Karen Black, the prolific actress who appeared in more than 100 movies and was featured in such counterculture favorites as Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and Nashville, died yesterday from complications from cancer. She was 74. Known for her full lips and thick, wavy hair that seemed to change color from film to film, Black often portrayed women who were quirky, troubled, or threatened. Her breakthrough was as a prostitute who takes LSD with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in 1969's Easy Rider, the hippie classic that helped get her the role of Rayette Dipesto, a waitress who dates—and is mistreated by—an upper-class dropout played by Jack Nicholson in 1970's Five Easy Pieces.
Black's performance won her an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe Award. She would recall that playing Rayette really was acting: The well-read, cerebral Black, raised in a comfortable Chicago suburb, had little in common with her relatively simple-minded character. Over the next few years, she worked with such top actors and directors as Richard Benjamin (Portnoy's Complaint), Robert Redford and Mia Farrow (The Great Gatsby) and Charlton Heston (Airport 1975). The actress would claim that her career as an A-list actress was ruined by The Day of the Locust, a troubled 1975 production that brought her a Golden Globe nomination but left Black struggling to find quality roles.