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Remembering Connecticut’s Ted Knight of 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show'

Actor Ted Knight of the Terryville section of Plymouth played the bumbling, vain newscaster Ted Baxter on the show for 7 years.

 

Humorous obituaries written for Connecticut residents have recently garnered national attention. They have been reprinted across the country and have gone viral on the Internet.

Humor and death are usually incompatible but sometimes — under the right circumstances — can be very funny. Such was the case in October 1975 when the episode entitled “Chuckles Bites The Dust” debuted on the popular sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” an episode in which Connecticut’s Ted Knight — born 88 years ago this month — played a key role.

Ranked as the third-greatest TV episode of all-time by TV Guide, “Chuckles Bites The Dust” centers around the improbable circumstances of the clown’s demise. Dressed as Peter Peanut and serving as grand marshal for a circus parade, Chuckles is killed by a rogue elephant “who tried to shell him,” as reported by Ted on the evening news. Ted, who was originally chosen to be grand marshal for the parade but was prevented from doing so by Lou Grant, is among those on the office staff who crack jokes about the way Chuckles died. Mary finds their behavior appalling; nevertheless, as a minister recites the key events and lines from the life of Chuckles the Clown during his eulogy, Mary attempts to control her own laughter. The result is hilarious. It is a “must see” episode in the series and great fun to re-visit if you haven’t seen it in awhile. Click here to view the best part of the episode on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmBK5GslDaQ&feature=related

Ted Knight was born Tadeusz Wladyslaw Konopka on Dec. 7, 1923, in the Terryville section of Plymouth, CT, located in the extreme southeast corner of Litchfield County. Pearl Harbor Day coincided with his 18th birthday, and Ted soon signed up for the military before finishing high school. He served with distinction in the European Theater of Operations, winning an amazing five Bronze Stars!

After his military hitch ended, he studied acting in Hartford at the Randall School of Dramatic Arts and caught on with bit movie roles and commercial voiceovers throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. He also hosted a children’s show. One of his early bit parts occurred at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic classic, Psycho. Knight plays the guard outside Norman Bates’ cell and is onscreen for just a minute or so. Knight also played a German officer in a couple of episodes of the early to mid-60s TV series hit, “Combat.” He also appeared in other well-known TV shows such as “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza,” and “McHale’s Navy.” In 1970, he had a breakthrough moment in his career by being named to play Ted Baxter on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show." It became his signature role.

Cast as the clueless and vain but likeable newscaster, Ted Baxter, Knight quickly became one of the most entertaining and beloved television characters of the 1970s and remains popular to this day. Ted won two Emmys for best supporting role as an actor in a comedy series in 1973 and in 1976. The series ended after the 1977 season.  Shortly after the season, Ted Knight was diagnosed with cancer and underwent several years of therapy.

Knight went on to more sitcom success in 1980 with the popular TV series “Too Close For Comfort.” That series ran through the 1986 season and ended with Knight’s death on Aug. 26, 1986, at the age of 62 from complications of his cancer. Shortly after Knight’s death, the town of Terryville renamed a bridge across the Pequabuck River in his honor. It is called the “Ted Knight Memorial Bridge” and is located close to his former neighborhood.

Ted’s grave is located in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, CA. His gravestone reads:

Dearly loved by his wife Dorothy
His children Ted, Elyse and Eric
His sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews
His admiring peers and
His millions of adoring fans
Bye Guy

(The last words are a play on his Ted Baxter character's catchphrase: "Hi Guy!")

I’ll close with a memorable Ted Baxter quote from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show”:

Ted: "It's actually tomorrow in Tokyo. Do you realize that there are
people alive here in Minneapolis who are already dead in Tokyo?"

Notes, Sources, and Links:

1. Ted Knight’s most well-known movie role was in the 1980 comedy hit “Caddyshack” with Rodney Dangerfield and Chevy Chase. He played Judge Elihu Smails.

2. Knight was also an accomplished ventriloquist.

3. Ted Knight trivia and quotes at tv.com

4. Infoplease.com

5. Findagrave.com

Elizabeth Orr-Gardner December 15, 2011 at 08:14 PM
I've always been a huge fan of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." That being said, you won't find a bigger Ted Knight fan on this planet than the one who is leaving this comment. Its been well documented over the years for those in the know, that Ted Knight struggled early on in his role on the MTM show because he felt the audience at times, thought that Ted Baxter was just an extension of Ted Knight and Ted Knight was just an extension of Ted Baxter, when in reality, it was quite the opposite. Ted Knight was a superb, dramatic actor long before the MTM show came to be. Unlike his perceived altar-ego Baxter, Ted Knight was a brilliant man who was fluent in both French and German and was a WWII veteran who received 5 bronze stars for his military service in Europe. What stands out to me and what he always felt to be his greatest achievements in life, were his one and only marriage to his wife Dorothy for nearly 35 years, his 3 children and the security and happiness he was able to provide to what he himself called, "the most beautiful gifts in anyone's life... the love of family." They don't make em' like that anymore, God certainy broke the mold when Tadeusz Wladyslaw Konopka came to be...
Laurie Rich Salerno December 15, 2011 at 09:06 PM
Wow. That is lovely, Elizabeth.
William Brighenti, CPA December 15, 2011 at 09:21 PM
All generations loved the humor of Ted Knight. My parents laughed along with me viewing Ted Knight's performance in "Caddy Shack": his interaction with Rodney Dangerfeld was hilarious and memorable. He was a great comic character.
MisterSpuddy December 15, 2011 at 10:16 PM
Ted Baxter was one of the BEST TV characters!
Elizabeth Orr-Gardner December 16, 2011 at 04:49 AM
You're very kind to say so, thanks so much...
Philip R. Devlin December 16, 2011 at 11:11 AM
More detail: Ted Knight was a guest star in 4 Combat! episodes "Cat and Mouse," "The Volunteer," "Weep No More," and "The Brothers." He spoke in German regularly on the show.
Al July 09, 2012 at 03:22 AM
Mr. Devlin: Your article mentions that Mr. Knight won "five Bronze Stars" while serving in the military on World War II. Other articles I've read recently report that he won five battle stars, which is quite different. Can you straighten this out without much difficulty?

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