Born July 5, 1936 in Goessel, Kansas, Shirley Knight was the daughter of an oil executive and his wife. At the age of 14, she wrote a short story which was published in a national magazine. She later attended Phillips University and Wichita State University and trained in acting with Erwin Piscator, Lee Strasberg, and Uta Hagen. She is a life member of the Actors Studio.
Knight made her TV debut in an episode of the series Playbill in 1955 and her film debut later that year in an uncredited role in Picnic. She had a starring role in the 1958 TV series, Buckskin and her first credited screen role as a nun in 1959’s Five Gates to Hell. She married first husband, actor Gene Persson, that year.
The actress started out 1960 playing Richard Burton’s granddaughter in the film version of Edna Ferber’s Ice Palace, later appearing in numerous TV shows and rounding out the year co-starring in Delbert Mann’s film of William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs emerging as the only Oscar nominee from the film’s legendary cast.
More TV and two more films in 1962 including Richard Brooks’ film version of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth brought Knight her second Oscar nomination. More TV work and the 1964 film Flight from Ashiya led to two films again in 1966, Sidney Lumet’s all-star cast film, The Group and Anthony Harvey’s Dutchman which was co-produced by Knight and her husband. She won the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival for the latter.
Knight was to make just three more films in the 1960s including Richard Lester’s Peulia and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People. She divorced Persson and married playwright John Hopkins in 1969 with whom she would have her second child. Hopkins would also adopt her daughter with Persson, the future actress Kaitlin Hopkins.