Don Knotts, the saucer-eyed, scarecrow-thin comic actor best known for his roles as the high-strung small-town deputy Barney Fife on the 1960s CBS series “The Andy Griffith Show” and the leisure-suit-clad landlord Ralph Furley on ABC’s ‘70s sitcom “Three’s Company,” has died. He was 81.
Knotts, who lived in West Los Angeles, died Friday night of lung cancer at UCLA Medical Center, according to Sherwin Bash, his longtime manager.
Family members said that his longtime friend Griffth was one of his last visitors at Cedars on Friday night.
Despite health problems, Knotts had kept working in recent months. He lent his distinctive, high-pitched voice as Turkey Mayor in Walt Disney’s animated family film “Chicken Little,” which was released in November 2005. He also did guest spots in 2005 on NBC’s “Las Vegas” and Fox’s “That ‘70s Show.” He occasionally co-headlined in live comedy shows with Tim Conway, his sometime co-star in Disney films such as “The Apple Dumpling Gang.” Knotts also appeared as the TV repairman in director Gary Ross’s whimsical 1998 comedy “Pleasantville,” and voiced the part of T.W. Turtle in the 1997 animated feature “Cats Don’t Dance.”
As he grew older, Knotts became a lodestar for younger comic actors. The new generation came to appreciate his highly physical brand of acting that, at its best, was in the tradition of silent-film greats such as Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel and Harold Lloyd.
Knotts first rose to prominence in the late 1950s, joining Louis Nye and other comedy players on “The Steve Allen Show.” In 1961, United Artists Records released a comedy album entitled “Don Knotts: An Evening with Me,” which featured various takeoffs on the “nervous man” routine the comic had made famous on Allen’s show. One of the bits, “The Weatherman,” concerned a TV forecaster forced to wing it after the meteorology report fails to make it to the studio by air time.
During the mid to late 1960s, in a largely unsuccessful bid for major film stardom, Knotts made a series of family films that many connoisseurs now say were critically underappreciated at the time. These include “The Incredible Mr. Limpet” (1964), “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” (1966) and “The Reluctant Astronaut” (1967). The latter two were made as part of a five-picture deal with Universal Pictures.
“Limpet,” the tale of a meek man who is transformed into a fish, has particularly won recent acclaim. Its early mix of live action and animation was a forerunner of such later films as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Space Jam.”
At one point, Jim Carrey was said to be considering starring in a “Limpet” remake, although the project has yet to materialize. Once, when Knotts visited the set of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” Carrey paid tribute. “I went to him, and I was just like, ‘Thank you so much for “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,”’ Carrey later told an interviewer. “ ‘I watched it a hundred times when I was a kid.’ ”
Martin Short has likewise hailed Knotts as a major influence, and at least one of Short’s recurring characters, shifty-eyed lawyer Nathan Thurm, owes a debt to Knotts’ “nervous man” character, created for “The Steve Allen Show” in the 1950s.
Many TV viewers remember Knotts as Ralph Furley, the ascot-wearing middle-aged landlord who mistakenly viewed himself as a swinger on ABC’s hit sex farce “Three’s Company.” The series starred the late John Ritter as Jack Tripper, a chef who pretended to be gay in order to share an apartment with two attractive young women. The plot of many episodes hinged on Tripper struggling to keep his secret from an ever-suspicious (and homophobic) Furley. Knotts introduced the character in 1979, during the show’s fourth season, when the original landlords (Norman Fell and Audra Lindley) had departed for their own spin-off, “The Ropers.”
For Knotts, who typically worked in Disney comedies and other family-friendly fare, appearing in a sex comedy — then decried by critics as “jiggle TV” -- constituted a major departure. But he stayed with “Three’s Company” until it went off the air in 1984 after eight seasons.
However, it was his portrayal of Barney Fife — a role for which he won five Emmy Awards -- that immortalized Knotts to TV viewers. Deputy Fife, an inveterate bumbler, was not in the series pilot, and was at first intended simply to be part of a large ensemble that would surround Griffith, who played Sheriff Andy Taylor in Mayberry, a fictional North Carolina town near Raleigh.
But not long after the series debuted in October 1960, Knotts stole the show. Griffith, who was meant to be the series’ comic focus, shifted to playing straight man. The writers began beefing up Fife’s role and creating episodes that depended on the sheriff rescuing Fife from his latest predicament. “Andy Griffith” was the most popular comedy on television during its first season, and never dropped from the Top 10 for the rest of its eight-year run.
In Knotts’ hands, Fife was a fully realized stooge, a hick-town Don Quixote who imagined himself braver, more sophisticated and more competent than he actually was. His utter lack of self-control led him into desperate jams that usually culminated with Fife at the end of his rope, bug-eyed and panting with anxiety. Sheriff Taylor allowed his deputy to carry just one bullet, which he was obliged to keep separate from his service revolver due to past trigger mishaps.
