What the Hell Happened to Karen Allen?

Karen Allen

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.

Karen Allen - Animal House - 1978

Karen Allen – Animal House – 1978

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 - Animal House 2

Karen Allen – Animal House – 1978

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.

Delta House - 1979

Delta House – 1979

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:

stephen bishop - animal house

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.

Next: The Wanderers and Cruising


Posted on April 4, 2015, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actress and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. You know why the senior citizens were featured in that TV show ad? Because the show was on CBS. Senior citizens were their audience at the time.

    I always thought Allen was one of the most endearing actresses of her time. Absolutely the sort of actress you cast for somebody to fall for. I think I first came to this conclusion when I saw The Wanderers.

    It’s a little unfair to criticize Malkovich and Woodward for having too much to say in The Glass Menagerie. That’s the nature of their roles. It sounds like the critics you are citing don’t understand the difference between theatre and film.


    • Boy, isn’t that true about CBS back in that day.
      I agree that Karen Allen has that real wholesome quality that i think came out in many of her roles (except when she vamped it up in “Backfire”, which I feel isn’t bad for a late night watch). Definitely someone a guy takes home to meet the parents (sorry, Teri Polo).
      Wow, what a gangbusters article, I really learned a lot here. Especially the backstory about “Cruising” and learning about this Paul Bateson guy; it makes me wonder what the film would’ve been like if it wasn’t tampered with by the studio. People feel Al Pacino was losing his fastball around this time, but I liked both “Cruising” and “…And Justice For All” (the plight of the Jeff McCullaugh character both frightens me and breaks my heart).
      But this is about Karen Allen, who seems to have had a career in which she was perennially overshadowed, either by larger than life characters (Indiana Jones) or underwhelming box office returns. Doesn’t matter to me though; I like her. As Moe Syslak said to the woman who hit on him while he was babysitting Maggie on “The Simpsons”, “You’re not exactly Karen Allen”.


      • I learned a lot writing this article. And to be honest, I’m really happy with it. I think Allen is a really interesting case study. After Animal House and Raiders, she really could have been a big star. But I don’t think that’s where her head was at. She immediately walked out of the spotlight and started doing theater! Contrary to what Birdman may tell you, Broadway is a lousy way to jumpstart your movie career. At the time when her movie career was hottest, she made no attempt to capitalize on it. I don’t think she fully realized how quickly opportunities dry up for actresses in Hollywood. If she did, I think she might have done things differently.

        I remember reading an interview with Allen in 1984 when Temple of Doom was in theaters and she was in the bomb Until September. They asked her about her decision to leave the Indy franchise. Although it probably wasn’t her decision. Lucas at least didn’t want the character back. Spielberg did at least for a time. But Spielberg seems to be a director for hire where Indy is concerned. Anyway, Allen was thrilled to be done with that kind of movie. Obviously she changed her mind after a couple decades.

        By all accounts, Allen seems like a sweet person. And I think you really have to give her credit. She did not just disappear the way most people think she did. She kept working and supporting her kid. And then when she was a single mom and the opportunities weren’t there, she did something that had to be difficult. She moved away. But when she did, she stayed busy. She started a business, taught yoga and directed local theater. How many single moms can do all that?

        As an actress, Allen has a rare quality. In her youth, she was radiantly beautiful. But throughout she brings a vulnerability to the screen as well as an inner strength. That combination is hard to find.


        • I really agree with all your points about Karen Allen, especially how she was able to fall back into other ventures to help pay the bills and raise her kids when acting wasn’t cutting it. I also have to agree with Roger Ebert about the male lead in “Until September”; that guy was a really wet rag, and I’ve seen more sparks rubbing my socks onto carpets than I viewed in that film.


    • Yeah, the ad really makes that apparent. Although I don’t think CBS’ demo has changed all that much.

      Mostly, I just wanted to compare myself favorably to Malkovich. 😉


  2. Full disclosure: Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite movie of all time. I’ve seen it more times over the years than I care to admit, but I still love that movie every time I watch it.

