Though his role as scurrilous inmate Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell on “Prison Break” (Fox, 2005-) earned him the status of the latest villain TV audiences love to hate, actor Robert Knepper had already played a wide variety of roles in films and on television throughout his 25-year career.
Born in Fremont, OH and raised in Maumee, Knepper’s interest in performing was spurred by his mother Pat, who worked in the prop department of the local community theater. He auditioned for numerous productions throughout high school before attending Northwestern University as a drama major in 1977. Knepper left the school in 1981, prior to graduation and traveled to New York to immerse himself further in acting. He returned to Chicago in the early ‘80s, making a name for himself in the city’s theater scene. Knepper’s on-camera debut came in 1986 on an episode of “The Paper Chase” (Showtime, 1983-86), where he was billed as Rob Knepper (he would use this abbreviated moniker throughout the ’80s and ‘90s).
Among his more notable early roles were in the pilot episode of “L.A. Law” (NBC, 1986-94) as Georgia Buckner, a secretarial candidate who reveals that he/she is a transsexual (he would repeat the role several additional times throughout the show’s network run), and as the title character in 1987’s “Wild Thing,” an urban fantasy about a feral, Tarzan-esque crime fighter. Other intriguing turns came in Allison Anders’ “Gas Food Lodging” (1992) as the traveling mineralogist who becomes intimate with Ione Skye; as a rock singer in the drama “Where The Day Takes You” (1992); and episodic turns on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (Paramount, 1987-1994), “China Beach” (ABC, 1988-1991), and “Law and Order” (NBC, 1990- ).
Knepper began to attract more notice as the ‘90s drew to a close, appearing as the hero of a self-absorbed book being adapted into a movie by Griffin Dunne in the broad film industry comedy “Search and Destroy” (1995) and in a small role in Woody Allen’s imaginative “Everybody Says I Love You” (1996). These gigs preceded meatier roles in the indie feature “Under Heat” (1996) and the TV movie “Kidnapped in Paradise” (1999) as a heroin addicted father and a lustful smuggler, respectively. Knepper’s television roles also gained some heft during this period as well. He also played a muckraking movie producer in a 2001 episode of “The West Wing” (NBC, 1999-2006) and disturbed many “La Femme Nikita” (USA, 1997-2001) fans as a disturbed villain, one of many roles that put his saturnine features to good use. Knepper also made an impression as an eccentric spy boss on the short-lived action series “Thieves” (ABC, 2001), as Robert Kennedy (one of his favorite roles to date) in the mini-series “Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot” (2001), and as the last of nine miners to be rescued from a flooded cavern in the 2002 TV-movie “The Pennsylvania Miners’ Story.”
A recurring role as Dana Delaney’s husband on the short-lived CBS hospital drama “Presidio Med” (2002) preceded several impressive projects for Knepper: the ambitious HBO fantasy/drama “Carnivale” (2003-05), for which he played reporter Tommy Dolan, who doggedly pursued the story of the seemingly possessed Brother Justin; the suspense thriller “Hostage” (2005), in which he played a hostage negotiator; and George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005), which gave him a small but noticeable role as an investigator for Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Knepper was looking for his next role when the audition for “Prison Break” came his way. As the swaggering, scheming sexual predator Bagwell, Knepper added a disturbingly unforgettable character to his varied and consistently solid body of work.
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