Jesse Donald Knotts (July 21, 1924 – February 24, 2006) was an American comedic actor best known for his portrayal of Barney Fife on the 1960s television sitcom The Andy Griffith Show (a role which earned him five Emmy Awards), and as landlord Ralph Furley on the television sitcom Three's Company. He also appeared opposite Tim Conway in a number of comedy films aimed at children.
Don Knotts Tribute
Knotts was born in the university town of Morgantown, West Virginia to William Jesse Knotts and his wife, Elsie L. Moore. His father's family had been in the United States since the 17th century, originally settling in Queen Anne's County, Maryland. Though his father had been a farmer, the latter suffered a nervous breakdown and lost his farm before Don was born. The family (including Don's two brothers) was supported by Don's mother, who ran a boardinghouse in town.  Knotts's father suffered from schizophrenia and alcoholism and died when Don was thirteen years old. Some time later, Knotts graduated from Morgantown High School.
At 19, Knotts joined the Army and served in World War II as part of a traveling GI variety show. After the war, Knotts graduated from his hometown West Virginia University in 1948 with a degree in theater. He was a member of Phi Sigma Kappa Fraternity.
After performing various roles and venues (including a ventriloquist act with a dummy named Danny), Knotts got his first major break on television in the soap opera Search for Tomorrow where he appeared from 1953 to 1955. However, he gained greater fame in 1956 on Steve Allen's variety show...
Steve Allen Show "Cocktails For Two" 1957-58
... appearing as part of Allen's comedic repertory company, most notably in Allen's mock "Man in the Street" interviews, always as a man obviously very nervous about being on camera.
Don Knotts Interviews Lord Morris Fitzmorris
The humor in the interviews would be increased when Knotts stated his occupation- always one that wouldn't be appropriate for such a nervous, shaking person, such as a surgeon or an explosives expert.
In 1958, Knotts appeared in the movie No Time for Sergeants alongside Andy Griffith. The movie, based on the play and book of the same name, began a professional and personal relationship between Knotts and Griffith that would last for decades.
No Time for Sergeants - Don Knotts' debut, Manual Dexterity
In 1960, when Griffith was offered the opportunity to headline in his own television sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968), Knotts took the role of Barney Fife, the deputy and cousin of Sheriff Andy Taylor (portrayed by Griffith). Knotts's five seasons portraying the bumbling deputy on the popular show would earn him three Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy. It would also bring him his greatest recognition.
A summary of the show from the website of the Museum of Broadcast Communications describes Deputy Barney Fife:
Self-important, romantic, and nearly always wrong, Barney dreamed of the day he could use the one bullet (which he kept in his shirt pocket) Andy had allowed him to be issued.
Barney Fife - Baby Makes Three
While Barney was forever frustrated that Mayberry was too small for the delusional ideas he had of himself, viewers got the sense that he couldn't have survived anywhere else. Don Knotts played the comic and pathetic sides of the character with equal aplomb.
When the show first aired, Andy Griffith was intended to be the comedic lead with Don Knotts as his "foil," or straight man. But, it was quickly found that the show was funnier the other way around. The years during which the two worked on the show cemented Griffith's lifelong admiration for Don Knotts and their lifelong friendship.
Believing, based on earlier remarks made by Griffith, that The Andy Griffith Show would soon be ending, Knotts began to look for other work, and signed a film contract with Universal Studios. He was caught off guard when Griffith announced he would be continuing with the show after all, but Knotts's hands were tied, and left the series in 1965. (Within the series, it was announced that Deputy Fife had finally made the "big time," and had joined the Raleigh, NC police force.)
Knotts went on to star in a series of film comedies which drew on his high-strung persona from the TV series: The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), The Reluctant Astronaut (1967), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968) and The Love God? (1969). Knotts would, however return to the role of Barney Fife several times in the 1960s: he made five more guest appearances on The Andy Griffith Show (gaining him another two Emmys), and later appeared once more on the spin-off Mayberry RFD , where he was present for the marriage of Andy Taylor and his longtime love, Helen Crump.
After making The Love God (the only one of his Universal films that did not carry a "G" rating), Knotts's contract with Universal came to an end. He continued to work steadily, though he did not appear as a regular on any successful series. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Knotts served as the spokesman for Dodge trucks and was featured prominently in a series of print ads and dealer brochures.
The Love God? (1969) More music by Vic Mizzy. With Anne Francis. This is the last film by Nat Hiken, who created Sgt. Bilko. A picket line features signs bearing such typical '60s legends as "Modern mothers for obscenity" and "Lovers for four-letter words."
Don Knotts is The Love God?
On television, he went on to host an odd-variety show/sitcom hybrid on NBC, The Don Knotts Show, which aired Tuesdays during the fall of 1970, but the series was low-rated and short-lived. He also made frequent guest appearances on other shows such as The Bill Cosby Show and Here's Lucy. In 1970, he would also make yet another appearance as Barney Fife, in the pilot of The New Andy Griffith Show. (This was particularly odd, as Andy Griffith did not play Sheriff Taylor in this series.) In 1972, Knotts would voice an animated version of himself in two memorable episodes of The New Scooby Doo Movies. He also appeared as Felix Unger in a stage version of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple with Art Carney as Oscar Madison.
Beginning in 1975 Knotts was teamed with Tim Conway in a series of slapstick movies aimed at children, including the 1975 Disney film The Apple Dumpling Gang, and its 1979 sequel, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again and the Disney movie Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.
