When award-winning actress Shirley Knight isn’t rehearsing for the premiere of Arthur Laurents’ “Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are,” which goes into previews at George Street Playhouse on Tuesday, October 6, and opens on Friday, October 9, she is collecting “bits and pieces” of things she’s written to put together “sort of a memoir.” And what a collection that must be. From a fast start in Hollywood complete with Oscar nominations, she moved East for stage work, political activism and having a family of her own. As we talk by phone before her day’s rehearsal, her memories flow freely.
She was born in Kansas 70-plus years ago and lived there in several different towns through her high school days. Her original dream was to be an opera singer. “My mother’s family was very musical,” she says. Her grandfather played the cello, her sister and five brothers all sang. Knight began piano lessons as a small child and singing lessons when she was 11. “I loved to sing. Everywhere: church, funerals, weddings.” She and her sister sang duets for numerous local events. When she was a sophomore in high school, she won a “first” at the annual state music contest, which she proceeded to do the following two years as well. With this, she was asked to sing in the chorus of the opera in Central City Colorado. She majored in voice when she went to Wichita State University. At that time, she recalls having seen only one play: Julie Harris in “The Lark.” “It was not acting, but being.” This performance came back to inspire her later.
In high school, Knight was encouraged to take typing, a skill that really came in handy when a quick job was needed to supplement her college costs. Her college minor was journalism, so an appropriate part time job at the Wichita paper found her working as an assistant to the social editor writing about engagements and weddings. The paper had a magazine library where she found a copy of Theatre Arts Magazine. During the spring of her junior year, she noticed an ad for a summer six-week acting course at the Pasadena Playhouse in California and was determined to do that for the summer instead of working as a bookkeeper in her father’s oil business. She explained to her parents that this was a way to enrich her singing, but at heart, she suspects that her main impetus was to see the ocean. “It cost $250, an extraordinary amount,” she says. So she took an additional part time job working for the local television station, again, typing and holding up prompt cards for the news people.
At the Pasadena Playhouse she was placed with the group of students with less acting experience. “I looked so very young,” she says, so she was cast as the youngest girl in the end-of-session performance of a scene from Garcia Lorca’s “House of Bernarda Alba.” “My main job was to cry a lot, moan, and then hang myself.” In true Hollywood fashion, a talent scout was at the performance and singled her out. She had already decided she wasn’t going back to Kansas for that last year of college, but instead would go to UCLA. Friends at acting school recommended a place to live: the Hollywood Studio Club, right in the middle of the movie world, near the cross streets of Hollywood and Vine. They could walk to everything. She got a job as a receptionist at an exercise salon. Again, her high school typing class came in handy.
She continues her story — reminiscent of the old Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers film, “Stage Door.” A friend, Joanne Worley of later “Laugh In” fame, asked Knight to go along with her for an audition at NBC, suggesting that they just might see Milton Berle. “He was a big thing at that time,” she says. While Worley auditioned, Knight wandered down a hall, drawn by the sound of piano music. She peeked in, and the man playing the piano asked her if she sang. Well, yes, she did. So, she sang “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” to his accompaniment. He asked “What’s your name?” She replied and asked, “What’s yours?” Only when she related this to Worley did she find out she’d just sung with a famous composer. The name Jule Styne had meant nothing to her.
The next plot turn: the casting director came out and said, “You’re next.” Knight explained that she was just with her friend. But the director was persistent, telling her that she was just right for the role. End of story: She got the part of a 15-year-old unwed mother opposite Michael Landon on “NBC Matinee Theatre.” Knight says, “It was shocking. I was paid $400. And my mother in Kansas saw me on television.”
The man who had found her at the Pasadena Playhouse took her to a top Hollywood agent and insisted that though she was skinny and wore huge glasses, she was very good. “The next day, it was off with the glasses, dress in my best, and the agent took me to MGM and Warner Brothers.” They both offered her a contract. She decided on Warner Brothers with a six-month standard contract. “Kind of a trial,” she says. Her assignment: a role in “Dark at the Top of the Stairs” written by fellow Kansan William Inge for which she was nominated for an Academy Award in the supporting actress category.
