The Man Who Plays Wilson
To the amazement of Hollywood, Canadian-born Alexander Knox walked off with the season's most coveted role in pictures without even submitting to a screen
IN A war-torn world two men were thinking deeply about the prophetic World War I President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. Darryl F. Zanuck, production head of Twentieth Century-Fox, after months of research, was convinced that the life of Wilson, as it mirrored the life of a nation, would make perhaps the most dramatic picture ever filmed, and certainly the most stirring patriotic panorama of the United States since “The Birth of a Nation.”
The second man was Canadian-born Alexander Knox. While he was a student at the University of Western Ontario young Knox had read all eight volumes of Ray Stannard Baker’s biography of Wilson. One paragraph especially impressed him. Baker quotes Wilson as saying, “The best teacher I ever had (my father) used to say to me, ‘When you frame a sentence don’t do it as if you were loading a gun, but as if you were loading a rifle. Don’t fire in such a way and with such a load that while you hit the thing you aim at you hit a lot of other things in the neighborhood besides. But shoot with a single bullet and hit that one thing alone.’ ” At that time Knox desperately wanted to become a writer. He typed out this excellent advice and hung it over his typewriter.
In 1937 Knox played the Judge in George Bernard Shaw’s “Geneva” on the London stage, and again became steeped in the Wilson legend and the League of Nations. He again read Baker’s biography of Wilson, all eight volumes. Which seems to prove his enthusiasm. In New York in 1942 he heard that several playwrights were working on plays about the World War I President, and he crossed his fingers and hoped to high heaven he’d be asked to play Wilson in one of them.
How these two Wilson enthusiasts, a well-known producer and an actor practically unknown in
Hollywood, got together in a town famous for its miscasting makes an interesting story.
Those who have seen “Wilson” are unstinting in their praise of Alexander Knox. If he wins an Academy Award for the best performance for 1944, and many believe he is in line for it, he can thank Zanuck’s memory for voices. Some people never forget a face and some people never forget a name. But Zanuck never forgets a voice. Last October he decided to try an experiment in picturemaking. He conceived the idea of a complete recording of the dialogue of “Wilson” as a preproduction test of the dramatic effectiveness of the screen play. Since no camera would be present at the recording, William Bacher, former radio producer, made no attempt to recruit a cast who looked their parts - -he»* chose players, mostly radio players, strictly for their voices. He had selected all the voices except Wilson’s, and was debating that choice when Zanuck said to him, “Who was the young actor who played the curate in ‘This Above AH’? It was only a small part but I recall he had a magnificent voice. See if you can find him.”
Borrowed For Recording
KNOX, under contract to Columbia Pictures since his splendid portrayal of the Nazi in “None Shall Escape” (“I never could have played that Nazi if the ending of Wilson had been different,” he says with feeling), was “borrowed” merely for the recording. He had had little radio experience. “It was like playing ‘Hamlet’ four times in one night,” he says. But his reading on that barren stage, with only a microphone for a “prop,” was so warm and sincere and convincing that Zanuck refused to consider anyone else for Wilson.
Alexander Knox was given the most coveted role in Hollywood without even a screen test. That Zanuck chose a Canadian to play a United States President didn’t surprise HoUywood. Raymond Massey, a
Canadian, was the best Lincoln the screen or stage has ever had. But the fact that Zanuck chose a newcomer to Hollywood, an actor who is comparatively unknown to screen audiences, for the important lead in his $3};¿ million Technicolor production surprised the living daylights out of Hollywood.
While “Wilson” was in production the set became a mecca for distinguished visitors. Among the visitors was Vice-president Wallace, who was on the set the day a diplomatic reception at the White House was being filmed, r
“Are you enjoying the picture?” Wallace asked Knox when they were introduced between “take».” “Until today I was,” Knox replied grimly.
“I think I know what you mean,” said Wallace with a smile.
“President Wilson, I’m certain, never had to shake hands with 200 actors,” said Knox, gazing sadly at his right hand which was rapidly swelling to twice its normal size. “Actors are such enthusiastic people.”
