TV Guide, Oct. 3-9, 1987, Canadian edition:
‘This guy’s got a crazy quality to him’
Waiting for production to start on Tour of Duty, the new CBS series in which he plays an American combat sergeant in Vietnam, Terence Knox decided to stay sharp by playing a skid row resident for free in a friend’s film. Knox did such a convincing job of looking and acting like a derelict that a Los Angeles photographer took his picture for a newspaper series on L.A.’s street people. Only the intervention of an assistant director on the movie kept Knox’s fictional character out of the news pages.
This is the sort of story about his personal adventures Knox relishes. Of course, he sees nothing unusual about other aspects of his life – like the fact that he currently lives in a downtown L.A. loft apartment within shouting distance of skid row, and right across from a transvestite bar. Or the Howie Mandel story from when Knox was a colleague on St. Elsewhere (as Dr. Peter White), living on Vine Street near Hollywood’s seedy, red-light district. “Terry built a skylight in his place, just carved it out of the ceiling,” Mandel recalls. “Since it was a rental and he didn’t clear it with the landlord first, he got kicked out.”
What with having played a physician-rapist on St. Elsewhere and a psychotic gunman in the TV-movie “City Killer,” Knox’s career hasn’t exactly been orthodox either. Those aren’t the kind of parts that typically build toward the leading-man status he has in Tour of Duty. Zev Braun, executive producer, says, “The network people were leery of that look in Terry’s eyes. They said, ‘This guy’s got a crazy quality to him; he’s got this look.’ They also said, ‘We want more of a leading-man type’ – that kind of crap. I said, ‘Yeah, he’s got a strange look all right – the look of an exceptional actor and exactly the right guy for this role.’ Terry is not a manufactured guy – he’s got some rough edges.”
So here he is, Terence Knox as Sgt. Zeke Anderson, the unorthodox leader of an American platoon in Vietnam, pre-Tet offensive; a time when the U.S. government still thought it could win over there. Speaking for himself, Knox says, “I had trouble reading the first script and understanding why this character would choose to stay there when he could leave. I mean, I was draftable age then, and I certainly didn’t want to go. I was scared. Finally, I decided the sergeant is a career soldier, and he’s not political, and he figures the more American soldiers he can keep from dying the more he’s contributing. He’s experienced, and he knows how to lead through example and humor instead of intimidation and force. After I got that fix on him, no problems.”
No problems with the characterization, but 36-year-old Knox did have to lose 15 pounds at Braun’s insistence. “There’s a lot of physical action in this series,” Braun says, “and I didn’t want a chubby guy running around.” Knox, an ex-Inland Empire (Washington, Montana, Idaho) Golden Gloves champion, lost the weight in just two weeks.
The show’s impressive pilot and the rest of the series is shot in Hawaii. Braun and Knox agree that as the series goes on, more attention will be focused on bringing out the personalities of the young recruits Sergeant Anderson leads. “There’s all kinds of potential for coming of age stories there,” Knox says. “I keep getting asked if this is going to be the television version of ‘Platoon.’ To me, the only similarity is that they’re both set in Vietnam. ‘Platoon’ was more about the war within the platoon itself. In Tour of Duty, it’s 1967, before the Tet offensive, and these guys aren’t going to be killing themselves. But in the process of doing their duty, we’re going to find out a lot about what makes them tick.”
What makes Terence Knox tick isn’t easy to nail down. To Stephen Caffrey, who plays the lieutenant frequently at odds with Knox’s sergeant, he’s “pretty happy-go-lucky, very boyish; a big lunk oozing goodwill. You can’t be depressed around him – he won’t allow it. He’s got this sly look in his eye all the time, like he’s in on some secret most people don’t know about and he’s going to share it with you.” At the same time, says Caffrey, “he’s a lone wolf, a very distinct, singular individual. Away from work, he doesn’t hang out with the other guys. He’s got a few years on most of us, and maybe he’s gone through his phase of going out and drinking till he turns green and picks up a fat woman.”
“I have a theory,” Howie Mandel says, “that Terry is beamed up to some other planet for short intervals to be re-energized. He just disappears sometimes; you leave messages on his machine, but he’s away. Somewhere.”
Zev Braun: “Terry’s a rough, tough guy with a big heart and a big, if whacky, sense of humor. He’s always mooning people, for instance. I got him back in Hawaii. I was at the top of an escalator, he was at the bottom, and I mooned him while he was talking to somebody. He couldn’t get over that; he’s still talking about it.”
Knox himself says, “I’m a loner, yeah. When I’m working, I’ll be one of the guys, I’ll roll over and pee on the rug, whatever it takes. But in my personal life I’ll, say, go to Venice Beach and walk around alone all day and just absorb what’s going on without any communication contact. I can spend an entire week by myself, then spend a day with people and have the sense that I have a social life.”
