Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Ted Knight and that ethnic joke in "The Good-TIme News" on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"...

In our look at The Mary Tyler Moore Show earlier this season, we remarked on the fact that even in 1973, Polish jokes were a "thing." Not surprisingly, buffoonish news anchor Ted Baxter was the one making them.

Well, a passage in Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted points out that star Ted Knight wasn't all that cool with the jokes. Knight was a sensitive type anyway, Armstrong writes, but this struck a nerve. It isn't all that surprising if you realize Knight was born Tadeusz Wladyslaw Knopka:

Knight got sensitive about slights to his polish heritage and chafed whenever anyone told a Polish joke at a table read--a common shtick in the 1970s, just a few decades after the wave of immigrants from Poland to America following World War II, Knight's own parents among them.

The author asserts that the sensitivity reflected his deeper ambivalence about his character. He worried about being confused with his less-than-intelligent alter ego, and he bristled that they shared the same first name. He would groan to his pal Gavin MacLeod, Why did they have to name him Ted? Why did it have to be my name?"

In fact, he eventually bugged producer Allen Burns for changes to his character--anything to make him less oblivious, more human. Burns called in writer Ed. Weinberger to help soothe the upset actor. Burns pointed out that no one thought Carroll O'Connor was really the bigoted Archie Bunker. "I just...everybody thinks I'm stupid," Knight insisted, though he was cheering up a bit.

Weinberger replied that he was an actor and talked about the long history of the clown in theater, dating back to Shakespeare. Knight bucked up a bit. Then, Armstrong writes,

Then (producer James L.) Brooks walked in. "Ted Knight!" he said, ignorant of the conversation's topic. "How does it feel to be one of the great schmucks of all time?" Knight collapsed all over again.

True or not, it's a funny story.

Knight also had a conflicted relationship with co-star Ed Asner--often buddies, often feuding (Asner believed it was jealousy) and had a big falling out over a perceived slight when Knight didn't defend Asner over the political controversy surrounding the end of Lou Grant. All in all, Knight was certainly a complex individual and one grappling with insecurity--a personality that certainly makes me look at that scene in The Good-Time News in a different light.

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