Karen Allen's 'small Circle of Friends' Includes Directors, Critics—and Singer Stephen Bishop

updated 05/26/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/26/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

I try to look at the positive side of things," says actress Karen Allen, who has already had her faith sorely tested at 28. Just after she wrapped her first movie, Animal House, two years ago, she was afflicted with EKC, a virus infection that caused a severe loss of vision. "I didn't know whether I was going to get my eyesight back, and I was pretty frightened," she recalls. Confined to her darkened apartment, she was comforted by friends reading to her, "a big bottle of Jack Daniel's and an occasional Darvon but not in combination." The disease went away three months later, but it left her corneas slightly scarred and her sight less than perfect.

Then came great notices for her performance as the intelligent anti-sorority girl who beds Donald Sutherland in Animal House. But her next two parts were in movies that might have stalled even Meryl Streep—an uneven gang opus, The Wanderers, and Cruising, Billy Friedkin's widely criticized wallowing in the gay underworld. Currently Karen is in A Small Circle of Friends, a sort of Jules and Jim at Harvard during the 1960s that has enhanced her reputation as a Hollywood comer who is hotter than her properties. What Allen is left with is a vow to "never again take a part without reading the script" (she wasn't allowed do so before Cruising) and one happier relic of Animal House. Her on-set friendship with singer-songwriter Stephen {Save It for a Rainy Day) Bishop, who played a cameo in the movie, has ripened into romance against all geographical odds. "Basically, we both live in New York and Los Angeles," says Karen, who yo-yos between his L.A. canyon retreat and her townhouse duplex on Manhattan's Lower East Side. "It hasn't been easy," she says of a relationship held together by "sheer determination and stubbornness."

Those were qualities Karen developed early growing up as the daughter of a peripatetic FBI agent father and a schoolteacher mother. Born in rural Carrollton, III., she and her two sisters shuttled through Knoxville, Chattanooga and Pittsburgh before the family settled in Washington, D.C. when she was 11. "I was always the new kid in school," she recalls, and after finishing high school "with no really strong direction," she ran a boutique, wrote short stories, "lived by myself in a grass hut in Jamaica for five months," and drove from Mexico to Peru with friends who were filming a documentary about South American Indians. Her own interest in acting began at 20 when she saw her first full-length drama by Washington's Polish Laboratory Theater. "I saw an actor weep for 45 minutes. His clothes were soaked," she remembers. "I was fascinated." She began studying locally, then moved to New York and classes with Method guru Lee Strasberg. Her film part in Animal House, for which she received bottom-scale pay of $3,000 ("pretty pathetic"), came after a weird interview with idiosyncratic director John Landis. "He picked up my résumé" she relates, "turned it upside down and read it backwards."

Studios are now pursuing her more directly. Karen is currently working on ABC's remake of East of Eden and has signed to star in Steven Spielberg's hush-hush project, The Raiders of the Lost Ark. But the admittedly "shy" and reticent Allen still frets about the "humiliating" meat market aura of some auditions. "I smile and shake the producer's hand, then walk out the door and cry," she says. Of course, she adds, "I've always done things the hard way. I was born like a piece of tangled yarn. The job is trying to untangle it, and I'll probably go on doing it for the rest of my life." As one reviewer concluded in his write-up of A Small Circle of Friends: "Karen Allen is perhaps the most beguiling new face in American movies. It's only a matter of time before she and a decent leading role get together."

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