Eating breakfast one morning at his favorite downtown hangout, Gorky’s, Knox talks about a temporary glitch in his social life. “I was driving home from a movie with my girlfriend, and I see another Austin-Healy [Knox drives a 1965 Austin-Healey]. I love Austin-Healeys, and we’d just seen ‘Predator,’ so the blood is up anyway, and I take a different route to follow this other car to have a look. Plus, I’m reading all these books about Vietnam and feeling a little harsh these days. And all I want to do is get a good look at this other car, but my girlfriend has lost her centre over this. She’s acting like we’re lost in the wilderness, never to return.
“And I yelled, ‘Bleepity bleep, bleep. I think I can find my bleeping way home!’ I yell a lot, all right? That was two days ago. We haven’t talked since then. This morning I pick up the phone, start to call her, hang up the phone. I’m missing being around her, I miss the comfort of it, but I can’t quite make the call.” Pause. “Somebody wrote, ‘The rooster crows out of depression.’ I’m starting to believe it.”
Talk of work is a happier subject this day. “I love what I do for a living. And I’m good at it. I don’t mind saying I’m damn good, because I can also say there are people who, in some ways, I’m not in the same league with. David Morse [Dr. Jack Morrison on St. Elsewhere] is like that: he’s just a thoroughbred; he has the ability to do things at times that warp your mind and put you away.
“It’s like in basketball – I play a lot of one-on-one – I’m sort of a Kurt Rambis type [power forward, Los Angeles Lakers], but if I could be anybody in the game I’d be Isiah Thomas [flashy, high-scoring Detroit Pistons guard].”
Growing up in the rural community of Richland, Wash., the son of a construction worker and a secretary, Knox graduated with an English degree from Washington State University. “While I was in college, most of this country was still for the war,” he recalls. “In 1967, when the series is set, I was still in school and had a deferment; bad knees.” Candid, as usual, he adds, “Thinking back, if I’d been faced with going to Vietnam, would I have had the nerve to say no? Or go to Canada? I don’t think I’d have had the nerve to do either.”
Knox married and divorced young and decided to give acting a try, enrolling in the theatre department at Portland State University (Oregon). Then, moving to Hollywood, he gained some notoriety for his little theatre roles in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and “When you Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?” He also did bit roles in the movies “Used Cars” and “S.O.B.”
He was bartending at a tough tavern called the Bald Eagle when St. Elsewhere came along. After one productive season as Dr. Peter White, he was informed that his character was going to become a rapist.
“We started filming those episodes, and I was very concerned how it would go over. But the reports came back very positive, so I started to really throw myself into it. I had researched it by going into supermarkets and forcing myself to stare at attractive women in the checkout line. Once, in a building I lived in, a guy tried to rape a woman, and I chased him down the street and cornered him till the police arrived. And this guy just looked through me, like a wild animal, like someone with no embarrassment at all about what he’d done.
“So I went for that kind of quality in the doctor. At first, when I stared at women in the checkout lines, I’d be very embarrassed when they noticed. I kept doing it, till I wasn’t feeling so embarrassed, because this guy wouldn’t begin to understand normal feelings.”
Originally, when the St. Elsewhere producers told Knox he was going to be a rapist, “I thought it was the end of the world. Ultimately, it was the best possible news – it gave me a chance to do things as an actor I’d never done.”
Knox was upset again when he was informed his character was going to be shot and killed. “But that character made a bigger impact than anything I’ve done,” he says now. “People still approach me on the street about it.” (“Terry will not die on Tour of Duty,” jokes Zev Braun, “unless, of course, he starts making unreasonable contract demands.”)
Knox returned to St. Elsewhere for last season’s two episodes in which Howie Mandel’s character (Dr. Fiscus) came close to death and dreamed he was in purgatory. Mandel and Knox did their scenes on a lake, where the demented Peter White was stranded, hysterically trying to explain the motivation for his sins. “It was a reminder,” Mandel says, “of how phenomenal Terry’s work is. The guy is a great actor. For all his whackiness away from work, when he’s in front of the camera, he’s all business.”
Knox’s next series was a sitcom, All is Forgiven, in which he played a doughnut franchise entrepreneur who marries Bess Armstrong’s TV producer character. Despite healthy ratings and good reviews during a limited run, NBC canceled it. “It came as a big shock to all of us on the show,” Knox says. “So they ended up with The Tortellis [a Cheers spinoff that was a roaring failure] instead.”
On the face of it, Tour of Duty shouldn’t be around long, since it goes up against the top-rated Cosby Show. Having experienced the TV realities of getting killed and having a show canceled, Knox says, “The scheduling certainly gives viewers an alternative at that hour. But CBS seems very committed to this one.”
When he isn’t shooting the series in Hawaii, Knox pretty much keeps to himself in that downtown L.A. loft apartment. He likes the high ceilings because he’s claustrophobic: “I’m not looking forward to the tunnel scenes in Tour.”
The sparsely furnished apartment houses Knox’s homemade wooden drums (“Learning how to keep rhythm was a big deal in my life”), but he’s especially proud of the 10-foot-high platform he built for his bed to rest on. (If he ever falls out of bed, he’s dead.) And there’s a skylight. Funny thing, too – the landlord still hasn’t figured out how that got there.