In 1979, Knotts returned to series television in his second most identifiable role, landlord Ralph Furley on Three's Company. The series, which was already an established hit, added Knotts to the cast when the original landlords, a married couple Audra Lindley and Norman Fell, left the show to star in a short-lived spin-off series (The Ropers). Though the role of the outlandish, overdressed, nerdy-geeky-buffoon landlord was originally intended to be minor recurring character, Knotts was so was funny and lovable as a character who fantasized that he was an incredibly attractive lothario, that the writers greatly expanded his role. On set, Knotts easily ingratiated himself to the already-established cast. Knotts remained on the show from until it ended in 1984. The Three's Company script supervisor, Carol Summers, went on to be Knotts's agent-- often accompanying him to personal appearances.
In 1986, Don Knotts reunited with Andy Griffith in the 1986 made-for-television movie Return to Mayberry, where he reprised his role as Barney Fife yet again. In 1989 he joined Griffith in another show, playing a recurring role as pesky neighbor Les Calhoun on Matlock until 1992.
After Matlock ended, Knotts's film and television roles became sporadic. In 1998, Knotts had a small but pivotal role as the mysterious TV repairman in Pleasantville. That year, his home town of Morgantown, West Virginia, changed the name of the street formerly known as South University Ave (US 119, US 73) to "Don Knotts Boulevard" on "Don Knotts Day." Two years later, Knotts was recognized for his television work with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Though he continued to act on stage, much of his film and television work after 2000 was voice only. In 2002, he would appear again with Scooby-Doo in the video game Scooby-Doo: Night of 100 Frights (Knotts also sent up his appearances on that show in various promotions for Cartoon Network and in a parody on Robot Chicken, where he was teamed with Phyllis Diller). In 2003, Knotts teamed up with Tim Conway again to provide voices for the direct-to-video children's series, Hermie & Friends which would continue until his death. In 2005 he was the voice of Mayor Turkey Lurkey in Chicken Little (2005), his first Disney movie since 1979.
On September 12, 2003, Knotts was in Kansas City doing a stage version of On Golden Pond when he received a phone call from John Ritter's family telling him that his ex-Three's Company's co-star had died of an aortic dissection that day. Knotts and the rest of his co-stars attended the funeral four days after Ritter's death. Before Ritter's death, Knotts appeared with the former one final time in a cameo on an episode of the series 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. It was an episode that paid homage to the earlier famous TV series.
During this period of time, macular degeneration in both eyes caused the otherwise robust Don Knotts to become virtually blind, and his live appearances on television were few, and all were nostalgic or parodic versions of his iconic characters. In 2005, Knotts parodied his Ralph Furley character in a Desperate Housewives sketch on The 3rd Annual TV Land Awards. He would parody that part one final time, in his last live-action television appearance, and episode of That '70s Show, ("Stone Cold Crazy"). In the show Don played Fez and Jackie's new landlord. Although the landlord was never named, it was obvious to Knotts fans that he was none other than Ralph Furley.
Don Knotts died on February 24, 2006 at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California at the age of 81 from pulmonary and respiratory complications related to lung cancer. He had been undergoing treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in recent months, but went home after he reportedly had been getting better . Long-time friend Andy Griffith visited Knotts' bedside a few hours before he died. His daughter stayed with him until his death.
Knotts' obituaries began surfacing the Saturday afternoon following his death, mostly noting his Barney Fife character. Some cited him as a huge influence on other famous television stars. Musician and fan J.D. Wilkes said this about Knotts: "Only a genius like Knotts could make an anxiety-ridden, passive-aggressive Napoleon character like Fife a familiar, welcome friend each week. Without his awesome contributions to television there would've been no other over-the-top, self-deprecating acts like Conan O'Brien or Chris Farley."
Knotts is buried at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles
Don Knotts & Andy Griffith Show Grapenuts TV Commercial!
The Incredible Mr. Limpett (1964) In his on-screen minutes as a human, Knotts defines the character developed through the rest of his movies: the oblivious, nerve-ridden milque-toast vulnerable to fate's every twist and turn. With Jack Weston and top Hollywood gruff guy Andrew Duggan. Directed by Arthur Lubin, whose credits include The First Traveling Saleslady and the entire Mr. Ed series.
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) Seeing this alone as a kid, I was so scared I moved to a crowded part of the theater. Stellar music was by Vic Mizzy, creator of the Adams Family and Green Acres themes.
The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) Knotts runs a kiddie space ride and is mistaken for an astronaut. The weightless peanut butter scene is classic: He flails with a tube of the stuff and the PB floats off into the capsule and apparatus. Co-stars include Leslie Nielsen and Jesse White.
The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968) Knotts remakes Bob Hope and as usual is pushed into a sort of manliness. Almost a real Western.
How to Frame a Figg (1971) Knotts' ultimate masochistic comedy. He plays officious, obnoxious Hollis A. Figg, a municipal underling and the fall guy for a grafting city council--disastrously for the council, of course.
The press book for this romp compares Knotts to Charles Chaplin, and Figg drives a Fury. The cast includes the omnipresent Edward Andrews and McHale's Navy's Joe Flynn and Bob Hastings. The music is once more by Mizzy. Knotts co-wrote the story.
Comment's For Page "The Genius of Don Knotts"Add Comment