Was an American actor and comedian. He was widely known for his role as Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, a 1960s sitcom for which he earned five Emmy Awards. He also played Ralph Furley on the highly-rated sitcom Three’s Company from 1979 to 1984. He starred in multiple comedic films, including the leading role in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) and The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964). In 1979, TV Guide ranked him number 27 on its 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time list.
Jesse Donald Knotts was born in Morgantown, West Virginia, the youngest of four sons born to farmer William Jesse Knotts and his wife, Elsie Luzetta Knotts (née Moore). His parents were married in Spraggs, Pennsylvania. His English paternal ancestors emigrated to America in the 17th century, originally settling in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland. Knotts’ brothers were named Willis, William, and Ralph “Sid”.
Don’s mother was 40 at the time of his birth and his father suffered from mental illness. Afflicted with schizophrenia and alcoholism, he sometimes terrorized Don with a knife, causing Don to turn inward at an early age. The elder Knotts died of pneumonia when Don was 13 years old. Don and his brothers were then raised by their mother, who ran a boarding house in Morgantown. She died in 1969 at age 84. Her son William preceded her in death in 1941 at age 31. They are buried in the family plot at Beverly Hills Memorial Park in Morgantown. Don graduated from Morgantown High School. After enlisting in the United States Army and serving in World War II, Don earned a bachelor’s degree in education with a minor in speech from West Virginia University in Morgantown, graduating in 1948. He was a member of the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity and Alpha Psi Omega Honor Society while at WVU.
Before he entered high school, Knotts began performing as a ventriloquist and comedian at various church and school functions. After high school, he traveled to New York City to try to make his way as a comedian but returned home to attend West Virginia University when his career failed to take off. After his college freshman year, Knotts joined the U.S. Army and spent most of his service entertaining troops. He toured the western Pacific Islands as a comedian as part of a G.I. variety show called “Stars and Gripes”. His ventriloquist act in “Stars and Gripes” included a dummy named Danny, which Knotts grew to hate, eventually throwing it overboard according to his friend and castmate, Al Checco.
Knotts served in the U.S. Army from June 21, 1943, to January 6, 1946. He was discharged at the rank of Technician Grade 5, which was the equivalent then of a Corporal. During his military service, Knotts was awarded the World War II Victory Medal, Philippine Liberation Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (with 4 bronze service stars), Army Good Conduct Medal, Marksman Badge (with an M1 Carbine), and Honorable Service lapel pin.
Knotts returned to West Virginia University after being demobilized and graduated in 1948. He married Kay Metz and moved back to New York, where connections he had made while in the Special Services Branch helped him break into show business. In addition to doing stand-up comedy at clubs, he appeared on the radio, eventually playing the wisecracking, know-it-all character “Windy Wales” on a radio Western called “Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders”.
Knotts got his first major break on television in the soap opera Search for Tomorrow where he appeared from 1953 to 1955. He came to fame in 1956 on Steve Allen’s variety show, as part of Allen’s repertory company, most notably in Allen’s mock “Man in the Street” interviews, always as an extremely nervous man. He remained with the Allen program through the 1959–1960 season. From October 20, 1955, through September 14, 1957, Knotts appeared in the Broadway play version of No Time for Sergeants, in which he played two roles, listed on the playbill as a Corporal Manual Dexterity and a Preacher. In 1958, Knotts appeared for the first time on film with Andy Griffith in the film version of No Time for Sergeants. In that film, Knotts reprises his Broadway role and plays a high-strung Air Force test administrator whose routine is disrupted by the hijinks of a provincial new recruit.
The Andy Griffith Show
In 1960, Andy Griffith was offered the opportunity to headline his own sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show (1960–1968). Knotts took the role of Barney Fife, the deputy—and originally cousin—of Sheriff Andy Taylor (portrayed by Griffith). Knotts’s portrayal of the deputy on the popular show earned him five Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actor in a Television Comedy, three awards for the first five seasons that he played the character.