A sore right hand was not the only indignity Knox suffered on the “Wilson” film. There was the day the company went on location in downtown Los Angeles to shoot the Democratic National Convention of 1912 at the Biltmore Theatre. At noon Knox, in his Wilson attire, went next door to the coffee shop in the
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The Man Who Plays Wilson
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Biltmore Hotel. Eating his ham and eggs in a secluded corner he suddenly realized that two women ata table nearby were staring balefully at him. “I think we should report him to the manager,” one of them snapped indignantly. “The very idea! Zoot suiters in the Biltmore! It’s disgraceful.” Knox left hastily, thereby hoping to spare Mr. Wilson the horror of being bounced from the Biltmore.
When the gasoline situation became acute on the west coast Knox bought himself a motorcycle. By the time he had finished a long day’s work at the studio he was often so tired that he would drive home—home, at present, being an apartment on Sunset Boulevard—without bothering to remove his makeup. Stopped by a red traffic signal on Santa Monica Boulevard, he was carelessly hanging over the side of his bike, waiting for the light to change, when he heard an old lady in a chauffeur-driven limousine parked next to him whisper to her companion, “Look at that poor old gentleman tottering on that motorcycle. He’s endangering his life and everybody else’s. Really, there ought to be a law.”
“It was a great blow to my dignity,” says Knox, with a wry smile. “I couldn’t wait to tease Guy Pearce.”
Guy Pearce who, incidentally, grew up in western Canada, is head of the makeup department at Twentieth Century-Fox. Pearce and Knox became great friends on “Wilson”—despite Pearce’s claim that he doesn’t like actors. “See the long handles on these brushes,” he’d say to Knox. “That’s to keep me as far away from actors as possible.”
Figuring out ways and means to give Alexander Knox a reasonable resemblance to the World War I President was
one of the toughest jobs that has been handed Pearce. “It’s easy to make an actor look like George Bernard Shaw,” he says. “The whiskers, bushy eyebrows, and the shock of white hair are aids to camouflage. But it isn’t so easy to make an actor look like Woodrow Wilson, who was clean-shaven and wore a short haircut. We tested Knox first for makeup without an artificial nose. That was not successful. We can’t use rubber any more because we can’t get it now. So then we tested him with a wax nose. The difficulty in working with wax is that it is hard to mold in the same identical shape every day. So we made a mold, and every day we made a new nosepiece for him out of plastic. It’s probably the first plastic nose in Hollywood.
“In the early sequences, in 1909 when Wilson was 52, we shaved Knox’s hairline to give him a Wilson hairline. As he grew older we would add grey to Knox’s own hair. But then in the final stages, around 1921 when Wilson was a broken disillusioned man, we used a succession of wigs. We made a great use of shadow around his eyes, on both sides of his nose, and around the jowls. It usually took two hours every morning to apply the makeup. It is not an exact likeness of Wilson. I could have made him into a carbon copy but with so many pads in his mouth he would not have been able to talk.”
interfere with Knox’s magnificent voice
—said by many to have no equal today
on the stage or screen—he would have
had Zanuck at his throat. Knox gives
his aunt full credit for his well-devel-
oped voice. His aunt, Agnes Knox
Black, was a Professor of English at
Boston University. When he was a boy
she used to vacation in the summers
on the family farm near Strathroy,
Ont., and to amuse him, and herself,
she instituted a “speaking” game. She
would sit. on the lawn beside the house,
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! and he would take a book down to the ; orchard, read something aloud from the book in a normal tone of voice and attempt to make himself audible to his aunt, a quarter of a mile away. “In time,” he says, “I succeeded.”
