An accomplished actress of stage, screen, and television, Shirley Knight has specialized in playing contemporary women with psychological problems. Knight was discovered while studying drama with Jeff Corey when she and her classmates Jack Nicholson, Robert Blake, Dean Stockwell, and Sally Kellerman were appearing in a production of Look Back in Anger. Her performance netted her an agent who in turn helped her get her first film role in Five Gates to Hell (1959). Knight's first real break came with a supporting role in Delbert Mann's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960). Her portrayal of a young woman whose anguished lover commits suicide garnered Knight her first Oscar nomination. The second was for playing Paul Newman's first love in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). In the early '60s, Knight began appearing occasionally on television, making a memorable debut in the sci-fi anthology series Outer Limits, in the episode "The Man Who Was Never Born" opposite Martin Landau.
By mid-decade, Knight was well on her way to becoming a major film star. But Knight was discontent with having money and fame. To her acting was an art and she an aspiring artist. To meet her goals, Knight decided that the only way to become a real actress was to gain experience on the New York stage, and so, she left the film industry to study and work back East. Her Broadway career was successful and in 1966, Knight flew to England to try her luck in British theater. During her "theatrical period," Knight did occasionally appear in feature films, including Sidney Lumet's The Group (1967) and Francis Ford Coppola's The Rain People (1969).
Knight returned to Broadway in the mid-'70s. But by then, Knight was in her forties, an awkward age for actresses who can be considered too old to play ingénues but too young for character roles. This did not stop Knight from working in television and films. Eventually, Knight successfully traversed the middle-aged hump and attained a new, busy career playing supporting and maternal character roles. Knight has been married to British playwright John Hopkins since 1970 and occasionally bills herself as Shirley Knight Hopkins.