Svelte and stunning Texas-born Karen Sharpe was put into ballet shoes as a youngster. Her initial excursion to California was, at age 12, with the interest of becoming a professional ice skater, but the lure of being a movie star intervened. Her training as a teenager in the theater paid off and, in 1952, she appeared in Stanley Kramer’s production of The Sniper (1952), directed by Edward Dmytryk. Her role consisted solely of three lines delivered while sitting on a drugstore stool and ordering a cherry phosphate. Although she did not personally meet Kramer at the time, it would be a foreshadowing of a future lifelong relationship.
In her salad days, she paid the rent and more as a billboard model and also graced such popular magazine covers as “Cosmopolitan” and “Pageant.” On film, MGM featured her as Janice Rule’s kid sister in Holiday for Sinners (1952), opposite William Campbell. Campbell went on to appear with her in other films as well, and they were paired as husband and wife in the Stagecoach West (1960) episode, Stagecoach West: Never Walk Alone (1961), in 1961. Producer Hal Roach gave her a break by featuring her in the popular “White Rain” commercials, where she danced her way to fame across the tops of rows of shampoo bottles, and he also chose her to represent his studio as Modern Screen Magazine’s Golden Key Award winner as 1952’s “Star of Tomorrow”. Columbia Pictures picked up on this recognition and placed her in the Hugo Haas melodrama, Strange Fascination (1952). Monogram Pictures offered her a starring role in Army Bound (1952), which led to her being cast in Walter Mirisch’s cult programmer, Bomba and the Jungle Girl (1952), with Johnny Sheffield (who played “Boy” in the Tarzan series) playing Bomba to Karen’s lovely “Jungle Girl”. The John Payne western The Vanquished (1953) followed, for Paramount Pictures. The film also starred Jan Sterling, who went on to appear with Karen in a couple of other major films and become a close friend and mentor, as well.
After filming the crime drama Mexican Manhunt (1953), starring George Brent, for Allied Artists, Karen received the biggest break of her young career. Director William A. Wellman cast her in the Wayne-Fellows-Warner Brothers epic airline disaster film, The High and the Mighty (1954). An all-star ensemble, it featured Karen as “Nell Buck”, an amorous bride who allays her fears of certain death with the ecstasies of passion for new husband “Milo” (played by John Smith). Karen’s standout performance garnered her the 1954 Golden Globe Award for “New Star of the Year”. As a result, the film’s star and producer, John Wayne, put her under contract to his new company, Batjac. Loaned out to Ida Lupino’s company for Mad at the World (1955), Karen then co-starred in United Artists’ Man with the Gun (1955) opposite Robert Mitchum. Cast in Batjac’s Man in the Vault (1956), she went on loan again, this time for Columbia’s war picture, Tarawa Beachhead (1958).
In the 1950s, against the concerns of the studios but with the encouragement of John Wayne, who advised her to “do anything and everything you can to grow as an artist”, Karen made herself available for television. Taking Wayne’s advice to heart, she found a creative and demanding outlet performing in “live” drama, with roles on Hallmark Hall of Fame (1951), General Electric Theater (1953), Climax! (1954), Matinee Theatre (1955), Playhouse 90 (1956) and Lux Playhouse (1958), among others. She also appeared in episodes of such classic TV shows as The Loretta Young Show (1953), Gunsmoke (1955), Perry Mason (1957), Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse (1958), 77 Sunset Strip (1958), Bonanza (1959), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964) and The Wild Wild West (1965). Karen went on to co-star in Aaron Spelling’s very first television series, Johnny Ringo (1959).
Following a hiatus from Hollywood, while straightening out family estate matters, Karen was cast in the pilot for I Dream of Jeannie (1965) as Larry Hagman’s fiancé and Jeannie’s attractive nemesis. While waiting for the pilot to be sold (which, of course, it did), Jerry Lewis signed her to play opposite him in Paramount’s The Disorderly Orderly (1964) as lovesick nurse “Julie Blair”, who wins Jerry’s affections in the end. It was during that filming that she met Stanley Kramer, who was directing Ship of Fools (1965) at the same time on the Paramount lot. Karen’s focus was on her career, however, and a year went by before they actually started dating in January of 1966. After a relatively brief courtship, they married on September 1, 1966, following her completion of the Universal pilot, Valley of Mystery (1967).
Choosing to close the chapter on her acting career, Karen opened a new and rewarding one as full-time wife, mother (of two), and assistant to her husband. With the creation of KNK Productions, Inc., Karen established herself as a producer. Among her many successful projects is a remake of her husband’s western classic High Noon (2000), as well as the prospective “Defiant One,” a documentary examining Kramer’s prolific career, and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” a big-screen sequel to his It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). Kramer passed away on February 19, 2001. Since then, the ever-busy and vivacious Karen has maintained the Stanley Kramer Library. In addition, she also established the Stanley Kramer Award at the Producer’s Guild, and the Stanley Kramer Fellowship Award in Directing at UCLA in 2001. Both of these awards honor socially conscious young filmmakers.
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