Ted Knight, The Last
With Brian Williams Tarnished By Embellishment, Take A Stroll Down Memory Lane To When News Anchors Were Trusted Members Of The Family With Ted Knight Whose Stingy Portrayal Of Ted Baxter Belied His True, Generous Nature
Photo of actor Ted Knight.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special For Modern Times Magazine
Feb. 23, 2015 — One of the uproarious quirks of the “Ted Baxter” character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was his “gentleness with a buck.” Ted’s pathological stinginess was as reliable as WJM-TV’s low ratings. After all, who but Ted Baxter would take his wife out on a dinner date to a restaurant with drive-up service? And who but Ted would consult a personal tax attorney not yet out of high school?
It was with mild surprise then, that we declined an offer of financial assistance when we interviewed Ted Knight, who played Baxter so convincingly for eight years on MTM. At our meeting in 1981 during a lunch break while Ted was filming another hit sitcom in which he starred – Too Close for Comfort – we let slip that we were anticipating some lean cuisine in order to make ends meet during our three-week stay in Los Angeles to interview various movie and TV people for our college newspaper.
“Reporters don’t become flush working for the Minnesota Daily, just tired,” we told him.
“You be sure to come to me if you get strapped for funds,” Knight said.
Our steadfast refusal to endorse one of Knight’s blank checks (which he actually ripped out of his checkbook and gave to us) has haunted us to this day, because avaricious friends now consider us the worst kind of bubbleheads for not taking him up on his generous offer.
One of the most unaffected celebrities we ever met, Knight (who died in 1986) had a carefree demeanor that might have been traced, ironically, to the type of television roles he played early in his career.
“I played five lead Nazi parts in the TV series Combat! And I got killed in all five episodes. If you spot me now in one of those old shows, you’ll probably get a good laugh. I also played a KAOS agent on Get Smart,” Knight said. “I think you’ll find historically that many actors who play sinister roles have unusually happy home lives.”
Why, we asked, was he typecast early on as a Hollywood heavy?
“When I came out here, the thinking that prevailed was a complete turnaround in terms of what criminals should look like,” he said. “Instead of the pockmarked thugs with scowling faces, they wanted clean-shaven, all-American types. Since I have Aryan features, I fitted the bill perfectly. I had one speech memorized in German that I recited at every casting call. Translated in English it said that I had a terrific headache and wanted to go to bed. But I acted it with such venom and anger; I got cast in a lot of heavy roles.”
In a career that began in the first grade, Knight worked as a ventriloquist, puppeteer and narrator of documentaries and commercials and – in a weird foreshadowing – as a broadcast journalist.
“I fell off the couch playing Santa Claus in the first grade because I had forgotten my lines,” he said. “I got such a big laugh, so I fell off the couch three more times and got bigger laughs and that’s when I realized my future – the disease hit me. I’ll probably wind up my career falling off couches as Santa Claus.
“Actually, it all started for me in 1947 in Hartford at the Randall School of Fine Arts … (Knight then morphed into the booming basso profundo Ted Baxter anchorman voice) … in a small 500-watt radio station in Hartford, Conn. It wasn’t easy in those days; you had to work hard and own a good suit with an unspeckled tie.”
In case you’re not an MTM trivia buff, that speech was Ted Baxter’s opening statement at any banquet where he was fortunate enough to be nominated for an award.
“The character of Ted Baxter is entrenched in the lexicon of American entertainment,” Knight said. “Baxterisms in word and deed can be readily identified in many characters on television today. I loved doing him.”
And Knight was still doing him! At that moment in our conversation, he joined in singing “Happy Birthday” to a crowd gathered at a nearby lunch table in the commissary, ending the song by rhythmically banging his soup spoon on the table. Knight then made an impossibly long lean over his salad bowl and stuck his beaming mug (with Pepsodent teeth so bright and blocky you’d think you were looking at a whitewashed house on the island of Crete) point-blank into the face of a pretty young starlet he thought was Deanna Lund.
“Would you like to become a nun?” Knight said, leering, “because I’m feeling very priestly today. I want to hear your confession (And then to us) “My wife knows I’m a flirt but that’s as far as it goes. You can’t cut me off completely.”
The experience of performing on one of the few sitcoms (MTM) this is admired as a sterling example of near flawless writing and execution was not lost on Knight.
“Comedy is one area I’ve learned an awful lot about,” Knight said. “Eight seasons on MTM has helped and hindered me because I now have such high standards where TV comedy is concerned. I cringe more than I should. The MTM writers were very good, but in retrospect you tend to glorify or flatter more than is necessary. A moment I’ll never forget is that emotionally charged last show when everyone in the newsroom was fired but me; that caterpillar crawl over to the Kleenex box on Mary’s desk. It was our last scene together after eight years of performing.
“The tears, everything, it was all genuine. We were very close. It was a rare moment. We knew as actors, characters and human beings that were stepping out the door for the last time.”
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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