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Alexander Knox – Biography


Alexander Knox was born just outside of London, Ontario, into a family headed by a Presbyterian minister. From a very early age he showed a talent for writing, and at the London Collegiate Institute he volunteered on the school newspaper as a poetry editor. Around this same time he began to develop an interest in acting. During these early formative years of his life, his aunt, Agnes Knox Black, was a great influence on him. Following in her footsteps, he would put on plays for home, school and church.

When he was 14, Knox experienced the loss of his father. His family faced uncertain financial times, and his mother, trying to make ends meet, was forced to turn their Hyman Avenue home into a boarding house. In this way she was able to pay his tuition at the University of Western Ontario, which he attended in the fall of 1925. Western was where Knox first demonstrated his skills as an actor of some promise. He joined the Hesperian Club and encouraged them to try ever more difficult plays. Because of his drive and faith in the club’s other members, the Hesperian Club put on two performances of Hamlet in March 1928 where Knox played the lead.

Midway through his final year, Knox accepted a job at a repertory theatre company in Boston and left Western, never to graduate. No one anticipated the great stock market crash of 1929 and the immediate worldwide depression that followed. Out of work, he returned to London in 1930 to work as a reporter for the London Advertiser. While many people, and perhaps most, would give up their dreams in the face of such a stark reality, by the fall of 1930 Knox had made up his mind to leave home again. This time the destination was the other London, and he left for England hoping to work as an actor, journalist and author.

He would stay in England for a decade and become one of the first actors to appear on BBC radio, which went on air in November 1936. He worked with many talented actors, such as Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Charles Laughton, Ernest Theisiger and Alastair Sim. When war clouds gathered over Europe in the late 1930s, Knox began to think of going home. When theatre work became hard to find because of the wartime blackouts in England, he returned to Canada.

Back home in London, Ontario, he wrote newspaper articles and gave speeches to service clubs and stayed at his mother’s boarding house. On March 1940, he appeared in a San Francisco production of Romeo and Juliet with Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh. He next had a role in Jupiter Laughs, a Broadway play produced by Warner Bros. (see Jack Warner), but the play was a flop. Warners Bros. however, was so impressed with him that it offered him a role in the production of The Sea Wolf (1941).

Alexander Knox, actor,
This image of Alexander Knox was scanned from an original in the Northernstars Collection
His career would peak when he played the title character in the movie Wilson (pictured), a docudrama on the First World War American president. He won a Golden Globe for best actor, and he was also nominated for an Academy Award in 1944 in the same category. But Wilson would prove to be Knox’s downfall. No one would believe this healthy young man could portray Woodrow Wilson, so, unfortunately, the film failed financially. Meanwhile his left-wing political views caused him to run up against the McCarthyites. While he was never blacklisted, Knox fell onto the equally adverse practice of “graylisting” that ended his career in Hollywood. He returned to England in the early 1950s, where he continued to work in film and as a playwright and novelist.

His notable English films include thrillers like The Night My Number Came Up (1955) and the 1956 film, Alias John Preston. Another two, directed by Joseph Losey, were The Damned (1963) and Accident (1967). Knox also had a small part in the 1967 James Bond film, You Only Live Twice in which he again played an American president in a small role and he was not listed in the credits of the film.

Alexander Knox, actor,
Photo of Alexander Knox from the film Sister Kenny
In 1971, Knox published Night of the White Bear, the first of five adventure novels based on the Canadian wilderness of the 19th century. The books were based loosely on his boyhood. Strangely, they contained some rather graphic sexual passages that proved to be a total contrast to the reserved screen persona Knox had become famous for. Other titles included Totem Dream in 1973 and The Kidnapped Surgeon in 1977. He returned to Canada in 1980 to promote the television series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. The next year proved to be an outstanding moment for Knox when he received an honorary law degree from the University of Western Ontario.

For a few years beginning in 1981, Knox would act in a number of Canadian television shows but his only Canadian film, Joshua Then and Now, came in 1985 at the end of his career.

Shortly afterwards, Alexander Knox retired and settled in Benwick-upon-Tweed, England, where he lived with his second wife, Doris Nolan. He was 88 when he died of bone cancer on April 25, 1995. In 1998 a collection of his writing about acting was edited by Anthony Slide and published as On Actors and Acting: Essays by Alexander Knox.

Also see: Alexander Knox Filmography

Northernstars logo imageAll of the images used in this biography were scanned from originals in the Northernstars Collection.

Originally published in 2002, this biography was updated and new information added in January 2017. This version is Copyright © 2017 by Northernstars.ca and may not be reproduced without prior written permission. For more information about copyright, click here.