    Karen Allen was perfectly cast as Marion, a perfect pairing against Harrison as Indy.

    You mentioned in the article how Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan spent about a week or so collaborating on the story and brainstorming, which is where the story – and characters – were fleshed out for the film. If you ever get a chance be sure to read the transcribed Raiders story conference that was leaked online some day, as it’s a fascinating glimpse into the creative process behind a cinematic classic.

    Something that was developed during this weeklong story conference was the age difference between Indy and Marion, as in the film Indy is in his mid 30’s and Marion is in her mid 20’s, meaning when they had their fling 10 years earlier he was an adult fooling around with a young teenager. Marion: “I was a child! I was in love! You were wrong and you know it!” Indy: “Ahhh, you knew what you were doing.” I don’t think that kind of thing, even though it’s only briefly alluded to, would ever fly with a major movie studio nowadays. If Disney ever does reboot Indy you can bet your bottom dollar that Indy won’t have those rough edges from the Lucas/Spielberg era.


    • That’s true. You can bet I have read the Raiders transcripts. Fascinating stuff. I forget if it was Lucas or Spielberg, but someone wanted Indy to be even edgier. The idea was to make him more like Rick from Casablanca. Broken down and drinking heavily. Instead, we see that side of him when he believes Marion is dead. But originally, he was supposed to be a shell of a man from the beginning.

      Indy in Raiders really is a dark hero. He’s an atheist (gasp!). I remember a Catholic priest railing against that in my youth despite the fact the movie ends with Indy being saved by his faith. He drinks. He’s arguably a grave-robber. He’s got students hitting on him which suggests he may have a reputation on campus. And he’s clearly had inappropriate relations with a teen in the past.


  3. Here’s an interesting tidbit about who else auditioned for the role of Marion Ravenwood: none other than Marcia Brady herself, Maureen McCormick! The funny thing is I’ve read countless books and articles over the years about the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark yet this delicious nugget of info alluded me until just a few years ago when I read my sister’s copy of Maureen McCormick’s autobiography. In the book she revealed that in the 70’s and 80’s she had a notorious cocaine habit. “They would call me The Hoover because of how much cocaine I would do”, McCormick admitted. “If there was coke, I had to stay up and do every last flake even if it mean going without sleep for days. Nothing else mattered”. That ties into McCormick’s audition for Marion in Raiders, because on the morning she was supposed to meet with Steven Spielberg for the role she was still high on coke after spending the last 48 hours wide awake snorting coke. Her agent made an excuse that she was ill and begged Spielberg for another appointment. McCormick showed up for her audition a couple days later, having again gone on a two-day long cocaine binge and showed up high, looking terrible. McCormick admits that while sitting at a round table with Spielberg, already one of the hottest directors in all of Hollywood, with a bowl of fruit in the middle between them and Spielberg tactfully pointed at the bowl of fruit and subtly told her “You really should take better care of yourself.”

    When you show up for an audition for Steven Spielberg for a major Hollywood picture high out of your mind after a two-day binge, you know you have a drug problem. Thanfully McCormick eventually kicked her habit and cleaned up, but it’s a fascinating (and seldom-told) story about the casting of Raiders.


  4. I liked your comment about how Indiana Jones 4 was really no worse than the other sequels. Raiders is one of the best pictures ever made and is in just about every critics top ten list. But the two sequels in the 80’s really did not come close to the original. The two leading ladies in those films had no chemistry with Ford at all. Kate Capshaw was Spielberg’s wife, so that was a gift to her from her BF. The blonde from the third movie was pretty but could not act at all. She disappeared from the profession after the holy grail. Raiders and the two sequels prior to the Crystal Skull all had as a major story element that god exists and the endings all had a supernatural component. Except for Raiders, none of the sequels really had a compelling villain that was well acted.

