine, Karlen’s Loomis, hearing tales of treasure in a secret mausoleum chamber, discovered the old coffin and inadvertently freed the sleeping vampire within, quickly becoming the undead monster’s unwilling slave and, eventually, loyal friend.
Planned as a short-term last-chance plot, the vampire storyline, starring Jonathan Frid as the fanged Barnabas Collins, turned the failing soap into a phenomenon, providing the fledgling ABC daytime line-up with its first hit. Karlen would remain with the series until its end in 1971, playing, as did most of the ensemble, multiple characters in various centuries and parallel universes.
Karlen reprised the Igor-like Willie for the bloody 1970 big-screen adaptation House of Dark Shadows, and a nice-guy victim character in 1971’s ghostly Night of Dark Shadows.
David Selby, who played ghost Quentin Collins on the soap and costarred with Karlen in the 1971 movie, called the late actor “a force of nature.” On his blog, Selby wrote, “Johnny was a force of nature, full of joy and love of life. His smile lit up the hearts of all his fellow actors on Dark Shadows. We have all held onto to our love and friendship with each other through the years, and we will continue to hold onto each other as we will always be embraced with Johnny’s smile, his sense of fun, his hugs, and his love.”
Prior to Dark Shadows (which currently streams on Amazon Prime), Karlen appeared on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, had small roles in ’50s anthology series, ’60s primetime episodic series and daytime soaps, but the Loomis role pegged him for horror through much of the early ’70s. Film and TV credits from the post-Shadows era include Daughters of Darkness, Night of Terror, The Sixth Sense, Night Gallery, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Wide World of Mystery and Trilogy of Terror.
By the end of the decade and into the next, guest shots on non-chillers began to stack up: Medical Center, Hawaii Five-O, The Waltons, The Streets of San Francisco, All in the Family, Police Story, Charlie’s Angels, Kojak, The Rockford Files, Starsky and Hutch, Hill Street Blues and The Winds of War, to name a sampling.
But his real second act came with CBS’ 1982-88 female buddy cop drama Cagney & Lacey: As Harvey Lacey, devoted, stay-at-home husband to Tyne Daly’s Det. Mary Beth Lacey, Karlen was Emmy-nominated three times (1985, ’86 and ’87), winning the Outstanding Supporting Actor trophy in ’86. He reprised the role in several stand-alone TV movies during the 1990s, including 1996’s Cagney & Lacey: True Convictions, his last major credit.
Also in the ’90s he recurred in Murder, She Wrote and Mad About You (as father to Helen Hunt’s lead character).
Karlen is survived by son Adam and former wife Betty.
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