With more than 200 theater, film, and television credits throughout her 60-plus year career, you might think a 55-min black and white next-to-nothing budgeted 1960s movie filmed in a week entirely inside a train carriage with only two principal characters wouldn’t rate high on Shirley Knight’s list of favorite roles.
But you’d be wrong. With its topical racial themes based on the Amiri Baraka play, 1966’s “Dutchman” still stirs emotions.
“I saw the play and told my husband we had to make it as a film even though it was short,” recalled Knight, who co-produced and starred in the production. “We couldn’t get it done in New York so went to England to shoot. We didn’t have a lot of money, but people helped out like offering us music for the score.”
Knight plays flirtatious and highly unstable Lula, a white woman who meets Clay (the late Al Freeman Jr.), an African American fellow train traveler on the New York City subway. The dialogue between the two takes place entirely on the train and skillfully symbolizes the conflict between white and black America of the period, building to the shocking conclusion.
“It’s still shown in university Black Study courses,” said Knight, a long-time practitioner of social activism. “There have been many issues through the years I have cared strongly about. I’ve been arrested 34 times, for example at a nuclear testing site in Nevada.”
Despite winning awards for “Dutchman” at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals, the story created considerable controversy at the time.
“I also did the play in Los Angeles and people were insulting us, sending things to the theater, and trying to shut us down. In fact, the first night we did ‘Dutchman’ someone from the government turned up because they were worried about it. It was a crazy time with apartheid in South Africa and all the ugly racial issues going on in the South. As bad as things were then, I have to say it’s scary to see what’s happening in the country and the world today, so our little film is still relevant.”
During the same period, Knight appeared in another racial-themed play, LeRoi Jones’s “The Toilet.”
“You can appreciate how different it was back then because when the LA Times wrote about that play they wouldn’t print the word toilet! It was stupid but hysterical.”
A multi Emmy winner (as well as a Tony recipient), Knight was twice nominated for supporting actress Oscars for two of her earliest films while still in her 20s.
“I was shocked, actually, as were my parents and was just happy to attend the ceremonies. At the Oscar dinner when I was nominated for ‘The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,’ my father sat next to Shirley Temple. I kept hoping he wouldn’t tell her that I was named after her because she must have heard that thousands of times. Of course, he did, but she was very gracious.”
Throughout her career, Knight worked on the big and small screen alongside many Hollywood legends including Claude Rains, George C. Scott, Richard Widmark, and Ralph Bellamy (see shirleyknight.org).
“Many of them got into television late in their careers so I was fortunate to work with these wonderful actors who taught me a great deal. Richard Burton became one of my dearest friends,” she noted.
In one of her earliest roles, she played Burton’s daughter in 1960’s “Ice Palace” filmed partly in Alaska.
“It had a great cast but was a terrible film,” she said laughing. “However, during time off up in the snow, he would teach me how to read Shakespeare. I mean, how lucky for a young actress to learn Shakespeare from Richard Burton!”
While Knight would later draw on her experience in numerous TV movies to highlight social issues such as bulimia and anorexia, abortion, adoption, alcoholism, disabilities, and child abuse, her role in “Dutchman” remains a favorite.
“A few years ago, Jane Fonda and I were honored at a film festival for being quintessential American actresses of the 60s,” she said. “They showed six of her films and six of mine, including ‘Dutchman.’”
Knight still recalls the audience response from that screening.
“It was fascinating to their reaction after all this time. They were horrified by the story and ending, and stood to applaud when it was over. I’m still very proud of the film.”
• NICK THOMAS teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns and interviews for more than 400 magazines and newspapers. Visit tinseltowntalks.com.