When the TV season debuts this week, there will be an unlikely birth among the new shows aborning. Ted Knight and Nancy Dussault, the middle-aged parents in ABC's family sitcom Too Close for Comfort, will add a baby boy (see story, page 80) to a clan already hard-pressed to cope with the antics of two nubile daughters. The infant's arrival caps a long rise in Too Close's Nielsens, which this summer placed it near the top of the charts. The ratings began to bulge at about the same time as Muriel Rush, Dussault's harried-mom character, who became pregnant last October. The fate of the newborn—and of Too Close in its new Thursday night time slot—remains to be seen. But its success so far is due to the expert delivery of showbiz veterans Knight and Dussault.
The white-haired mayor leans back in his chair at his downtown office, chewing the political fat, in this case with a side order of lox. The scene isn't City Hall but Mort's Palisades Delicatessen in Pacific Palisades, Calif. The sun-soaked seaside enclave counts among its inhabitants Chevy Chase, Dom DeLuise and Walter Matthau, but its avuncular first citizen hangs out at Mort's. Above his reserved table hangs the sign: "Honorary Mayor Ted Knight. Office Hours Mon-Fri 3-5 p.m. Maybe. No smoking while the Mayor is eating." Following in a long line of honorary showbiz mayors including Matthau, Jerry Lewis and Peter Graves, Knight, 58, has plunged into his strictly ceremonial duties—Boy Scout award presentations and the like—with, well, relish. "He gets to shake hands with the natives," cracks veteran vaudevillian (and Knight's comic mentor) Claude Stroud, 75, who with the likes of Lionel (Hart to Hart) Stander makes up Knight's noshing kitchen cabinet. "It's a pleasurable responsibility," says Ted. "A real joy."
Knight has further cause for contentment. His starring role as worry-wart dad Henry Rush—professional cartoonist and landlord to two vivacious daughters, who live downstairs—has given him his first hit since the demise of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1977. Swept aside at last is the bad luck encountered in his first two disastrous comeback attempts, the 1978 Broadway dog Some of My Best Friends, in which he played second banana to a talking Afghan hound, and the 1978 CBS series The Ted Knight Show, in which, as the head of a dating service, he was escorted off the air after a few episodes. "I was talked into that series by my avarice," says Knight, who claims he quickly repented. "I was tickled when it went off the air. And never happier than when that turkey of a play closed."
Yet all along he has been searching for a vehicle which would let him escape the shadow of MTM newscaster Ted Baxter. Too Close, he believes, has given him that chance. "Ted was the buffoon, the butt of all the humor," he says. "Too Close for Comfort has opened up new vistas of comic possibilities for me." So far those vistas have chiefly been limited to slapshticky antics like prancing around in negligees and falling fully clothed into hot tubs, but Knight insists the series is more than that. "People like us because we glamorize family life," he says. "They say it doesn't insult them—that they can be comfortable and entertained." The series has also put new demands on him. "I work harder now," he says. "Back on Mary Tyler Moore, I just did my jokes, my newscasts. I now have the responsibility of heading my own show."
Still, he's grateful for the time spent with the comic repertory company that developed on Mary Tyler Moore. "All of us in that show had a thorough theatrical background," he says. "We were all qualified craftsmen. Oddly enough, it seems to me it's the guys in that show who have done the best in the long haul. I know Cloris [Leachman] and Valerie [Harper] got their own series, but look at Ed Asner [Lou Grant], Gavin MacLeod [The Love Boat] and me. Then, of course, there was Mary, who added more than anyone through her presence and quality as a star."
Knight's own comic talent has been honed by years of experience. Born Tadewurz Wladzui Konopka in Terryville, Conn., the son of a Polish immigrant bartender and a housewife, he decided on an acting career while at drama school in nearby Hartford and became a regional celebrity as a disc jockey, singer, puppeteer and ventriloquist. Later, in New York City, he graduated to TV and radio plays, then headed for Hollywood in the mid-'50s to pursue a TV career in earnest. Since then he has played more than 300 roles and picked up two Emmy awards as Best Supporting Actor in a comedy series for his Ted Baxter role.
Like his character, Knight is a homebody with a strong sense of family. He's been married to wife Dorothy for 33 years. "She's my best friend, my best business partner and she has her own teeth," he cracks. "I was fortunate in that I had the chance to sow my wild oats when I was a young man, and I don't feel the need to seek that kind of pleasure now." The Knights have moved into a new Tudor-style, four-bedroom house in Pacific Palisades with tennis courts, hot tub and pool. Ted Jr., 27, is a CPA who wed earlier this year and moved into the Knights' old home nearby. Eric, 19, is in junior college, and daughter Elyse, 22, is a drama student at USC.
