Karen Black and Jack Nicholson
Karen Black and Jack Nicholson

Karen Black was in the right movies at the right time to guarantee herself at least a footnote in film history.

Indeed, you could argue that Black – who lost her long battle with cancer Thursday at age 74 -- earned her iconic status as a screen queen of the New Hollywood era just on the basis of three roles: A skittish prostitute who takes a very bad acid trip (along with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) in a New Orleans cemetery in Easy Rider (1969); a coolly glamorous country music star who stokes the paranoia of an unstable rival (Renee Blakely) in Nashville (1975); and, most important, an emotionally clingy waitress who loves not wisely but too well when she falls for a classical pianist turned white-trash rowdy (Jack Nicholson) in Five Easy Pieces (1970).

But wait: There was more.

Black also brought captivating shadings of intelligence and vulnerability to stock-issue “girlfriend” roles opposite George Segal as a hairdresser turned junkie in Born to Win (a flawed but fascinating 1971 drama widely available in DVD editions that emphasize then-unknown co-star Robert DeNiro), and Kris Kristofferson (in his movie starring debut) as a down-on-his-luck musician exploited by a crooked narc (Gene Hackman) in 1972’s Cisco Pike.

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