Asked how he developed his most famous character, Knotts replied in a 2000 interview: “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.”
Jesse Donald Knotts was born in Morgantown, W.Va., on July 21, 1924, the youngest of four brothers. His family life was troubled; Knotts’ father twice threatened his mother with a knife and later spent time in mental hospitals, while older brother Earl — nicknamed “Shadow” because of his thinness -- died of asthma when Knotts was still a teenager.
Years later, the actor did not recall his childhood fondly.
“I felt like a loser,” he recalled in a 1976 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I was unhappy, I think, most of the time. We were terribly poor and I hated my size.”
Knotts turned to performing in his early teens, doing an Edgar Bergen-inspired ventriloquism act with a dummy he named Danny.
He enlisted in the Army in 1943 and served in the Pacific, receiving the World War II Victory Medal among other decorations. After the war, in 1948, he graduated from West Virginia University with an education degree.
He soon borrowed $100 and moved to New York to pursue an acting career. He auditioned for several radio gigs but was turned down. One of his earliest TV roles was on the CBS soap opera “Search for Tomorrow,” where he played Wilbur Peterson — a neurotic young man so troubled he communicated only with his sister -- from 1953-55. It was the only non-comedic role he ever played.
But Knotts did not receive widespread attention until he appeared on Broadway in Ira Levin’s 1955 comedy “No Time for Sergeants.” Based on Mac Hyman’s novel, the play concerned a hillbilly — played by a then-unknown Andy Griffith -- who was drafted into the Air Force. Knotts won plaudits as an overly tense military evaluator.
From 1956-60, Knotts further cemented his reputation on NBC’s “The Steve Allen Show,” where he would play a character named Mr. Morrison, aka “the nervous man.” Interviewed on the street, Morrison was asked whether something was making him nervous and would inevitably offer a terse, anxiety-wracked “No!”
In the meantime, “No Time for Sergeants” was made into a feature film in 1958, with Griffith and Knotts reprising their roles. The two actors kept in touch, and when Griffith signed to do the TV series as a rural sheriff, Knotts half-jokingly suggested that the lawman would need a deputy.
Knotts left “Andy Griffith” in 1965, later explaining that he believed the producers had always intended for the series to last just five seasons. In a 1967 Times interview, he said, “The grind gets to you in television, and that’s primarily the reason I’m concentrating on pictures.”
Griffith stayed with the program for three years after Knotts’ departure, however, and Knotts agreed to revive his role as Fife in a number of guest spots. Even without Knotts, “Andy Griffith” remained popular, and the show was ranked No. 1 in its final season, 1967-68. Episodes remain syndication favorites and still appear in frequent rotation on cable network TV Land.
But many fans now believe “Andy Griffith” fizzled creatively without Knotts’ manic energy — a point that even Griffith himself has conceded. On the TV fan site www.jumptheshark.com, one viewer wrote, “When Barney Fife left town, ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ changed from a television classic to just another 60’s TV show.”
After “Griffith,” Knotts stayed busy, although he never quite matched the success he had seen as Barney Fife. An NBC variety hour, “The Don Knotts Show,” premiered in 1970 and lasted just one season. The actor subsequently appeared in several live-action Disney features: as a bumbling bandit in “The Apple Dumpling Gang” (1975), a would-be safecracker in “No Deposit, No Return” (1976) and an auto-racing veteran in “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo” (1977). He also reprised his role as Fife in “Return to Mayberry,” a nostalgic TV movie that delivered enormous ratings for CBS in 1986, and had a recurring role in “Matlock,” CBS’ courtroom drama starring Griffith.
A self-described hypochondriac, Knotts suffered numerous health reversals in recent years. He developed vision problems that made driving and some other tasks difficult. In the fall of 2003, he injured his Achilles tendon while starring in “On Golden Pond” at the New Theatre in Overland Park, Kansas, and had to wear a brace onstage.
Two of Knotts’ three marriages ended in divorce. The first, to Kathryn Kay Metz, lasted from 1947 to 1964 and produced two children, Karen, an actress who co-starred with her father in a 1996 stage revival of “You Can’t Take It With You,” and Thomas, both of whom survive him. From 1974 to 1983, Knotts was married to Loralee Czuchna. He was married to actress Francey Yarborough at the time of his death.
“He saw poignancy in people’s pride and pain and he turned it into something endearing and hilarious,” Yarborough, who is also an actress, said in a statement Saturday.
Knotts received a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame in January 2000.
In the foreword to Knotts’ 2000 memoir, “Barney Fife and Other Characters I Have Known,” Griffith wrote that Knotts personally had little in common with his most famous creation. “Don was not Barney Fife,” Griffith wrote. “I know Don to be a bright man and very much in control of himself. As everyone knows, Barney Fife had very little control of himself. In the comedy scenes we did, I was often closer to Don than the camera and I could look at him before we started those scenes, and through his eyes, I could see him become Barney Fife.”