Offstage, Ted Knight's political concern extends beyond Pacific Palisades to Poland. "I feel the helplessness and frustration of the situation," says Knight, who still has relatives there and has contributed to relief funds. "My father's people were quite well-to-do, and there are actually settlements in Poland called Konopka. I had planned to visit there this year for the first time, but I think the recent events will mean I just can't." Besides holding court at Mort's Deli, Knight occupies himself swimming, reading spy thrillers and hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains near his home. "I'm happy, the kids are happy, and it looks as though Dorothy and I did as well as could be expected," he says. "Once you realize the transitory nature of success, you're way ahead."
From musical comedy to sitcom mom
Red-haired Nancy Dussault admits that her TV pregnancy, even with its 11½-month gestation, doesn't rival the who-shot-J.R. hoopla, but she says she's definitely noted a public reaction. "People seem to think I'm really pregnant, that Muriel's pregnancy has been written into the script for me," says Dussault, who, for the record, isn't. Ironically, it is a quest she finally abandoned herself. "I expected to, I tried to, but it just never happened," says Dussault, who was married for 20 years. "The doctors found a couple of reasons that might have been the cause, one being a thyroid problem, plus an overabundance of estrogen, which is an automatic birth control device." Though Dussault, 46, says she knows one woman who had a baby at 52, she herself finds the idea "risky."
Wedding bells, however, are imminent. This summer Dussault, a musical comedy veteran, became engaged to her beau of five years, Val Mayer, 39, a stage manager and dancer she met while singing in Side by Side by Sondheim on Broadway in 1977. (Her divorce from advertising executive Jim Travis was finalized last year after a decade-long separation.) "Val gave me a diamond engagement ring, so that must mean something," she observes, though she adds that as of yet "there's no wedding date."
Nancy says she enjoys the fact that Muriel is pregnant on the show because it might spice up her character's otherwise bland personality. "She's just quite straight—a wonderful mother and wife," Nancy says. "If I say to the writers, 'Couldn't she get a little crazy or upset?' they say, 'Naah, not Muriel!' " Dussault, whose previous sitcom experience was limited, says it took her a long time to feel relaxed on the set—and even longer for Lydia Cornell, the blond actress who plays one of her two daughters (Deborah Van Valkenburgh plays the other). The first year, says Nancy, "The producers picked on Lydia—they didn't like her hair, or the way she delivered a line. She had hives all the time, she'd be breaking out, she'd get sick and her hair would fall out. It's only now, after two seasons, that we're all feeling comfortable."
The daughter of a U.S. Navy captain, Dussault was born in Pensacola, Fla. and grew up in Mount Carmel, III. and Arlington, Va. She graduated from Northwestern as a music major in 1957 and, after a stint of summer stock in Massachusetts, went to New York. Within six months she was off-Broadway in a 1958 revival of The Boyfriend. "I can't believe it was that long ago," she says. She joined the New York City Opera Company and began carving out a musical comedy career, winning Tony nominations for 1960's Do Re Mi with Phil Silvers and 1964's Bajour with close friend Chita Rivera. She was one of Mary Martin's replacements on Broadway in The Sound of Music, ventured into TV comedy in the early 1970s in The New Dick Van Dyke Show, and followed that with a switch in 1975 to the role of David Hartman's co-host on Good Morning, America. "That was really hard on me," says Dussault, who lasted 18 months as an anchor-woman. "But the interviewing has made me more comfortable with people in social situations."
Dussault and Meyer share a neat cottage-style home in the foothills of Studio City, and she keeps a small one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. "I never used to like L.A., but now I find it awfully pretty out here," she says. "New York can look very ugly, but there my energy level goes up 100 percent." She admits to what in L.A. amounts to cultural blasphemy: "I'm the only person on the coast who doesn't drive," says Dussault, who is chauffeured around by friends.
Her ability to navigate in Hollywood should improve with Too Close's new status. She recalls that Knight took her to lunch last February when the show hit a new peak, but they couldn't get a table. "Ted kept saying, 'Don't they know we're No. 4?' " giggles Nancy. "He was joking—but partly not." In a town where numbers talk, maître d's may now listen—and there's always Mort's Deli.