Oscar Actors: Knight, Shirley–Two-Time Nominee, Dies at 83

Shirley Knight, the talented actress who received Oscar nominations for her work in her third and fourth films, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Sweet Bird of Youth, has died. She was 83.

Knight died Wednesday of natural causes at the home of her daughter, actress Kaitlin Hopkins, in San Marcos, Texas.

Knight was known for taking bold chances during her career — as when she portrayed a promiscuous woman who confronts a young black male (Al Freeman Jr.) on the New York subway in the incendiary 1966 independent film Dutchman (1966) or when she played a pregnant Long Island housewife who gets involved with an ex-football player (James Caan) in The Rain People (1969), a film Francis Ford Coppola wrote just for her.

The Kansas native received a Tony Award in 1976 for her turn as an alcoholic actress who channels Marilyn Monroe in Kennedy’s Children, and she was nominated again in 1997 for portraying the sorrowful wife of a Houston businessman (Rip Torn) in Horton Foote’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Young Man From Atlanta.

In Delbert Mann’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) — an adaptation of another Pulitzer Prize-winning play, this one written by Kansan William Inge and directed on Broadway by Elia Kazan — Knight made her first big splash as Reenie, the conflicted teenage daughter of a laid-off salesman (Robert Preston) and his wife (Dorothy McGuire) in 1920s Oklahoma.

She landed her first supporting actress nom for that, then received another one for her next film, Richard Brooks’ gripping Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), in which she portrayed Heavenly Finley, the daughter of the crooked town boss (Oscar winner Ed Begley) and childhood sweetheart of a Hollywood wannabe, Chance Wayne (Paul Newman). The film was based on a 1959 play by Williams that was directed on Broadway by Kazan as well.

 

in 1964, Knight asked for and was granted a release from her contract at Warner Bros. so she could move to New York to study acting with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

One of her favorite stage personas was Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire: “I was absolutely born to play that role,” she later said. After one performance, she recalled, “Tennessee came backstage and said, ‘Finally, I have my Blanche. My perfect Blanche.'” He then wrote A Lovely Sunday at Creve Coeur for her.

Williams said: “People talk about talent, but everybody has some talent. Everybody also has a heart. But talent, like one’s heart, is almost always badly or rarely used. You don’t take a talent or a heart out for a walk or an adventure without a great deal of courage, and I look for courage.

“There are talented people — brilliant people — who have courage, and those you want to keep around you … Shirley Knight has incredible courage: She’ll take her talent wherever it needs to go to get the job done well, and she has no fear about sharing it with anyone ready for it. I like daring people, bold people. Shirley is daring and bold.”

She was born on July, 5, 1936, in Goessel, Kansas, the daughter of oil-company executive. Raised in nearby Mitchell, a town with 13 houses, a two-room schoolhouse and a church, Knight began training at age 11 to be an opera singer.

When director Josh Logan brought Picnic (1956) to shoot at Sterling Lake, Knight, her sister, brother and mom served as extras for a day on the film, watching William Holden and Kim Novak at work.

After her junior year at Wichita State University, Knight came to Southern California for a six-week summer acting course at the Pasadena Playhouse. That led to her getting a role as a 15-year-old unwed mother opposite Michael Landon in NBC Matinee Theater in 1957.

“I guess I had kind of natural talent,” she said. “I looked very young; I was 19 but looked 15.”

Knight wasn’t going back to Kansas. She enrolled at UCLA and took acting lessons from Jeff Corey (her classmates included former child stars Robert Blake and Dean Stockwell, Jack Nicholson, Sally Kellerman and Millie Perkins) and while in a play was spotted by Ethel Winant, the famed head of casting at CBS.

“Ethel really was the person who, more than anyone else, championed my career,” she said. “She would put me in everything. Anything she could possibly put me in that was at CBS, she did. She also was responsible for my going with the Kurt Frings Agency. If you don’t know who that is, he was the most important Hollywood agent for women. He handled Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint. Every star at that time was his client.

“I was taken in to meet him, and I was this skinny little thing with glasses. He took one look at me and said to the agent who brought me in, ‘Why do we want her?’ And the agent said, ‘Well, she’s really good.’ This is with me in the room. And he said, ‘Well, OK.'”

Knight landed a contract ($400 for six months) at Warner Bros. and wound up appearing on the studio’s TV dramas like Bourbon Street Beat77 Sunset StripHawaiian Eye and Maverick.

She also portrayed a woman whose husband was killed during World War II on a live October 1958 episode of CBS’ Playhouse 90 that was directed by Mann. He had her in mind when he was searching for someone to portray Reenie in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.

At the Academy Awards, Knight lost to Shirley Jones of Elmer Gantry and then to Patty Duke of The Miracle Worker. “My father was my date for my first Oscar nomination,” she said in the 2014 interview. “When I didn’t win, Dad said, ‘You know, you can always come home.’ I think he thought that the fact I didn’t win meant that was [the end of] it.”

Knight did Dutchman onstage and then starred in and produced the film version, directed by Anthony Harvey. The movie won a critics prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and she took the best actress honor at the Venice festival.