Who knew that a scrawny goofball from West Virginia would become one of the greatest comedic actors of his day? Don Knotts may have been the last one to admit it, but his career shows otherwise: for over 50 years he entertained America and the world: as Barney Fife, Knotts created possibly the most memorable television character in history; as a hapless klutz in Walt Disney movies at the height of their live-action era; as The Incredible Mr. Limpet; and in countless other roles throughout the 20th century. Don Knotts: this is your Fife.
He's No Dummy
Jesse Donald Knotts was born July 21, 1924, the youngest of four boys. At an early age, Knotts picked up the habit of mimicking his mother: out of sheer annoyance, she bought him a ventriloquist's dummy so he could have someone else to talk to. Don and the dummy (named "Danny") soon became good friends and began performing all over the neighborhood. Knotts continued his act after high school at West Virginia University for a year, until he enlisted in the Army at the height of World War II.
Humor In Uniform
Don's talent wasn't lost when he signed up, however: he was transferred to the Entertainer's Corps, where he traveled the country visiting Army bases and playing up his ventriloquist act. Eventually the dummy stopped showing up when Knotts did, and he became known as a fine comedian. After the war finished, Don returned to WVU, where he earned his degree in education in 1947. That same year, Knotts married Kathryn Kay Metz, a stewardess.
Man On The Street
Using what little connections he had, Knotts began performing in New York on radio shows and at comedy clubs all across the town. In 1952, he received a small supporting role in No Time For Sergeants, where he was teamed up with a tall drink of water from North Carolina named Andy Griffith. The two both reprised their roles in the motion picture of the same name in 1955. By now, Knotts had gained some fame as the Man On The Street for Steve Allen's "Tonight Show." He would venture out into New York City and shakily hold his microphone in some stranger's face, fumbling over the questions and generally playing the stage fright victim he was not. It was so successful that when Allen moved the show out to Hollywood in 1959, he asked Knotts to follow him. Don agreed, eager at the possibility.
The Role Of A Lifetime
Shortly after his move, Don called his friend Andy Griffith, who was developing a new series about a small-town sheriff. Don brashly suggested the show could use a deputy. Two weeks later, he was handed the part of Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show." At first, Fife's character was only part of an ensemble, but it didn't take long for Knotts's comic chops to completely steal the show. His jumpy, teeth-chattering, mumbling nervous Fife had the audiences rolling in the aisles. For the role, Knotts won five Emmys - in a row. The feat has not been repeated since. 1963 put Don Knotts among the kings of comedy when he had a cameo in It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. On a down note, 1964 saw the end of Knotts's 17 year marriage to Kathryn; together they had 2 children.
The Big Show
Knotts took his first starring role in a film with 1964's The Incredible Mr. Limpet. His character, a quiet bookkeeper, longs to be a fish. He surprisingly gets his wish one day (turning into an animated piscine caricature of Don) and ends up helping the Army fight enemy submarines. At this point in his career, Knotts was at a crossroads: Griffith had told him the show would only last five years, and Knotts's popularity was at a height. Seeking to capitalize on his fame, Don signed a five-picture deal with Universal Pictures. When he learned Andy didn't plan on canceling the show, he apologized profusely, and appeared on the show sporadically until its retirement in 1970.
The five films he made for Universal were a grab bag of hits and misses:
One More Round On The Small Screen
By 1970, Knotts itched to return to television. He propositioned NBC and they responded by giving him a live variety show. "The Don Knotts Show' aired for 2 seasons before it was cancelled. In 1972, Knotts remarried, this time to Loralee Czuchna. By now Don was almost 50 years old, and he began to look for other ways to continue his career in show business. He made both of his noteworthy appearances on "Scooby Doo, Where Are You?" in 1972, playing himself. Proving he was not just an icon of the 60's, he also made guest appearances on "The Captain And Tennille," "The Muppet Show," and "The Love Boat."
The Disney Era
About this time he and associate Tim Conway were invited by Disney to play two bumbling gangsters in their new live-action movie The Apple Dumpling Gang. Both jumped at the chance, and the movie was a big success. Knotts stayed on as an unofficial member of the 1970s Disney repertory (which also featured Dean Jones, Sandy Duncan, Buddy Hackett, and a young Kurt Russell, among others), starring in films such as No Deposit, No Return, a modernized version of O. Henry's short story "The Ransom Of Red Chief"; Gus, about a field goal-kicking mule (Knotts played the incredulous coach); Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo as mechanic Wheely Applegate; Hot Lead and Cold Feet, where he played a past his prime gunslinging sheriff; and the ill-fated sequel The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again.
Where The Towels Read Hers And Hers And His...
In 1977, Knotts was offered a role he simply couldn't refuse: that of aging swinger and landlord Ralph Furley on "Three's Company". Knotts played the role to his fullest, always bringing home foxy ladies to show off his swanky pad and making not-so-subtle references to Jack's (assumed) sexuality. He helped the show through the troubled times of the late 1970s and stayed on until its cancellation in 1984.
Knotts continued to make small appearances in film and television over the years: a highway patrolman in Cannonball Run II (along with Tim Conway); as a minor recurring character on Andy Griffith's "Matlock"; as the principal on the animated series "Doug"; and as the plot-twisting TV repairman in 1998's Pleasantville. He also returned to television twice as Barney Fife for "Andy Griffith Show" reunions. In 1998, he divorced his second wife. In 2000, he celebrated his induction onto the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as well as his third marriage, to actress Francine Yarborough.
Don Knotts passed away from complications due to lung cancer on February 25, 2006. He was 81.
So what impact has Don Knotts had on us today? Without him, we wouldn't have the hyperactive energy of Jim Carrey, the jittery antics of Cosmo Kramer, or the cartoonish buffoonery of Will Ferrell. His routine inspired generations of wimps: he is the Übergeek, and his success proves that anyone with enough determination and a keen sense of humor can make it in Hollywood.