    Therefore, to me, The Crystal Skull was really of a piece with all the other sequels. Yes, the “baton passing” gambit to Shia was a huge mistake. (one I commented on with The Mummy and Brandon Fraser earlier that was also a colossal blunder.) If you want continuing adventures of a story and the stars are getting too old, I really just think you do a reboot like they did in Star Trek or James Bond, you do not diminish the lead of your movie to bring in a younger guy in that same movie.

    I really just feel people viewed the Indiana Jones franchise with rose colored glasses dunked in nostalgia. Crystal Skull really wasn’t that bad. Was it great like Raiders? Obviously not, but neither were any of the sequels. In my opinion, the only huge difference in The Crystal Skull besides Shia was the fact that Harrison Ford was old and his star had faded and his charisma was gone. Ford was arguably THE biggest star in the world for almost twenty years and literally everything he was in was a hit. He was never a great actor, but he was though a huge movie star. And I think people when the saw the new indy movie just saw him now as this old dude and he no longer projected that movie star mojo. So people saw The Crystal Skull they said it sucked. They said, “oh!” but what is really the difference in believability from aliens to a 1000 year old immortal knight or a box from god or stones from kali? The other sequels sucked no worse than the new one, but Ford was such a huge star and Raider’s was such a beloved film that people did not see the flaws in them.


    • I do think Crystal Skull is the worst IJ movie. But none of the sequels hold a candle to the original. You’re right that Temple and Crusade get a lot of goodwill from fans due to their proximity to Raiders. Kingdom is worse than those movies, just not by all that much.


    • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Retrospective / Review


      • What the cast of Raiders of the Lost Ark looks like today

        Karen Allen – Marion Ravenwood

        Getty Images
        Karen Allen may be best known as Marion Ravenwood, Indiana Jones’ feisty love interest in Raiders of the Lost Ark (and bride, in 2008’s sequel, Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), but she’s also an accomplished comedic actress who had roles in National Lampoon’s Animal House, Scrooged, and The Sandlot.

        In the ’90s, she started scaling back her film and television work in order to concentrate on her family. According to Allen, show business can be hard on children, and Allen decided to raise her son Nicholas in the Massachusetts countryside, “even though it meant putting my career as an actor on the back burner.” Still, that doesn’t mean Allen hasn’t been busy. In 1995, she converted a barn into a yoga studio and started teaching classes. More recently, she put her Fashion Institute of Technology training to work and founded Karen Allen Fiber Arts, a clothing company that sells clothes based on her own designs, as well as pieces created by other local artists.


  5. Home » Lighter Topics » Movies » Alicia Silverstone:

    Quote: Mosca
    The problem with Silverstone’s acting is a lack of talent.

    Well that hasn’t stopped a lot of people. Although I kind of agree, that she’s often pretty terrible.

    Possibly the only actress that trumps Alicia Silverstone was Karen Allen. Given her roll in Animal House followed by Raiders of the Lost Ark, she had possibly one of the highest feelings of good will for any actress in the entire world. It’s pretty amazing that she wasn’t in bigger films (although Starman is a popular movie). Fortunately for her, they thought it was important to include her in IJ: Kingdom of Crystal Skull in 2008.

    1984 Starman: Jenny Hayden with Jeff Bridges,
    1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark: (age 29) Marion Ravenwood with Harrison Ford
    1980 Cruising: Nancy with Al Pacino
    1978 Animal House : Katy with John Belushi


  6. Retrospective / Review: Scrooged (1988)


  7. Most Of ‘The Sandlot’ Cast Got Out Of The Movie Business:

    Mom – Karen Allen

    Karen Allen was already a well-established actress before The Sandlot came along, starring alongside Harrison Ford in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. She also had roles in films like Animal House, Scrooged, and Malcolm X.

    Allen, 63, continues to work steadily, even reprising her role as Marion Ravenwood in 2008’s Indiana Jones installment. Most recently, the actress appeared in April’s Bad Hurt (with Healy!) and is set to play an empty nester who’s looking for self-redemption in Year By the Sea.


