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Actor Don Knotts Dies at 81

Don Knotts, who won TV immortality and five Emmys for playing the bumbling Deputy Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show" with self-deprecating humor, was remembered by his friend and co-star as a comedic genius who wrote some of the show's best scenes.

"Don was a small man ... but everything else about him was large: his mind, his expressions," Griffith told The Associated Press on Saturday. "Don was special. There's nobody like him."

Knotts, 81, died Friday of pulmonary and respiratory complications at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center, said Sherwin Bash, his friend and manager.

His half-century career included more than 25 films and seven TV series, most notably playing the bug-eyed deputy who carried in his shirt pocket the one bullet he was allowed after shooting himself in the foot. The constant fumbling, a recurring sight gag, was typical of his self-deprecating humor.

The show ran from 1960 to 1968 and was in the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings each season, including a No. 1 ranking its final year. It is one of only three series in TV history to bow out at the top: The others are "I Love Lucy" and "Seinfeld." The 249 episodes have appeared frequently in reruns and spawned a large, active network of fan clubs.

Knotts, whose shy, soft-spoken manner was unlike his high-strung characters, once said he was most proud of the Fife character and didn't mind being remembered that way.

He also played the would-be swinger landlord Ralph Furley on "Three's Company," which he joined in 1979, and was an original cast member of "The Steve Allen Show," the comedy-variety show that ran from 1956 to 1961.

Knotts' G-rated films were family fun, not box-office blockbusters. In most, he ends up the hero and gets the girl — a girl who can see through his nervousness to the heart of gold.

In the part-animated 1964 film "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," Knotts played a meek clerk who turns into a fish after he is rejected by the Navy.

In 1998, he had a key role in the back-to-the-past movie "Pleasantville," playing a folksy television repairman whose supercharged remote control sends a teen boy and his sister into a TV sitcom past.

The West Virginia native began his show biz career even before he graduated from high school, performing as a ventriloquist at local clubs and churches. He majored in speech at West Virginia University, then took off for the big city.

"I went to New York cold. On a $100 bill. Bummed a ride," he recalled in a visit to his hometown of Morgantown, where city officials renamed a street for him in 1998.

Within six months, Knotts had taken a job on a radio Western called "Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders," playing a wisecracking, know-it-all handyman. He stayed with it for five years before making his series TV debut on "The Steve Allen Show."

He married Kay Metz in 1948, the year he graduated from college. The couple had two children before divorcing in 1969. Knotts later married, then divorced Lara Lee Szuchna.

Knotts is survived by his wife of three years, Francey Yarborough, and two children, Karen and Thomas, from his first marriage.