Oscar Profile #465: Alexander Knox

Born January 16, 1907 in Ontario, Canada to a Presbyterian minister and his wife, Alexander Knox was educated at the University of Western Ontario where he studied English literature and also dabbled in acting, his first stage role being in the title role of a university production of Hamlet. Upon graduation in 1929, he moved to Boston, Massachusetts where he worked as a journalist for the Boston Post while simultaneously pursuing a career in acting. After the stock market crash, he returned to Ontario where he worked as a journalist for the London Advertiser. A year later he moved to London, England where he met producer Tyrone Guthrie who put him on the stage at the Old Vic where he appeared in plays with his contemporaries, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier.

Knox made his film debut in an uncredited role in 1931’s The Ringer. Subsequent British films included the classics, Rembrandt and The Four Feathers in which he had minor roles. Returning to the States, he made his Broadway debut as Friar Lawrence in Olivier’s 1940 production of Romeo and Juliet in support of Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Later that year, he starred opposite Jessica Tandy in A.J. Cronin’s Jupiter Laughs.

Making his Hollywood debut in a major role in 1941’s The Sea Wolf, Knox followed that with important roles in This Above All, Commandos Strike at Dawn and None Shall Escape before being cast as Woodrow Wilson in Daryl F. Zanuck’s mammoth 1944 production, Wilson for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. That same year, he married New York born actress Doris Nolan, best remembered for her role as Katharine Hepburn’s sister in the 1938 film version of Holiday in which she loses fiancé Cary Grant to Hepburn.

Despite his Oscar nomination, Knox’s subsequent roles were mostly as the male lead to films dominated by female stars such as 1945’s Over 21 opposite Irene Dunne, 1946’s Sister Kenny opposite Rosalind Russell and 1949’s The Judge Steps Out opposite Ann Sothern. He then reverted to supporting roles in such films as 1949’s Tokyo Joe and 1951’s I’d Climb the Highest Mountain. Blacklisted by HUAC in 1952, Knox, Nolan and their five-year-old son Andrew moved to England where Knox had a lucrative career in supporting roles.

Among the many international films in Knox’s later career were 1952’s Europa ‘51, 1954’s The Divided Heart, 1955’s The Night My Number Came Up, 1958’s Chase a Crooked Shadow and The Vikings, 1959’s The Wreck of the Mary Deare, 1960’s Oscar Wilde, 1962’s The Longest Day, 1963’s In the Cool of the Day, 1964’s Woman of Straw, 1966’s Khartoum, 1967’s Accident, 1971’s Nicholas and Alexandra, 1983’s Gorky Park and 1985’s Joshua Then and Now.

In 1987, Knox’s 39-year-old son Andrew either jumped or fell into the English Cannel while travelling on a ferry. Alexander Knox died on April 25, 1995 at the age of 88. His wife Doris died three years later at the age of 82.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

THE SEA WOLF (1941), directed by Michael Curtiz

The definitive film version of Jack London’s classic novel benefitted from a screenplay by Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men, The Hustler) and the sterling performances of Edward G. Robinson as the cruel skipper of the sealer vessel Ghost, John Garfield and Ida Lupino as fugitives at sea, Gene Lockhart as a boozy doctor, Barry Fitzgerald as the ship’s cook and Knox as the writer who is the story’s protagonist. Oscar nominated for Best Special Effects, the film also benefits from a fine score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Knox more than holds his own against Robinson and Garfield in his film debut.

WILSON (1944), directed by Henry King

Nominated for ten Oscars and winner of 5, Daryl F. Zanuck’s prestige production was a box-office disappointment, losing Best Picture to the popular Going My Waywith Knox, nominated for the first and only time in his long career, losing the Best Actor Oscar to Bing Crosby. The film was a standard biopic of its era ending with an impassioned plea for the establishment of League of Nations. Knox received excellent support from Ruth Nelson, and Geraldine Fitzgerald as the two Mrs. Wilsons, Thomas Mitchell, Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Coburn, Vincent Price, William Eythe, Mary Anderson and Ruth Ford among others.

THE JUDGE STEPS OUT (1949), directed by Boris Ingster

Knox is so good in this that you have to wonder why he didn’t do more comedy. The actor co-wrote the screenplay with director Ingster from Ingster’s story about an uptight Boston judge, played by Knox, who falls ill on a train and decides to chuck his old life for something more relaxing. He ends up working as a short-order cook in a 24-hour diner in California’s San Fernando Valley where he becomes romantically involved with the diner’s widowed owner, a never better Ann Sothern. Lending fine support are Sharyn Moffat the little girl Sothern wants to adopt, Frieda Inescort as Knox’s wife, George Tobias, H.B. Warner, Florence Bates and more.

THE VIKINGS (1958), directed by Richard Fleischer

Knox plays Father Godwin, the priest, in this hugely popular action adventure film that retains its interest today thanks in large part to Jack Cardiff’s superb cinematography, Kirk Douglas on the heels of Paths of Glory, Tony Curtis on the heels of Sweet Smell of Success and Ernest Borgnine on the heels of Marty at at their best, but so are James Donadl, Knox and Janet Leigh as the princess in distress. Fleischer was nominated for Best Director by the Directors Guild of America and Douglas tied with James Stewart in Vertigo for Best Actor at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

GORKY PARK (1983), directed by Michael Apted

This unique thriller, based on a best-selling novel, is centered around the murders of three young people in Moscow. William Hurt as the detective on the case made this between The Big Chill and Kiss of the Spiderwoman. Director Apted made this between Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist. Hurt’s co-stars are Lee Marvin, Brian Dennehy, Ian Bannen and Joanna Pacula who received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Michael Elphick, Richard Griffiths, Knox nd Ian McDiarmid are among the many fine actors in smaller roles.

ALEXANDER KNOX AND OSCAR

  • Wilson (1944) – nominated – Best Actor

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