Shirley Knight, who was twice Oscar nominated for best supporting actress, for “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” (1960) and “Sweet Bird of Youth” (1962), and won a Tony and three Emmys, died on Wednesday of natural causes in San Marcos, Texas. She was 83.
Her daughter, actress Kaitlin Hopkins, paid tribute to Knight in a lengthy Facebook post.
Knight continued to work as she approached 80, reprising her role as Mom in “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” in 2015 after appearing in the 2009 original.
In 1997’s “As Good as It Gets,” starring Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, Knight played the mother of Hunt’s character; the New York Times called her performance “tenderly funny.”
Other film credits of recent vintage include Luis Mandoki’s “Angel Eyes” (2001), starring Jennifer Lopez; thriller “The Salton Sea” (2002); “Grandma’s Boy” (2006); Rebecca Miller’s “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” (2009), with Robin Wright; “Our Idiot Brother” (2011), toplined by Paul Rudd; and 2014 horror film “Mercy,” based on a story by Stephen King.
The eight-time Emmy nominee won for a guest appearance on “Thirtysomething” in 1988, and boasted dual wins in 1995: for supporting actress in a miniseries or special for “Indictment: The McMartin Trial” and for guest actress in a drama for an appearance on “NYPD Blue.” She was most recently nominated in 2006 for guesting on “Desperate Housewives” as Phyllis Van de Kamp, the mother of Steven Culp’s Rex Van de Kamp.
In recent years, she had guested on “Hot in Cleveland” in 2010 and “The Mob Doctor” in 2012.
The actress won her Tony, for featured actress in a play, in 1976, for her performance in Robert Patrick’s “Kennedy’s Children.” In 1997 she was nominated for best actress in a play for Horton Foote’s Pulitzer Prize winner “The Young Man From Atlanta.”
While the William Inge play “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” had to be censored to make it to the big screen in 1960, the Delbert Mann-directed film sported beautifully wrought performances from Robert Preston and Dorothy McGuire, as a couple in a sexless marriage, and of Knight as their daughter, earning the young actress her first Oscar nomination.
In Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth” (1962), she played the girl, Heavenly Finley, daughter of Boss Finley, for whom the Hollywood gigolo portrayed by Paul Newman comes back to his small Southern town (with some complications along the way). The actress thus earned her second Oscar nomination.
Also in 1962 Knight secured her first starring role, as the young innocent who must make do in the women’s prison picture “House of Women.”
In 1966 she starred with Candice Bergen, Joan Hackett and Elizabeth Hartman in the Sidney Lumet-directed adaptation of Mary McCarthy’s novel “The Group,” about several women who graduate from college amid the Depression and begin their lives.
The next year Knight starred opposite Al Freeman Jr. in the Anthony Harvey-helmed “Dutchman,” an adaptation of LeRoi Jones’ racially and sexually explosive play that takes place in a single subway car in which a blonde woman makes explicit advances to a black man, her exact motivations initially unclear; her behavior leads to murder. Knight’s performance was widely lauded, with “Dutchman” a nominee for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
In Richard Lester’s ’60s classic “Petulia” (1968), also starring Julie Christie and George C. Scott, Knight played the ex-wife of Scott’s character.
In 1969 the actress starred, with James Caan and Robert Duvall, in Francis Ford Coppola’s early film “The Rain People,” in which she played a dissatisfied housewife who takes to the road and heads west, picking up the brain-damaged former football played portrayed by Caan along the way. Many critics compared the flawed film to “Easy Rider.”
Thus ended the decade that saw Knight’s most compelling performances on film. Later she appeared in movies including “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure”; 1981’s “Endless Love,” in which she played the mother of Brooke Shields’ character; Richard Rush’s 1994 psychological thriller “Color of Night,” in which she played the widow of a psychiatrist with a secret; “Stuart Saves His Family” (1995), starring Al Franken; and the 1996 remake of “Diabolique” that starred Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani.
Shirley Enola Knight was born in Goessel, Kansas, growing up in Mitchell, Kansas, and later in Lyons, Kansas. She studied to be an opera singer starting at age 11, attended Phillips University in Oklahoma and Wichita State University, and earned a Doctor of Fine Arts from Lake Forest College.
Knight studied acting at the Pasadena Theatre School, and with Jeff Corey and Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.
She made her (uncredited) film debut with a minor role in the adaptation of Inge’s “Picnic” in 1955 and her credited big-screen debut in James Clavell’s war-adventure movie “Five Gates to Hell” (1959). By 1961 she had received her first Oscar nomination.
Despite her talent, she did not appear frequently on Broadway, making her debut in 1964 in a highly regarded revival of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” in which she played Irina. Two years later, she appeared in “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” which had a very brief run. In 1969 she appeared in the original play “The Watering Place,” which had an even briefer run — a single performance (excluding previews). She finally hit pay dirt in 1975 with Patrick’s “Kennedy’s Children,” picking up the Tony for best featured actress in a play.
After more than two decades away, Knight returned to Broadway in 1997 to star with Rip Torn in Horton Foote’s “The Young Man From Atlanta,” drawing a Tony nomination for best actress in a play.
Knight also worked steadily in television beginning in 1957. She guested on “Playhouse 90,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Hawaiian Eye” and, decades later, on “Law & Order,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “L.A. Law,” “NYPD Blue,” “Ally McBeal,” “House” and “ER.” The actress also appeared in many TV movies, including HBO’s “If These Walls Could Talk” (1996).
Knight was married to actor Eugene Persson from 1959 until their divorce in 1969, and to British playwright John Hopkins from 1969 until his death in 1998.
She is survived by a daughter by Persson, actress Kaitlin Hopkins, and a daughter by Hopkins, writer Sophie C. Hopkins.