Who do you assume was the first person cast in Jurassic Park? Jeff Goldblum, certainly the most iconic person in it, as Ian Malcolm? Sam Neill, perhaps, or Laura Dern? Richard Attenborough as what Michael Chrichton refers to as a “dark Walt Disney”? Maybe even Samuel L. Jackson or B. D. Wong? But no, according to various sources, the first person cast in the movie was Wayne Knight as Dennis Nedry, his performance in Basic Instinct, which I haven’t actually seen, suggesting that he would be a good choice for the banal evil of Nedry.
Honestly? It wouldn’t surprise me, and not just because Spielberg is an expert at seeing what other people don’t necessarily see in actors. The fact is, Wayne Knight is an underrated actor, and I’m afraid that gets into his physical appearance. He was apparently told by an acting coach, shortly before he dropped out of college, that he would never be a successful actor, and I think that’s because he’s a short, fat, ordinary-looking man. (No offense intended to the man, as we’re the same height and he currently weighs less than I do.) Hollywood doesn’t tend to have a lot of room for those performers, and it doesn’t surprise me that someone might think there’s nowhere in the industry for Wayne Knight.
And I suppose that’s why he’s largely relegated to comic roles—since the days of Roscoe Arbuckle, the film industry has primarily used heavier performers as comic relief. Even Nedry is just the wacky human we have to get through in order to make the dinosaurs a threat. But Nedry does also, to me at least, represent a much more realistic evil than most movie villains, and that isn’t just because he’s a human and not a dinosaur recreated from fossilized DNA. It’s because he does something that creates more problems than he realizes it will because he needs money to make up for having underbid a job that was more complicated than he expected. That’s the sort of thing that makes you think, “Yeah, that’s going to end the human race someday.”
However, for my money, the most impressive role in his fine filmography—and goodness has he done more film and TV and even Broadway than people realize—is not one that springs to mind for a lot of people. Specifically, here, Officer Don Orville of 3rd Rock From the Sun. Don could have easily been a joke character; it is, after all, a sitcom. He plays the chubby, short, ordinary police officer that Sally (Kristen Johnston), the soldier of the aliens in human disguise, falls in love with. And honestly? He’s funny as hell on that show. He and Sally have a love affair for much of the show that seems to take place in a film noir instead of a sitcom, and it’s hilarious. On the other hand, the writers of the show clearly discovered Knight’s talent and played to it, and Don gets an impressive array of believable emotional moments—he is, I think, the most human character on the show.
It was watching old episodes literally months ago that made me put him on the schedule; I’ve been holding on to him for some time now. And I knew when I did that there would be people who would not understand what I had to say about him or realize that he had done so much good work. And, yes, I’m aware there’s a major role or two that I haven’t mentioned here, one from a movie and one from a TV show, that have probably done more than anything but Jurassic Park to bring him to people’s attention. But I haven’t seen that movie in probably decades and don’t really like that TV show. Go watch more 3rd Rock instead.