Ted Knight: Started Out as a Ventriloquist

When I was a kid in Rhode Island and Ted Knight (Tadeusz Konopka, 1923-1986) was at the height of his fame, he was considered something of a local hero. 20 years before playing bumbling tv newscaster Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) he’d actually been a local tv personality at WJAR-TV in nearby Providence. From 1950 to 1955, Knight had a kiddie show on that station on which he did puppetry and ventriloquism. (He was from small town Connecticut, and had studied acting in Hartford.) From Providence he moved to a station in Albany where he did a similar show for a couple of years, and then on to Hollywood, where it took him a few years to get a toe-hold.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show is generally considered his big break, although I was the right age to have enjoyed his work in other contexts at the same time: he did a lot of cartoon voice-overs (e.g. The Superfriends, and other DC comics related cartoons) and other children’s television (e.g. The Ghostbusters). But Ted Baxter was his greatest creation, so much so that I’ve had a seriously had time accepting him in anything else.

There was a tendency in his later years, like in the movie Caddyshack (1980), and in the sit com Too Close for Comfort (1980-1986) to have him play the straight man, and I hated it. He was an actor who could be drastically, embarrassingly silly, and these straight parts seemed a waste of this skill. He did do voice and ventriloquism business on Too Close for Comfort from time to time, but I just thought the show was dreadful, just unwatchably wretched. My theory (it bears more investigation) is that after the failure of his earlier sit com The Ted Knight Show (1978) a decision was made to take him in a drastically different direction, and he did have this classic, silver-haired patrician look. But ironically, to this practiced eye at least, he seemed to be overacting in his bid to be serious; he was way better off cutting loose and being silly. I’ve only seen the credit sequence to The Ted Knight Show, but it looks like he was pretty broad in it. But it flopped. (If you’re curious, on this, the most obscure of his three sitcoms, he played a guy who ran an escort service. But somehow he was not a pimp, just a guy who ran an escort service. )

At any rate, we never got a chance to see what he might have done later. He died of cancer, in 1986, while still starring in Too Close for Comfort. He was only 62.

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