Born Jesse Donald Knotts, July 21, 1924, in Morgan-town, WV; died of lung cancer, February 24, 2006, in Los Angeles, CA. Actor. During a half-century acting career, Don Knotts appeared on seven television series and in more than 25 films, earning screen immortality for his role as the blunderheaded smalltown deputy Barney Fife on the 1960s television hit The Andy Griffith Show. The role showcased Knotts' zany expressions, high-pitched voice, and impeccable slapstick timing, earning him legions of adoring fans and five Emmys for best supporting actor. "Don was an actor who played comedy as opposed to a comedian who does stand-up," Knotts' longtime manager, Sherwin Bash, told the Washington Post shortly after his death. "He was one of a kind."
Born in 1924 in Morgantown, West Virginia, Knotts grew up poor alongside three older brothers. As a child, he was unhappy and self-conscious about his lean-limbed appearance. He had a brother who was so thin family members called him "Shadow." Knotts took an early interest in acting, due in part to his mother's fascination with the new "talking" movies of the late 1920s, which she took Knotts to see. Knotts began performing in his teens, developing a ventriloquist routine alongside a dummy named Danny. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving as an entertainer in the Pacific in the early 1940s and earning a World War II Victory Medal before his discharge.
Next, Knotts studied speech at West Virginia University. After graduating in 1948, Knotts put $100 in his pocket and bummed a ride to New York hoping to act. He auditioned for radio gigs and spent the early 1950s playing a know-it-all geezer handyman on the children's radio western Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders. Knotts also landed television roles and appeared on Search for Tomorrow from 1953 to 1955. On this CBS soap, Knotts played a maladjusted young man so unstable he refused to communicate with anyone but his sister. This was Knotts' first—and only—non-comedic role of his career.
Knotts generated a buzz in 1955 playing a fussy military evaluator on Broadway in the Ira Levin comedy No Time for Sergeants. One of the recruits Knotts' character evaluated in the play was a hillbilly draftee played by a little-known actor named Andy Griffith. From 1956 to 1960, Knotts appeared regularly on NBC's The Steve Allen Show as a character named Mr. Morrison, the "nervous man." The routine generally featured Morrison being interviewed "live" on the street. Knotts' character was clearly nervous and agitated about the situation. Whenever Allen asked him if he was nervous, his eyes would pop out, yet he would answer with a quivery "nope" that set the crowd howling. The routine made him famous.
Knotts and Griffith teamed up again for the 1958 feature film version of No Time for Sergeants. The pair kept in touch and when Griffith signed on to play rural sheriff Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show, Knotts tagged along and became his bumbling sidekick and deputy, Barney Fife. The role was not included in the series pilot, set in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina. When Knotts joined the show, he was supposed to blend in as part of Griffith's entourage. Soon after the CBS comedy debuted in 1960, however, Knotts's bumbling manic energy stole the show. Writers reworked Griffith's role, turning him into the calm, straightlaced Sheriff Taylor who spent his time rescuing Deputy Fife from the mishaps of his own making.
Using sight gags, writers capitalized on Knotts' mastery of physical comedy, creating a show that stayed in the Top 10 every year during its eight-year run. Fife was an invariable misfit who carried in his pocket the one bullet Sheriff Taylor allotted him after he accidently shot himself in the foot. Whenever Fife tried to load the bullet, he fumbled the task. Often, he accidently locked himself in a jail cell. Though the show originally aired more than 45 years ago, it has enjoyed a loyal following on the cable network TV Land. There are also numerous websites devoted to the show, including BarneyFife. com, which discusses "Barneyisms" and addresses the moral lessons taught by the character. According to the Los Angeles Times, during a 2000 interview, Knotts discussed how he developed the beloved character: "Mainly, I thought of Barney as a kid. You can always look into the faces of kids and see what they're thinking, if they're happy or sad. That's what I tried to do with Barney. It's very identifiable."
Knotts left the show in 1965 to work on the big screen and became a reliable comedy draw of the 1960s, starring in a number of G-rated family films. He starred in 1964's half-cartoon, half live-action feature The Incredible Mr. Limpet, which tells the story of a timid clerk who, rejected by the Navy, turns into a fish. Other films included 1966's The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, 1967's The Reluctant Astronaut, 1968's The Shakiest Gun in the West, and 1969's The Love God?. By the early 1970s, Knotts found a place starring in Disney's live-action features. He played a hopeless Old West bandit, alongside Tim Conway, in 1975's The Apple Dumpling Gang. He also starred as a wannabe safe-cracker in 1976's No Deposit, No Return, and as a football coach in Gus, which tells the story of a field-goal-kicking mule. Knotts also played auto-racing veteran Wheely Applegate in 1977's Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.
Knotts returned to television in 1979, playing the leisure-suit-loving landlord Ralph Furley on the ABC sitcom Three's Company alongside the late John Ritter. He stayed on until the series ended in 1984. Knotts also made guest appearances with a recurring role on Griffith's courtroom drama Matlock, which ran from 1986 to 1995. Knotts made a cameo appearance in the 1998 movie Pleasantville, playing a TV repairman who gives two teens a special remote control that transports them into the innocent black-and-white world of 1950s television sitcoms. He also lent his voice to the 2005 Disney film Chicken Little, playing Mayor Turkey Lurkey.
Over the course of his career, Knotts married several times. Around 1947, he married Kathryn Kay Metz and had two children. They divorced in the 1960s. He later married and divorced Loralee Czuchna. In 2002, he married actress Francey Yarborough. Knotts died of lung cancer on February 24, 2006, in Los Angeles, California. He was 81. Survivors include his wife, his daughter, Karen; and his son, Thomas.
CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/02/25/knotts.obit.ap/index.html (February 27, 2006); Entertainment Weekly, March 10, 2006, p. 16; E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,18431,00.html (February 27, 2006); Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2006, p. B14; People, March 13, 2006, pp. 73-74; Washington Post, February 26, 2006, p. C8.