What the Hell Happened to Karen Allen?
Karen Allen starred in one of the best-remembered blockbuster movies of all time. She has worked with Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner, John Carpenter and William Friedkin. Her costars include Harrison Ford, Al Pacino, Billy Murray and John Belushi. But despite appearing in several hit movies, Allen never became a big star. As the 80’s ended, her career cooled off and eventually she threw in the towel. She left Hollywood for the Berkshire Mountains.
What the hell happened?
Allen studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute in her twenties. According to the internet, Allen was considered for and possibly even auditioned for the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars. But Allen says don’t believe everything you read on Internet Movie Database:
I think that’s not true. I don’t know where that ever came from. Because when Star Wars was being made I had never done a film in my life. I was either still living in Washington, D.C., working in the theater or had just moved to New York and working in theater there, too. I had heard that rumor but I just can’t imagine anybody knew who I was.
In 1978, Allen appeared in her first Hollywood movie, National Lampoon’s Animal House.
Allen played the down-to-earth girlfriend of Peter Reigert’s character, Boon. Boon was one of the members of the Delta Tau Chi fraternity at Faber College in 1962 when the movie takes place. The Delta House is the rowdiest on campus and is always in danger of being shut down by the school’s dean. Stephen Furst and Thomas Hulce played pledges to Delta House. John Belushi, Tim Matheson, Bruce McGill, James Widdoes and Douglas Kenney played the other frat brothers.
Producer Ivan Reitman originally wanted to cast more Not-Ready-for Prime Time players. He wanted Bill Murray to play Boon and Chevy Chase for Otter. The role of D-Day was written for Dan Aykroyd. Director John Landis didn’t want Animal House to turn into Saturday Night Live: the Movie. So he actively discouraged Chase from accepting the role. When Chase opted to make Foul Play instead, the SNL casting idea fell through.
Writer Harold Ramis had hoped to play the role of Boon himself. But Landis felt Ramis was too old for the part. He was 32. Instead, Landis cast Reigert who was 29. Ramis was so disappointed, he turned down a smaller role Landis offered him. The other two writers, Doug Kenney and Chris Miller, accepted small roles as an excuse to be on the set during filming. According to Allen, she was an unpopular choice for the role of Katy:
I think I auditioned five times for that role. And nobody but John Landis and the casting directors wanted me. Well, I think Harold Ramis liked me, too. But nobody at Universal wanted me because they wanted someone with more experience, someone who had more credits. Someone they could point to as more of a star.
Allen did some nudity for Animal House. When she expressed reluctance to do so, Donald Sutherland stepped in and offered to take off his pants as well. Allen recalled the exchange at the movie’s 30th anniversary:
I thought he was so sweet to do that, so I sort of let go of my objections and said, ‘Okay, if Donald Sutherland is going to bare his bottom, by golly, I’ll bare mine too!’
Sutherland didn’t think the movie would be a hit. He was offered a percentage or a flat fee of $75,000 for three day’s work. His decision to accept the upfront payment cost him somewhere between $3-4 million dollars.
Initial reviews for Animal House were mixed. But the movie was a hit at the box office and remains a comedy classic. A sequel was planned in which the Deltas would reunite for Pinto’s wedding. It was to be set in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco during the Summer of Love. But after the box office failure of American Graffiti 2 which had a similar setting, the Animal House sequel was cancelled.
In 1979, ABC aired a TV adaptation of Animal House called Delta House. The show recast some roles while maintaining original cast members Stephen Furst, Bruce McGill, James Widdoes and John Vernon. Allen did not return. Her character did not appear on Delta House. However, Michelle Pfieffer did appear as a character credited as “The Bombshell.”
Shortly after wrapping on Animal House, Allen was afflicted with EKC, a virus infection that can cause loss of vision. According to Allen:
I didn’t know whether I was going to get my eyesight back, and I was pretty frightened.
Three months later, the disease went away on its own, but it left Allen with scarred corneas and less than perfect vision. During this time, Allen began a romantic relationship with this guy:
Singer-song writer Stephen Bishop played the guy whose guitar John Belushi smashes in Animal House. Allen and Bishop struck up a friendship on the set and the friendship turned into a romance afterwards.
Allen also appeared in the 1978 TV movie Lovey: A Circle of Children, Part II about a social worker who helps a violently troubled young girl named Lovey.