  8. Why the over-emphasis that women who don’t keep in the limelight fall by the wayside? It’s -people- who don’t keep in the limelight that fall by the wayside.
    All I can say is thank goodness Leonardo (mr Never Won an Oscar) Di Caprio is a man – otherwise feminism would be playing the misogyny card and i’d have to hear more propaganda how it’s a man’s world. Anyone who is not sexist can see beyond such propaganda.
    I call a spade a spade and I don’t like sexism from anyone, so I expect feminists to be offended.


    • What the hell are you rambling about, Mark? Did you happen to notice that roughly half the articles are about men? Please tell me you’re not one of those men’s rights idiots.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll have to disagree with you 180 degrees Mark. While the basic concept is sensible on its face – that sexism is bad no matter what – it is still a man’s world everywhere. Hollywood included. Further, this series is very well balanced, The criticism doesn’t apply here, you’d have to look through the series in more detail to get a better sense.


  9. Infamous Queer: Cruising (1980)


  10. Karen Allen on The Sandlot, liking the fourth Indiana Jones, and being typecast

    The actor: In the canon of truly beloved movies, Karen Allen’s name pops up with stunning frequency. Allen made her big-screen debut in National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978 as the sarcastic and with-it Katy, the movie’s sole voice of reason. Three years later, she paired with Harrison Ford in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. For good measure, she played the mom in 1993’s The Sandlot, a nostalgic favorite among millennials. Allen’s career extends far beyond those three chestnuts, though. (She’s also set to direct her first short film, an adaptation of Carson McCullers’ short story A Tree A Rock A Cloud.) While promoting her most recent effort, the emotionally raw indie drama Bad Hurt, Allen shared her acting memories—while offering her thoughts on the modern blockbuster, typecasting, and acting in film versus theater.


  11. Karen Allen, Kate Capshaw, and Alison Doody posing with iconic outfits from their respective INDIANA JONES films in 2003


  12. Raiders Of The Lost Ark Cast: Where Are They Now?

    Karen Allen

    Her Role in the Film: Marion Ravenwood, Indy’s former flame who finds herself tagging along on his adventure after the Nazis come calling at her doorstep.

    Since 1981: Allen turned up in films like John Carpenter’s Starman alongside Jeff Bridges in 1981, the Bill Murray vehicle Scrooged in 1988, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X biopic in 1992, the kids’ classic The Sandlot in 1993, The Perfect Storm in 2000, and, of course, returned to the role of Marion for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008.

    As of 2016: Her only credit so far this year has been as the lead in the drama Year by the Sea, directed by Alexander Janko, and though she currently has nothing else publicly lined up, it wouldn’t be a surprise if she pops up in the next Indiana Jones sequel in 2019 considering the last film saw Indy and Marion getting married.


  13. Karen Allen is one of my favorite actresses – and apparently under appreciated even by her fans hereabouts. Two of her roles: Starman opposite Jeff Bridges and A Small Circle of Friends opposite Jameson Parker (AJ Simon) are both still worth watching. I fell in love with her watching Friends. I met her in her store in the Berkshires and unfortunately the feeling wasn’t mutual.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, I wonder if that poster who commented that Karen Allen, Margot Kidder, and Brooke Adams should have made a film together in which they played sisters either wrote or knows about the post “Margot Kidder totally looks like Karen Allen totally looks like Brooke Adams”.


  14. absolutely think your point about Karen Allen, especially how she was able to fall lower back in different ventures to help pay the bills and raise her children while is not cutting it. I also ought to accept as true with Roger Ebert about the male lead in “until September”; the guy is an absolute damp cloth, and I have exposed major sparks rubbing my socks on carpets than I see in the movies.


  15. I always though Karen Allen was cute; it’s the freckles, I think. Plus she has this shy personality…I just like her. Then again, I like people in general…no, I’m sold on Karen Allen:-)


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