December 7, 2011
Long before his screamingly funny portrayal of anchorman Ted Baxter made him a star in the 1970s, TED KNIGHT (1923-86) was a journeyman actor. His credits from the late ’50s through the ’60s included a variety of roles on Combat, Get Smart, and McHale’s Navy, among other shows, and a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it appearance as one of the police officers guarding Norman Bates at the end of Psycho. He even did a nude scene with June “The Bosom” Wilkinson in the 1964 film Party Girls for the Candidate (sadly, given what seems its clear relevancy to current events, both the racy “European version” and a tamer domestic edit are considered lost). Then came The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the role that defined the rest of Knight’s career. Arrogant, incompetent, and yet more highly paid than anyone else in the newsroom, Ted Baxter shared Knight’s silver hair, matinee idol looks and radio announcer’s voice, as well as his first name. No wonder the public mind fused actor and anchorman together. Post-Baxter roles in a Broadway flop (Some of My Friends, 1977), a Hollywood hit (Caddyshack, 1980), and a couple of so-so sitcoms of his own did little to dispel the connection. Indeed, the association between the two was “so prolonged,” Knight told an interviewer in 1981, “that I guess I’m going to be Ted Baxter-Knight for the rest of my life.”
ALSO READ: Shocking Blocking: Caddyshack
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READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the New Gods (1914-23) and Postmodernist (1924-33) generations.
What do you think?
You neglected to mention that Ted Knight also did voice work for a number of Filmation and Hanna-Barbera cartoon series, in particular the narrator for the first season of Super Friends.
Mitchell — thanks for mentioning the Super Friends voiceover work. Knight is an interesting figure to me because he embodies the playful postmodern subversion of the dominant discourse so well. (along with Darren McGavin.) “Discourse” is such a nebulous concept, but with Knight it actually is his voice, his diction and timbre and delivery. John O’Hurley (J Peterman on Seinfeld) and Stephen Colbert are following in Ted Knight’s footsteps, but they’re doing a different schtick — it’s more wink-wink, far less daring than what Knight was up to.
PS: I was trying to figure out why the recent Taco Bell ads — which parody Super Friends — fell flat for me.
Then I realized that they’re parodying something that was already a (loving) parody of the superhero genre. Which is just lame. It’s cheese, to be precise.
John O’Hurley is a good comparison, though Knight did that great comic bit where he’d collapse in on himself like a fallen souffle, his voice cracking and breaking in fear or wheedling. “Please, Lou! Please!”
Betty White’s Sue Anne character was a parallel critique of femininity. The great thing about MTM show was that while both characters were broad, they were far from one-note.
Ted Knight and Basil Fawlty are also both callbacks to a specific Commedia type, the blustering cowardly sergeant. The authority figure whose authority is all puffed up and false. Whereas Ted breaks down by dropping his voice into a begging wheedle, Basil would physically drop down into an obsequious crouching cringe.
Excellent point, David, that Knight didn’t invent that shtick. I think what makes him an iconic figure for me is that he was a member of such a macho generation — *everyone* acted like a tough sergeant. And he looked and sounded exactly like those guys (Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Chuck Yeager, JFK, Norman Mailer, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, William Holden, Frank Sinatra, Jack Palance, Anthony Quinn, Jack Lord, Charles Bronson, Charlton Heston, Norman Mailer), but he was subverting the machismo and authority.
As mentioned, Darren McGavin was also doing something subversive; Lee Marvin, too. And I suppose Marlon Brando, right?
McGavin is such a creature of the Watergate era. I mean, as an actor he was around a long time before that but he didn’t really click in the public consciousness until the early seventies. His innate cynicism didn’t make the same kind of sense until then.
Brando is interesting because he’s bringing the hyper masculinity of the leather community into the equation. (He was an early body builder back when that had a strong gay subculture. So was his lover, Wally Cox.)
Lee Marvin is such a singular screen presence among that Generation Macho. For one thing, he really was a grunt in WWII and saw plenty of action. So it was steeped in something real, unlike infamous war-avoider John Wayne.
Another guy I’d toss out into that mix would be Robert Vaughan. Despite being strongly associated with Napoleon Solo, there was something querulous about his mouth so that he often played characters who were ostensibly strong but secretly weak. His character in The Magnificent Seven – the gunfighter who’d lost his nerve – would be the perfect example. But he played a ton of oily, spineless executives through the 70s. Like Knight he’s a kind of false idol.
