Terence Richard Knapp, a prolific actor, director and educator perhaps best known for his one-man show on Father Damien, died Monday at Saint Francis Hospice. He was 87.
According to Theodore Kalanikoa Lum, his partner of 50 years, Knapp died peacefully with “an Irish smile” on his face.
“Terry was a mentor and dear friend who became my godfather,” said David C. Farmer, an actor and current president of the Hawaii Local SAG-AFTRA union who first met Knapp while a student actor at the University of Hawaii.
“People who knew him loved him for his fierce generosity, manifested in his teaching,” Farmer said. “He was irascible at times but usually for good reason.
“I had two performing experiences with him: ‘M. Butterfly’ and ‘Fallen Angels,’ both at Diamond Head Theatre. He was a very loving human being. There’s one less magician left in the world.”
Knapp was born on Feb. 14, 1932, in London. During World War II, his family evacuated to an abandoned coal mine village in Wales, then lived with relatives in Dublin. At an early age, Knapp took on the role of man of the household while his father was away on military duty.
At age 11 he earned a scholarship to Parmiter’s School, an all-male grammar school. At 14, Knapp portrayed Lady Macbeth, and his obvious talent led to an audition at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Too young to be admitted, he was enrolled in the group’s preparatory academy for a year before joining RADA.
Knapp’s career was put on hold when he was drafted for military duty at 18. After three years with the Royal Air Force, he returned to RADA in 1953, giving live performances on BBC and ITV and embracing television, films and theater.
In 1962 he was invited by his idol, Sir Laurence Olivier, to serve as a founding member of the Chichester Festival Theatre, and a year later, became an inaugural player of the National Theatre of Great Britain, directed by Olivier, at the renowned Old Vic theater. Knapp succeeded Olivier to star as Tattle in William Congreve’s Restoration comedy “Love for Love” at the Scala Theatre.
Later, John Neville, then the artistic director of the Nottingham Playhouse, tapped him to tour West Africa for the British Council amid a company that included Judi Dench as Viola to Knapp’s Feste in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”
In 1970 he was hired as a visiting professor at UH, invited by Earle Ernst, then chairman of the Department of Theatre and Dance at Kennedy Theatre, to create a performance and production program with a focus on Shakespeare’s plays and works by other classical playwrights and distinguished American playwrights.
Knapp and colleague Glenn Cannon, who died in 2013 became beacons of Kennedy Theatre and a magnet for the theater community for decades to come. Their hyphenated careers as actors, directors and professors helped put the Kennedy on the map, and their frequent work on and off stage at other theater groups and appearances on such TV shows as the original “Hawaii Five-0” and “Magnum, P.I.” expanded the scope of their popularity and the Kennedy brand.
Knapp’s artistic pendulum swung well beyond The Bard. In 1976 he directed himself in the title role of Aldyth Morris’ one-man show, “Damien,” about the Roman Catholic priest — now saint — from Belgium who served Hansen’s disease patients at Kalaupapa, Molokai. The Kennedy Theatre production ultimately aired nationally on PBS, earning the playwright and the director a Peabody Award in 1978 and other accolades.
The Hawaii state Legislature recognized Knapp as “Hawaii’s Adopted World Class Actor” and he received the UH Board of Regents Medal for Excellence in Teaching in 1977. He continued his association with Kennedy Theatre as an emeritus professor after 35 years of teaching.
In 2001 the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival was dedicated to Knapp in perpetuity. From 1971 to 2005 Knapp also was the featured actor in the annual Shakespeare Birthday Party shows he originated at Kennedy Theatre. From 1993 to 2005, he headlined the annual Robert Burns Night for the Caledonian Society of Hawaii.
His unlikely detour into Hawaii’s pidgin English, under the Shakespearean umbrella, was triggered by the local actor, writer and comedian James Grant Benton, one of the original members of comedy troupe Booga Booga, with colleagues Ed Kaahea and Rap Reiplinger providing their input.
In a 2005 interview with the Honolulu Advertiser, Knapp recalled that Benton, who died in 2002, had appeared in “Hair” in Las Vegas for 15 months “and was very curious about me and Shakespeare. So much so, that he begged me, in addition to the five courses I was teaching, to do a Shakespeare seminar.”
The invitation was too delicious to decline, so a cadre of inquisitive and inexperienced student actors gathered in Knapp’s office to talk story, do dialects and mostly explore Elizabethan cadence.
From such modest origins, “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” was charmingly and cheerfully transformed by Benton into “Twelf Nite O’ Wateva” in 1974. His local-lingo adaptation would later inspire emerging playwrights such as Lisa Matsumoto, whose revisionist take on classic fairy tales had characters speaking fractured pidgin, and Honolulu Star-Advertiser columnist Lee Cataluna, separately known for her island- themed, slice-of-life comedies.
Knapp directed a 2005 revival of “Twelf Nite,” at once paying tribute to Benton and capping his 35-year tenure at Kennedy Theatre. “It’s my sayonara production,” he said at that time. “As I thought about retirement, I figured it would be lovely to restage ‘Wateva’ to remember Jim.”
“Twelfth Night” always was close to Knapp’s heart. “It’s the play I love best because it’s the first performance I gave in 1954 in Liverpool, where Brian Epstein (founder-manager of The Beatles) was just around the corner,” he said in an interview. “I played (Feste, a servant) and I’ve directed (it) three times (before the pidgin version).
“It’s a delightful comedy with the touch of the Marx Brothers, with really silly people doing silly things, conveying to the audience the lunacy of life. It’s all about falling in love, wanting to love, willing to love.”
Online tributes to Knapp have been mounting. “This dear man gave me my first role in Hawaii during my first day on campus in 1976,” said actor Allen Cole, who saw a notice in the campus newspaper that Knapp was performing in “Damien” and auditioning 100-plus actors for “Much Ado About Nothing.” Cole landed a small role but surmised, “because of him and this chance encounter, he facilitated a 40-plus-year passion in this art form. What a generous man!”
Guy DeConte, now residing in Brussels, Belgium, said, “My first main stage show at Kennedy Theatre was directed by Terry; he was my first champion, equal parts hard ass and nurturing angel. (There) never will be another like him.”
Knapp’s survivors include three younger sisters, Teresa Lynch, Mary V. Adams and Kathleen Ossicer, all residing in Great Britain. A celebration of life is planned for September, with details to be announced.