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 Andy had issued to him, though he did fire his gun on a few occasions. He always fired his pistol accidentally while still in his holster or in the ceiling of the courthouse, at which point he would sadly hand his pistol to Andy. This is why Barney kept one very shiny bullet in his shirt pocket. In episode #196, Andy gave Barney more bullets so that he would have a loaded gun to go after a bad guy that Barney unintentionally helped escape. 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 and he received three Emmy Awards during the show’s first five seasons.
When the show first aired, Griffith was intended to be the comedic lead with Knotts as his straight man, similar to their roles in No Time for Sergeants. However, it was quickly discovered that the show was funnier with the roles reversed. As Griffith maintained in several interviews, “By the second episode, I knew that Don should be funny, and I should play straight.”
Knotts believed remarks by Griffith that The Andy Griffith Show would end after five seasons, and he began to look for other work, signing a five-film contract with Universal Studios. He was caught off guard when Griffith announced that he would continue the show after all, but Knotts’s hands were tied. In his autobiography, Knotts admitted that he had not yet signed a contract when Griffith announced his decision; but he had made up his mind to move on, believing he would not get the chance again. Knotts left the series in 1965. His character’s absence on the show was explained by Deputy Fife’s having finally made the “big time,” joining the Raleigh, North Carolina police force.
Post-Mayberry Film Career
Knotts went on to star in a series of film comedies that drew on his high-strung persona from the television series: he had a cameo appearance in United Artists’ It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and starred in Warner Bros.’ The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964). Knotts then began his Universal five-film contract with The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), The Reluctant Astronaut (1967), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968), The Love God? (1969) and How to Frame a Figg (1971). Knotts reprised his role as Barney Fife several times in the 1960s: he made five guest appearances on The Andy Griffith Show (gaining him another two Emmy Awards), and he later appeared once on the spin-off Mayberry R.F.D., where he was present as best man for the marriage of Andy Taylor and his longtime love, Helen Crump.
After making How to Frame a Figg, Knotts’s five-film contract with Universal finished. He continued to work steadily, though he did not appear as a regular on any successful television series until his appearance on Three’s Company in 1979. 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. On television, he went on to host a 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, and Knotts was uncomfortable with the variety show format. He also made frequent guest appearances on other shows such as The Bill Cosby Show and Here’s Lucy. In 1970, he appeared as a Barney Fife-like police officer in the pilot of The New Andy Griffith Show. In 1972, Knotts voiced an animated version of himself in two episodes of The New Scooby-Doo Movies: “The Spooky Fog of Juneberry”, in which he played a lawman resembling Barney Fife, and “Guess Who’s Knott Coming to Dinner”. He appeared as Felix Unger in a stage version of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, with Art Carney as Oscar Madison, and toured in the Neil Simon comedy Last of the Red Hot Lovers.
Beginning in 1975, Knotts was teamed with Tim Conway in a series of slapstick films aimed at children, including the Disney film The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) and its sequel, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979). They also did two independent films, the boxing comedy The Prize Fighter (1979), and the mystery-comedy The Private Eyes (1980). Knotts co-starred in several other Disney films, including Gus (1976), No Deposit, No Return (1976), Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977), and Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978).
In 1979, Knotts returned to series television in his second most identifiable role, the wacky but lovable landlord Ralph Furley on Three’s Company. The series, which was already an established hit, added Knotts to the cast when the original landlords, Stanley and Helen Roper (a married couple played by Norman Fell and Audra Lindley, respectively) left the series to star in their own short-lived spin-off series The Ropers.
On set, Knotts easily integrated himself into the already established cast who were, as John Ritter put it, “so scared” of Knotts because of his star status when he joined the cast. When Suzanne Somers left the show after a contract dispute in 1981, the writers started giving the material meant for Somers’s Chrissy to Knotts’s Furley. Knotts remained on the series until it ended in 1984. The Three’s Company script supervisor, Carol Summers, became Knotts’ agent and often accompanied him to personal appearances.