Working studiously on his characterization of Wilson, Knox had long conversations with the two technical advisers on the picture—Ray Stannard Baker, Wilson’s official biographer, and Myles C. McCahill, a Secret Service man on the White House detail during the Wilson administration. (It was McCahill who called down Director Henry King one day when King had Wilson calling a friend Frank. “No, Mr. King,” said McCahill looking shocked, “Mr. Wilson never called anyone by his first name.”) Knox learned that Wilson often dangled his watch chain. But after several days of dangling the director decided not to use this idiosyncrasy of the President—it looked too much like a Jack Oakie scene-stealing trick. He also learned that Wilson had a habit of twisting his ring, made from a gold nugget sent him by the State of California, when he was thinking. Wilson never smoked, so Knox, an avid smoker, had to give up cigarettes on the set. There were days there when he sort of wished he was portraying Roosevelt. Wilson rarely used a pen or pencil, but wrote constantly on his typewriter. “Easy,” thought Knox, who has never parted from his typewriter since he first became a newspaperman. “The last thing I would ever pawn,” he once told Katherine Cornell, “is my typewriter.” But he soon learned that Wilson used an old machine with a double keyboard —so Knox had to spend long hours of practice.
All actors like to gripe and grouse about their lines. It is an accepted fact in Hollywood that writers are positive that all actors are hams who ruin their best lines; and actors are equally positive that all writers are morons who give them trash to speak. Knox was unable to enjoy his actor’s privilege of criticizing the script. Practically every line of dialogue was written by the man he was portraying.
Alexander Knox was born in Strathroy, Ont., Jan. 16, 1907. His father, William John Knox, like Wilson’s father, was a Presbyterian minister. His mother, Jean Crozier Knox, like Wilson’s mother, came from a long line of Presbyterian ministers. He attended public school and high school in London, Ont., and while in school dropped his first name, John—although a school chum pointed out that that would give him 13 letters in his name, and 13 was unlucky. Some years before Thomas Woodrow Wilson had defied the 13 curse and dropped Thomas from his name.
Worked As Reporter
During the summers young Knox worked as a reporter on the London, Ont., Advertiser. He has been writing articles and stories and plays ever since. Whenever he found himself “between engagements” in New York and England he always returned to his typewriter. “Alexander Knox is a brilliant young man,” a famous New York stage actress said of him last year. “His plays are beautifully written, but much too impractical for the theatre.” He has a published novel, “Bride of Quietness,” and under a nom de plume has published three detective stories. He refuses to reveal their titles, saying, “I enjoyed concocting them, but I don’t want them coming back to haunt me.”
He had completed the work for his
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B.A. degree, and was studying for a Master’s degree at the University of Western Ontario when he played “Hamlet” in a college production. It created quite a stir locally. His Aunt Agnes in Boston showed the newspaper reviews to friends in the Boston Repertory Theatre, and the next thing Knox knew he had received an offer to join Boston Repertory. The year was 1929, when the Wall Street stock market crashed, plunging the country into gloom and depression, and both the Boston Repertory and its newest member had to struggle to stay solvent. Knox had an urge to go to England so he returned to the copy desk of the London, Ont., Advertiser in hopes that he could make enough money to pay his passage. “1 tried to increase my income by writing for Maclean’s,” he says. “But my manuscripts always came back. My greatest disappointment in life, I suppose, was the first rejection slip I ever received. I didn’t believe such things were possible. Now 1 know they’re highly probable.” But in two years Knox saved enough money for his passage to England— third class.
In London, Eng., he was “very lucky.” He was hired immediately to play a young American in the Edgar Wallace drama, “Smoky Cell,” which led to a whole series of young American roles—in contrast to all the English roles he had played in Boston. In his first London hit, “King of Nowhere,” he had his most embarrassing theatrical experience. His role required a beard, and early in the play the script required him to orink a cup of tea. As he raised the cup to his lips, Laurence Olivier, whose back was to the audience, cracked a joke sotto voce. Knox, facing the audience, gulped, and spilled the tea down his beard. He had to finish the play in wet uncomfortable whiskers. He has ducked wearing a beard ever since. He is glad that it is Sir Cedric Harwicke, as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and not himself, who has to wear a beard in “Wilson.”