You do see a lot of critiques of the hyper masculinity of American culture after WWWII. Howard Hawks was always tweaking John Ford’s iconography that way.
James Garner specialized in guys who were masculine without that kind of macho. Specifically see a movie like “The Americanization of Emily” where he openly claims to be a coward, and interested in self-preservation.
Knight was an embodiment of how ill-fitting the singular mantle of manhood could be. His character was burdened with projecting authority while knowing he had none. McGavin’s style was to let you in on the irony, while “Ted Baxter” had to keep you (and himself) from noticing. Authority was incidentally paternal, but not necessarily, and many Americans yearned to outrun its shadow — Chevy Chase’s anchorman was subverting the same institutions, while not confronting the macho construction very specifically. To this list I’d add Leonard Nimoy — as Spock his allegiance to reason superseded his loyalty to his commanders, and he was an icon of dweeby, cerebral, outcast yourself-ness for geeks like me. The Ted Baxters eroded authority but the Mr. Spocks bestowed us license.
Garner — he was such a big influence on me as a kid. I think for that precise reason…
Great stuff, Adam.
Now you’re making me think of Adorno’s argument (in The Authoritarian Personality, I think?) that permissive parenting is one of the contributing factors of fascism; authoritarian fathers raise rebels. By creating an authoritarian father figure with feet of clay, Baxter was doing his part…
I am loving this discussion, gentlemen!
Nice commedia connection, David — I thought he had elements of Pantalone, the pompous professor character, but he’s probably more of a braggart soldier. A little bit of a combination, I suppose.
Regarding Caddyshack, forget Rodney Dangerfield or Chevy Chase. Ted Knight really is the standout comic performance of that movie (Bill Murray is great, but he’s really more of a running gag).
Amen to what you said about Caddyshack, Jason. “You’ll get nothing and like it!”
“Now you’re making me think of Adorno’s argument (in The Authoritarian Personality, I think?) that permissive parenting is one of the contributing factors of fascism; authoritarian fathers raise rebels. By creating an authoritarian father figure with feet of clay, Baxter was doing his part…”
Or a wayward big-brother or wacky uncle figure to let us know it was okay to be unfit. The fascist fathers loved us, but couldn’t forgive us for not wanting what they had to offer; the things that fulfilled us disappointed them. We generations of defiantly unsuitable heirs and gratefully unfortunate sons (daughters too). In this way, much like Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” becomes the supreme countercultural movie by unfilteredly staring at the superlative establishment figure, Ted Baxter could be our wool-suited, sheep’s-clothing Timothy Leary (and unlike Leary, not a camouflaged Fed).
Josh said I should join the conversation, but am disadvantaged by being English, and having never heard of this Ted fellow.
But it does remind me of how post-modernism had a sharp hegemonic and nationalistic flavour. The Simpsons may be funny in the USA. But the complexity of obscure pop cultural cross referencing leaves a British viewer thinking “i’m sure that would have been funny if knew what they were talking about.”
Hence the Simpsons represents the most aggressive form of cultural imperialism in recent times. Their cultural work is to make all non-americans feel a sense of lack, unable to entirely comply with the Happiness Mandate. Americans are the only people who can fully participate. Thus the Simpsons pours hegemonic scorn on all foreigners. It spits at us with a mouthful of bleach, puts us in a box of stones that is kicked about in a warehouse, and stabs us through the head while blowing poison darts at us. And fire.
Not sure if I put this thread to death with my funereal tone or my ornate restatement of the point you’d just made, Josh, but y’know, I left out Terry-Thomas — the double-agent of ambivalent sexuality, unaccountable privilege and disintegrating decorum as any number of hysterics, prigs and bureaucrats — now that I think back, my prophetic, post-masculine James Bond!
Sorry to drip more venom on Albion, Greg, by the fact that my browser for some reason didn’t display your post ’til after my one suggesting no one else was commenting went up…but hopefully my Brit-centric reference-base in that one lifts some scorn (or maybe you’re really from Des Moines and were just satirizing my purple punditry; *I* would :-))…
Greg’s post got caught in HiLobrow’s spam filter for a while, is the problem…
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