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'Sweet Bird of Youth' Actress Shirley Knight Dead at 83

'Sweet Bird of Youth' Actress Shirley Knight Dead at 83
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Knight with Paul Newman in "Sweet Bird of Youth"

Shirley Knight, nominated for the Oscar twice in the '60s and a familiar face ever since on TV, in movies, and, in smaller doses, on the stage, died Wednesday in San Marcos, Texas, her daughter Kaitlin Hopkins reported on Facebook. She was 83.

In her post, framed as a letter to her late mother, Hopkins wrote, "I was at your side and you went peacefully. To me, you were 'just mom', to some you were 'Miss Knight', 'Miss Shirley', 'Mama Shirley' (to my students), 'Shirl the Girl' (to your friends), and 'Shirley Knight' to your fans."

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"It is hard to believe it has been 26 days since I got in the car and drove to meet Sophie and bring you back to Texas," she went on. "I think I'm still in shock and trying to process everything that has happened, it seems like a lifetime ago… it seems like yesterday. 'It's too fast'… 'slow it down' I kept thinking but I knew I couldn’t. I had the good sense over Easter weekend when you were still doing well use the opportunity to Facetime with your closest friends and family. You had a chance to visit with the people you needed to see, the people who loved you so much, and perhaps that was the closure you needed, I don't know, I just know after that you were ready to let go, and we brought you home."

Variety reports that Knight's death was due to natural causes, though Hopkins' posts refers to a recent surgery and hospice care.

"I will welcome that feeling and wish you a goodnight mama, sweet dreams, hug Dad for us. Rest in peace," she concluded.

Shirley Knight was born on July 5, 1936, in Goessel, Kansas, where she studied opera and devoted time to writing as a youth.

By college, having considered journalism as a career, Knight was drawn to acting "quite by accident," she said in a 1984 interview. "Someone in the drama department asked me to be a part of 'Romeo and Juliet,' deliver the prologue, and I did it. I thought it was very easy and I thought, 'Oh, I think I'll try this!' It was really that absurd."

After studying at the Pasadena Theatre School, she landed her first credited film role, in 1959's "Five Gates to Hell." It had followed an uncredited appearance in the 1955 classic "Picnic."

Success in the medium came quickly for Actors Studio member Knight, who was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her performance in 1960's "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs." She received the same two nominations for 1962's "Sweet Bird of Youth," in which she played Heavenly Finley opposite Paul Newman, and was fondly remembered for her roles in the drama "The Group" (1966), the provocative thriller "Dutchman" (1967) and the cult classic "Petulia" (1968).

Actor Michael McKean tweeted in reference to Knight's latter performance, "I worked with Shirley Knight 20 years ago. She was lovely and smart and didn't mind me going on and on about her work in Petulia. A beautiful person with a lot of talent. RIP."

Knight aged into a breathtaking variety of supporting roles in film, everything from the controversial romance "Endless Love" (1981) to the comic drama "As Good as It Gets" (1997) to the J.Lo thriller Angel Eyes" (2001) to broad comedies like "Our Idiot Brother" (2011) and both "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" (2008) and its sequel (2015).

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ABC
Knight with Marcia Cross on "Desperate Housewives"

Some of her juiciest roles were on TV, and she won three Emmys out of eight nominations, for appearances on "thirtysomething" (1987) and "NYPD Blue" (1995), and for her supporting role in the miniseries "Indictment: The McMartin Trial" (1995). She was a series regular on the western "Buckskin" (1958-1959); guest-starred on innumerable popular shows, including "77 Sunset Strip" (1960), "Maverick" (1961), "The Outer Limits" (1963), "The Fugitive" (3 episodes, 1964-1966), "Murder, She Wrote" (2 episodes, 1989 & 1990), "Law & Order" (1991), "L.A. Law" (1993), "Cybill" (1996), and "Hot in Cleveland" (2010); was in the star-studded cast of the abortion-themed HBO drama "If These Walls Could Talk" (1996); and had a five-episode arc on "Desperate Housewives" (2005-2007).

For her work in the Broadway play "Kennedy's Children" (1975), Knight won the Tony. She reprised the role for a 1982 TV movie. She was also Tony-nominated for "The Young Man from Atlanta" (1997).

Knight was married to the actor Eugene Persson from 1959-1969, and to playwright John Hopkins from 1969 until he died in 1998.

She is survived by her daughters Kaitlin and Sophie.

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