In 1986, Don Knotts reunited with Andy Griffith in the made-for-television film Return to Mayberry, reprising his Barney Fife role. In early 1987, Knotts joined the cast of the first-run syndication comedy What a Country!, playing Principal Bud McPherson for the series’ remaining 13 episodes. The sitcom was produced by Martin Rips and Joseph Staretski, who had previously worked on Three’s Company.
In 1988, Knotts joined Andy Griffith in another show, playing the recurring role of pesky neighbor Les Calhoun on Matlock until 1992.
After that, Knotts’s roles were sporadic, including a cameo appearance in the film Big Bully (1996) as the principal of the high school. In 1998, Knotts played a small but pivotal role as a mysterious TV repairman in Pleasantville. That year, his hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia, changed the name of the street formerly known as South University Avenue (U.S. Route 119) to Don Knotts Boulevard on “Don Knotts Day”. Also that day, in honor of Knotts’s role as Barney Fife, he was named an honorary deputy sheriff with the Monongalia County Sheriff’s Department.
When you work with words, words are your work.
Knotts was recognized in 2000 with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He continued to act on stage, but much of his film and television work after 2000 was as voice talent. In 2002, he appeared again with Scooby-Doo in the video game Scooby-Doo! Night of 100 Frights. (Knotts also spoofed 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 and Friends, which continued 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 in a stage version of On Golden Pond when he received a call from John Ritter’s family telling him that his former Three’s Company co-star had died of an aortic dissection that day. Knotts and his co-stars attended the funeral four days later. Knotts had appeared with Ritter one final time in a cameo on 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. It was an episode that paid homage to their earlier television series. Knotts was the last Three’s Company star to work with Ritter.
During this period of time, macular degeneration in both eyes caused the otherwise robust Knotts to become virtually blind. His live appearances on television were few. In 2005, Knotts parodied his Ralph Furley character while playing a Paul Young variation in a Desperate Housewives sketch on The 3rd Annual TV Land Awards. He parodied that part one final time in “Stone Cold Crazy”, an episode of the sitcom That ’70s Show. In the show, Knotts played Fez and Jackie’s new landlord. This was his last live-action television appearance. His final role was in Air Buddies (2006) (a direct-to-video sequel to Air Bud), voicing the sheriff’s deputy dog, Sniffer.
Knotts’s friend Al Checco said, “Don was somewhat of a ladies’ man. He fancied himself something of a Frank Sinatra. The ladies loved him and he dated quite a bit.” Knotts was married three times. His marriage to Kathryn Metz lasted from 1947 until their divorce in 1964, and he raised his daughter as a single parent. He married Loralee Czuchna in 1974 and they divorced in 1983. His third marriage was to Frances Yarborough, from 2002 until his death in 2006. From his first marriage, Knotts had a son, Thomas Knotts, and a daughter, actress Karen Knotts (born April 2, 1954).
Knotts struggled with hypochondria and macular degeneration. Betty Lynn, one of Knotts’ co-stars on The Andy Griffith Show, described him as a “very quiet man. Very sweet. Nothing like Barney Fife.” TV writer Mark Evanier called him “the most beloved person in all of show business”.
Knotts died at age 81 on February 24, 2006, at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles from pulmonary and respiratory complications of pneumonia related to lung cancer. He had been undergoing treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in the months before his death, but he returned home after he had reportedly been feeling better. He was buried at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
Knotts’ obituaries cited him as a major influence on other entertainers. In early 2011, his grave’s plain granite headstone was replaced with a bronze plaque that displays several of Knotts’ movie and television roles. A statue honoring Knotts was unveiled on July 23, 2016, in front of The Metropolitan Theatre on High Street in his hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia.
Relationship: fifth cousin once removed ascending
Royal Marvin Beaty
Thomas Allen Beaty
Rebecca Jane Young
Elija Thomas Buck
Sarah Ann Covalt
William Jesse Knotts
Jesse Donald Knotts