“It went very fast,” says Knight. She was loaned to MGM for “Sweet Bird of Youth” with Paul Newman and Geraldine Page. Another Academy Award nomination. “That’s how my career began.” Working with Newman and Page, she was introduced to the possibilities of acting. “They had some secret I didn’t have,” she says. With television and film work, she realized that she had only scratched the surface. She decided she must go to New York and work with Lee Strasberg at the Actors’ Studio. “Only doing television and film, I would never be the best. I could be a movie star, but in terms of being an artist that was never going to happen.” She explains that in film work there is never time to get beyond the first steps in the process of acting. “You’re at the beginning of the process, then the director says ‘Cut and print.’ It’s very frustrating.”
The first time I saw Knight on stage was in the amazing Actors’ Studio Broadway production of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters.” The unforgettable trio: Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, and Shirley Knight. That was Knight’s Broadway debut in June, 1964.
She continued to work in television and on Broadway and Off Broadway. In 1967, she won the Best Actress Award at the Venice Film Festival in the controversial film “Dutchman” by Amiri Baraka. She received the Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in 1976 in “Kennedy’s Children” and again got a Tony nomination in ‘97 as Best Actress in Horton Foote’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Young Man from Atlanta.”
New Jersey audiences have seen Knight at McCarter several times. Opening Emily Mann’s first season there, Knight appeared as Amanda in “Glass Menagerie.” But she had already been in Princeton in 1976 in another Tennessee Williams play, “Streetcar Named Desire.” Knight remembers well, that after the curtain, Williams himself rushed up to her and said (as she of course mimics his famous drawl), “At last, I have found my Blanche.” This remains one of Knight’s favorite roles. Williams then wrote the play “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” for her.
In addition to a long list of film and television appearances, recently she appeared in the recurring role of Bree Hodge’s mother-in-law, Phyllis Van De Kamp, in the television show “Desperate Housewives.” In addition to performing, she has somehow found time to help found the William Inge Festival in 1981, an annual event that honors a different playwright each year since its inception. She has received several awards from the state of Kansas including Kansan of the Year in 2000.
Knight also has long been active working for various political and human rights causes. During the Vietnam War, she marched in protest and was arrested. When performing a play about the nuclear threat, “The Despot,” at a nuclear test site in Nevada, she again was arrested.
The opening of “Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are” at George Street marks her first play by Laurents, but the message of the play seems to resonate in a special way with her. She describes the theme as one of understanding and love that comes when dealing with loss. “I think anyone who has suffered loss, and most people have, will be very grateful for this play.” Laurents lost his partner after a 50-year relationship. Knight lost her husband 10 years ago. “It’s a pain that never goes away. I wake up in the morning and the first thing I think about is my husband and when I go to bed at night, he’s the last thing I think about. During the day I keep very busy. It doesn’t go away. It’s part of your life.”
She was married to British writer John Hopkins, whom Knight describes as “an extraordinary humanist. He didn’t know the meaning of cruelty.” They have two children, Kaitlin and Sophie. “When you have children, you also have an obligation to teach them to be kind, not cruel, and not to feel you’re better than someone else, because you have more money or are a different color.” A few years before his death, Hopkins was awarded the Humanitas Award for his film “Hiroshima,” an account of the atomic bombing from both the Japanese and American points of view. She says she congratulated her husband remarking, “At last, someone has recognized your humanity.”
Knight feels that she learned kindness from her husband. Both daughters, and also her step-daughter with whom she’s very close, learned their lessons well. Kaitlin is an actress; Sophie, a writer like her dad. Knight describes them as “kind and loving people.”
She is dismayed when she sees all the cruelty in the world. A few years back, her daughter Sophie walked behind her chair as Knight was watching television news discussing possible racism on the part of the policeman involved in the O.J. Simpson trial. Sophie’s comment: “How retro!” Knight says she feels the same thing is true with recent responses to the statement by President Jimmy Carter regarding racism still in our culture. “How retro!”
In “Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are,” two women, one played by Knight, the other by Alison Fraser, share life lessons, the primary one being “life is about kindness and generosity and totally understanding. Not just theoretically. but actually,” says Knight. “We are not alone. Every person in the world is you. We are all one. Pass that man in the gutter begging for money. You are also walking past yourself. And you are every time you’re cruel to another human being — you’re actually being cruel to yourself.”
Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Previews Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, October 6, 7, and 8, opens Friday, October 9, 8 p.m. Premiere of drama about love written and directed by Arthur Laurents. Through November 1. $28 to $78. 732-246-7717 or www.gsponline.org.