Hers was an eccentric stardom, one possible, perhaps, only in the early '70s, when her off-kilter brand of sexy hysteria helped her score big in a series of zeitgeisty pictures - Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Nashville - even as she became for a while a popular favorite in slightly lower-brow fare like Airport 1975.
If what came after never really hit those heights again, when given the chance she was terrifically effective, for example in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, as part of a high-powered ensemble.
Hollywood never really figured out what to do with the most distinctive women of her era. When the spate of daring, clever, off-beat films that brought them notice petered out (and even as some of their leading men, like Jack Nicholson, turned into major stars), performers like Black, Sally Kellerman, Ellen Burstyn, (in American films) Liv Ullmann, and others were left more or less high and dry. They were too quirky, intelligent, not commercial. They either retreated to low-budgets and flat-out character roles or simply faded away. Karen Black kept working, and if the scripts weren't exactly Altman - titles like Dead Girls Don't Tango, Auntie Lee's Meat Pies, and Dinosaur Valley Girls tell the tale - well, she was an actress, and she acted - three pictures on deck this year alone, despite her longstanding health issues.
And now she's returned to Fabulon. RIP.