Thursday, January 23, 2020

In Memoriam: John Karlen (1933-2020)

Anyone familiar with show business, Dark Shadows, or the laws of physics knew this was coming. It had been coming for a long time. But it took so long, and John Karlen was so perpetually in medical trouble, it became shamefully unreal. Just painful details. It’s like he was refusing to go anywhere that didn't have good, hot, Polish food at the ready. From the outside, the situation became beyond fatalistic. He just became eternal, like one of the characters that he played.

I think this is a tougher death in the family to contend with because of that. We were always waiting for the other shoe to fall, and the other shoe was always falling, and yet nothing had hit our heads. It’s that strange and unique relationship and non-relationship that we have with celebrities who feel closer than family, and yet most of us have never met.

He was the greatest example of the Tao on Dark Shadows. Unspeakably brave and yet impossibly cowardly, to an extent that would shame the most cautious old biddy or fussiest mama's boy in the south. He was beyond an everyman. As Willie Loomis, he brought us the best and worst in all of us, and always with the most inconvenient timing. There comes a point that the hipster John Karlen fades away behind fabulous sunglasses, and all that is left is Willie Loomis. Maybe that’s because all that’s left of any of us is, ultimately, Willie Loomis.

On a show about death, he was the antithesis — fighting for life, fighting for a fair chance, fighting to be heard. Most of all, fighting himself and his own base impulses. Barnabas had no sidekicks with whom we would really want to identify. Instead, he had us, whether we liked it or not.

But beyond the character of Willie Loomis, there was a gladiatorial spirit in Karlen that represented the ultimate zest for living, cranky and tempestuous and impatient at the end, because that man still had a lot of living to do. As to his passing, there are details. And it is in the spirit of true irresponsible journalism that I write this in absolute dread of looking at them. The man died. Time and fate and reality are taking him from us. And I think that's bad enough for tonight.

The details are out there to be found. And if you want to gaze upon them, I understand why. Having written a number of obituaries for the Collinsport Historical Society, this one is different. I don’t want the details of his death. As someone who faces celebrity deaths with a fair degree of resigned, Buddhist inevitability, in this case, Buddha can take a powder. More than I imagined, I find myself just wanting him back. And I want him back as he was and as we were 30 or 40 years ago. He was the man who gave us Barnabas Collins, whether he liked it or not. And he was Quentin’s pal, proceeding to the chopping block like he was striding down Las Vegas Blvd. alongside Frank Sinatra. And he was also the guy who wasted no time shooting Fib and pining for Pansy Faye in a voice that truly made us want to punch Carl in the mouth, but with love. Always. And then there’s the chicken with Adam. And that tie that all good reformed hoods wore, because Willie Loomis was every neighborhood thug from Bridgeport that Dan Curtis could save through art. And he did.

Ultimately, Dark Shadows is about aristocracy. Of course, the Collins family. But beyond that, the actors. The stars are our aristocrats. But was he?  Perhaps he was beyond. He had a rude, strange, and crusty nobility. Ultimately, Falstaff to Frid’s Hamlet and Scott’s Miranda. But unlike the gracious luminaries, he was A Guy. He was OUR guy.

When one of the stars passes away, you can see the actors tighten up and close ranks, as well they should. And as well they will for John Karlen, because he was a guy... because he was their guy in a way we can never understand. Let us praise the bumbler he brought us, who, like us, had no business at Collinwood, and who had the misfortune of putting his throat in the way of the hand thrusting up from the coffin. We would’ve done the same thing. Yes, for the stars, he is their own. But he was also one of us. He is ours. This one is going to leave a mark. And we will wear it proudly. There are biographical articles. Read them. He deserves it.

Long live Willie Loomis, and you’ll forgive me if I just can’t write the words that should precede that sentiment. Long live the spirit of the man who brought Loomis and company into our lives.

Right now, he is the finest man whoever breathed.

- Patrick McCray

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