Shirley Knight, Tony- and Emmy-winning actress, dies at 83

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Shirley Knight, Tony- and Emmy-winning actress, dies at 83
Shirley Knight in her apartment in New York, April 7, 1997. Knight, who in a long film, television and stage career earned two Oscar nominations while still in her 20s, won a Tony Award in 1975 and later garnered three Emmy Awards, died on Wednesday in San Marcos, Texas. She was 83. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Shirley Knight, who in a long film, television and stage career earned two Oscar nominations while still in her 20s, won a Tony Award in 1975 and later garnered three Emmy Awards, died Wednesday in San Marcos, Texas. She was 83.

She was at the home of her daughter Kaitlin Hopkins when she died, Hopkins confirmed. She did not specify a cause.

Knight’s first Emmy came in 1988 for a guest appearance on “Thirtysomething.” She won two more in 1995, one for a guest role on “NYPD Blue” and one for “Indictment: The McMartin Trial,” an HBO docudrama in which she played the administrator of a preschool where abuse was alleged to have taken place.

She had scores of television credits, in 1960s shows like “The Outer Limits,” “The Fugitive” and “The Virginian,” and in later series like “Murder, She Wrote,” “Matlock” and “Ally McBeal.”

The many films on her résumé include Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Rain People” (1969), in which she played (alongside James Caan and Robert Duvall) a pregnant Long Island housewife who takes off on a cross-country odyssey of self-discovery.

Knight was most recently on Broadway in 1997 opposite Rip Torn in Horton Foote’s “The Young Man From Atlanta,” which Ben Brantley, in his review in The New York Times, called “one of the season’s happier surprises.

“A lot of this has to do with the galvanic presence of Ms. Knight and Mr. Torn,” Brantley wrote. “Both actors, who flared brightly among the constellation of young Method-steeped stars who emerged in the 1950s and ’60s, have been seen only infrequently on New York stages of late. And it’s as if they have somehow been storing up and nurturing both the force and the finesse that this production requires.”

Shirley Enola Knight was born July 5, 1936, in Goessel, Kansas. Her father, Noel, was in the oil business, and her mother, Virginia (Webster) Knight, was a homemaker. She did her first film work well before she was in the acting business — as an extra in the 1955 film “Picnic,” which was shot near her hometown.

Knight’s earliest show-business aspiration was to be a singer, perhaps in opera. While a junior at Wichita State University, she decided that some acting skills might help advance that goal. So, answering an advertisement in Theater Arts Magazine, she bought herself a six-week course at the Pasadena Playhouse in California.

There she discovered an ability to cry on cue, which she employed during a stage production. A scout for the Kurt Frings Agency, an important Hollywood concern at the time, was impressed, and she was hired as a contract player at Warner Bros., leading to television roles in the late 1950s.

After some months she was told to go see Delbert Mann, who was directing a film, “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” that called for a teenage girl, a part the young-looking Knight could still play, though she was in her 20s.

“I got the job,” she said in a 2014 talk at the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, “and I guess I was OK, because they nominated me for an Oscar.”

The nomination was for best actress in a supporting role. The statuette went to a different Shirley — Shirley Jones — for “Elmer Gantry.”

Two years later, Knight was nominated again in the same category, for her performance in “Sweet Bird of Youth,” based on a Tennessee Williams play. (Patty Duke won for “The Miracle Worker.”)

Paul Newman, Geraldine Page and other stars of “Sweet Bird,” Knight said, “seemed to know something that I didn’t know.” They urged her to go to New York and study with Lee Strasberg; on their recommendation she was accepted into his Actors Studio.

That training led to her Broadway debut in 1964 in a production of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” directed by Strasberg. She played Irina; Page and Kim Stanley portrayed the other two sisters.

Knight had two more Broadway credits in the 1960s. Then, in 1975, came her Tony-winning turn in “Kennedy’s Children,” a play featuring six characters in a bar who, speaking only in monologues, conjure the 1960s. Knight’s character, a would-be sexpot named Carla, envisions herself as a successor to Marilyn Monroe.

“Miss Knight,” Kevin Kelly wrote in The Boston Globe, “as the most beautiful of Kennedy’s children, the generation spawned symbolically by the late president, is startling in her analysis that she, like 50 million other beautiful girls, are nothing but images manufactured by the media, prepackaged beauties, soulless and skidding after empty dreams.”

The highlights of Knight’s film career included “Dutchman” (1966), based on an Amiri Baraka play about a confrontation with racial overtones between an unstable white woman and a black man. Among her favorite projects, she said, was “The Lie,” a 1973 television movie, written by Ingmar Bergman, about a troubled marriage.

Knight married the producer Eugene Persson in 1959; they divorced in 1969. Her second husband, writer John R. Hopkins, died in 1998. In addition to her daughter Kaitlin Hopkins, from her first marriage, she is survived by another daughter, Sophie Jacks, from her second marriage, and a stepdaughter, Justine Hopkins.

Although she was best known for serious roles, Knight turned up in comedies as well, including “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” (2009) and its sequel (2015). And then there was “Grandma’s Boy” (2006), which, in a 2014 interview with Digital Journal, she described as “ridiculously naughty.” It apparently has a following among young males.

“I forgot about it because it’s about 10 years old,” she said. “So what happens is, I’m walking down the street in New York and kids of, let’s say, 12, 13, 15, 18, film me on their machines. They hold up their iPhones and say, ‘I got you! I got you!’ ”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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