Since 1939, when he returned to Canada to do a writing job for a Canadian broadcasting project, he has remained on this side of the Atlantic. His first acting chore on Broadway was in the Laurence Olivier-Vivien Leigh version of “Romeo and Juliet,” which was an artistic flop. Next he played in “Jupiter Laughs,” which was backed by the Warner Brothers in Hollywood. 1 hey liked Knox so much in the play they gave him a supporting role in “The Sea Wolf,” his first Hollywood movie. After that he went back to Broadway and did “Jason.” Then back again to Hollywood to play the minor role of the curate in Twentieth Century-Fox’s “This Above All.” Then to Canada to do some writing. Then back to Broadway to appear in “Three Sisters” with that famous trio, Katherine Cornell, Ruth Gordon and Judith Anderson.
Last year he went on tour with “Three Sisters” and one of the places the company played was Toronto, ’t his was the first time that “local boy makes good” had had an opportunity to show off, and Knox was all set to strut a bit. But the wind was quickly taken out of his sails. When he proudly pointed out his name appearing on the theatre’s billboard one relative said, “Why, that’s very sweet of them to do that, just because you came from Canada.” He ran into a friend on University Avenue, a cabinetmaker, who asked, “Are you going on with your acting, Alex? A shameful waste. You have the makings of a good carpenter.” And still another relative said to him, “Yes, Alex, I saw the play. Lut what do you do to make a living?”
Knox has a dry sense of humor, as j attested by hisanswer to a question once j shot at him by an interviewer, viz., I What is the best advice you ever received? Knox said, “Actor Ben Webster once told me, ‘One thing a young actor should never do is play an unsympathetic part.’ And Actor Robert Manteli once told me, ‘One thing a | young actor should do is to play all kinds of unsympathetic parts!’” His ; own advice to would-be actors and j actresses is: “Get jobs and work hard.”
Although he is not much of an athlete (“I have the rare distinction of never having beaten anyone at tennis”) Knox likes to take long walks. He deplores the fact that no one in Los Angeles ever walks. On one of his first trips to the coast he stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and one evening he j thought he would take a stroll under the haughty palm trees of Beverly Hills. He was promptly picked up by a police patrol car and had a lot of explaining to do. It seems that only young men bent on burglary walk in Beverly Hills after dark.
His idea of a perfect vacation is canoeing in northern Ontario. His chief form of relaxation in California, if it can be called relaxation, is deep-sea fishing. Since Pearl Harbor he has had to invent his own brand of deepsea fishing. He has what he calls a “week-end hut” at Malibu where it is difficult to cast a fishing line more than 50 yards out from shore—so he swims out 200 yards with a baited hook, drops it at that point, then swims back to shore and his fishing pole. “It works,” he says with a grin.
He was divorced in 1941. He once told his great friend, Barry Fitzgerald, “I am not intelligent about women, but I am enthusiastic about them.” However, he is rarely seen in Hollywood night clubs.
After years of night work in the theatre and in newspaper offices, he finds himself unable to eat early breakfasts it’s his chief complaint against the movies. He had to be in the makeup department at the studio by 7.30 every morning for his Wilson makeup. He would bring a sandwich and thermos of coffee along and eat breakfast on the set around 10 or 11. The assistant director often called “Lunch” before Knox had had his breakfast coffee.
One of the most difficult scenes he had to do in “Wilson” was the scene where the President collapses on a train near Denver, Colo. “For this scene,” said Director King, “you must lose your voice.”
“There is no way to lose your voice,” said Knox, “except to lose it. You can’t fake it.” So in his Wilson make! up and attire he retired to an empty j projection room and shouted and shouted until he became hoarse. He sat down for a few minutes on the back j row to rest. While he had his eyes j closed a cleaning woman entered and, I not seeing him, began mopping the floor. Knox, not seeing her, suddenly rose and started shouting. The woman, startled out of her wits, took one look at an old man who appeared to have gone stark staring mad, screamed murder, and has not been seen since. “I certainly drove her out of the projection room,” says Knox wryly. “I trust it isn’t prophetic.”
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