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alexander knox circa 1938Alexander Knox
The Road to Hollywood
by Christopher Doty

"I think this other fellow - What's his name? Knox. - should get the Academy Award."
- Bing Crosby

 

The son of a Presbyterian minister, William Alexander Knox was born in Strathroy, Ontario on January 16, 1907. The family moved to Pembroke in October 1907 before settling in London six years later.

Knox attended Lord Roberts Public School and the London Collegiate Institute where he was the poetry editor for the school newspaper. The greatest influence on young Alex during this period was an aunt, Agnes Knox Black. A noted elocutionist in Canada and the United States, she was also the first woman to climb the Rocky Mountains. Following in her footsteps, Knox put on plays at home, school and church.

A week after his 14th birthday, Knox's father died suddenly. The loss put the family on uncertain financial footing. His mother was forced to turn their Hyman Street home into a boarding house to pay for Alexander's tuition at the University of Western Ontario, which he attended starting in the fall of 1925. It was at Western where Knox first demonstrated his skill as an actor. He joined the Hesperian Club and encouraged its members to stage bigger and more challenging shows, culminating in two performances of Hamlet in March 1928. Knox, of course, played the lead.

Knox never graduated from Western. Midway through his final year he accepted a job with a repertory theatre company in Boston. But the Depression wrote a hasty conclusion to this part of his career and he was back in London by the spring of 1930, working as a reporter for the London Advertiser while honing his acting skills in at least two amateur productions. In the fall of that same year, Knox departed for England where he found work as an actor, journalist and author.

He accepted Tyrone Guthrie's offer to join the Old Vic Company and was among the first actors to appear on the BBC's fledgling television service, which premiered in November 1936. He also wrote and appeared in a play, Old Master (1939), and made his film debut as an extra in Rembrandt (1936). During this period Knox worked with such noted actors as Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger and Alastair Sim.

When wartime blackouts curtailed theatre and film work in England, Knox returned to London, Ontario where he spent most of his time at his mother's boarding house, writing newspaper articles and giving speeches to service clubs. His luck changed in March of 1940 when he accepted an offer to appear with Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh in a San Francisco production of Romeo and Juliet. Shortly afterwards, Knox repaid the favor by arranging for the famous couple to use his aunt's farm in St. Marys as a secret retreat. Later in 1940 Knox starred in Jupiter Laughs, a Broadway play produced by Warner Brothers Pictures. Although the play failed, Warners was so impressed with Knox they offered him the feature role of Humphrey Van Weyden in their production of The Sea Wolf.

sea wolf advertising capitol theatre in london ontario april 1941Back in London, Bill Trudell, manager of the Capitol Theatre, noticed that three of the film's participants (actors Knox and Gene Lockhart and studio head Jack Warner) had been either born or educated in London. As a result, the movie received its Canadian premier in Knox's "home town" in April of 1941. Knox's mother, Jean, attended the premier. She was reportedly so deaf she had to be seated next to one of the Capitol's loudspeakers to hear the soundtrack.

Three years later his Hollywood career reached its peak when he played the title role in Wilson, a lavish docudrama on the World War I era president. Knox received a Golden Globe for best actor and was nominated in the same category at the 1944 Academy Awards ceremony. But the financial failure of Wilson hampered Knox's film career. While he continued to act and even write screenplays for the industry, his days as a leading man were over. Low points from this period include the weak Humphrey Bogart vehicle Tokyo Joe (1949) and Son of Dr. Jekyll (1951), which is probably Knox's worst film.

Disenchanted with Hollywood and its treatment of suspected communists - notably Sea Wolf's co-star John Garfield and screenwriter Robert Rossen - Knox returned to the English stage in the fall of 1952. It would be 28 years before he would return to North America.

In 1954 Knox began appearing as a supporting actor in several unremarkable British films. The key exceptions were a crackerjack thriller, The Night My Number Came Up (1955), and three films directed by blacklist member Joseph Losey.

In 1971 Knox published the first of five adventure novels set in the Canadian wilderness of the 19th century. They were very loosely inspired by his boyhood in Pembroke. Marked by outrageous sexual passages, these books stood in marked contrast to his reserved screen persona. In 1980 Knox returned to Canada to promote the television series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. The following year he received an honorary law degree from the University of Western Ontario. Between 1981 and 1985 he appeared in a number of Canadian television shows and movies including Joshua Then and Now (1985) with James Woods.

Knox retired from acting shortly afterwards and settled into his home in Benwick-Upon-Tweed, England with his second wife, actress Doris Nolan. Alexander Knox died of bone cancer on April 25, 1995 at the age of 88.

Thanks to Bill Trudell and Patricia Jones for the preparation of this page.
Click here for a list of Knox's film and television work