Don Knotts is best known for playing the iconic character Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show,” but there’s much more to know about this multi-talented actor and his life behind the scenes. Knotts as one of the most storied careers in Hollywood and was a pioneer in television. The legacy he left behind is one unmatched by his rivals. Of course, his life and career wasn’t all happiness and sunshine all the time. This is the story of Don Knotts, the iconic comedy legend.
The Many Acting Awards of Don Knotts
Don Knotts won five Primetime Emmy awards (in 1961, 1962, 1963, 1966, and 1967) for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Comedy for playing Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
The show would go on to win many more awards by many other actors during its run on television. It ran for eight seasons and aired 249 episodes. Don Knotts’ number of awards is still impressive by today’s standards.
The Military Service of Don Knotts
Enlisted in the United States Army at age 19, Knotts was an Army Reservist for one week. He reported for active duty one week later, on June 21st, and was transferred to active duty status in the United States Army.
The Army Reserve and the Army National Guard constitute the Army element of the Reserve components of the United States Armed Forces. (The above photo of Knotts is from an episode of “McHale’s Navy”).
Knotts served in the United States Army, under the military number “35 756 363”, from June 21, 1943, to January 6, 1946. He was discharged in the rank of Technician Grade 5, which was the equivalent of a Corporal.
A Corporal is a low-ranking noncommissioned officer in the armed forces. For his time in service Knotts was given the Philippine LIberation Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Honorable Service lapel pin, World War II Victory Medal, and the Marksman Badge.
Don Knotts was a World War II veteran. As we said, he was awarded the World War II Victory Medal, Philippine Liberation Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (with four bronze service stars), Army Good Conduct Medal, Marksman Badge (with Carbine Bar) and Honorable Service Lapel Pin. Wow, that is real service.
Knotts spent most of his time in the army entertaining the troops. He toured then with a G.I. variety shows called “Stars and Gripes” that was very popular with soldiers.
The man who became known as Barney Fife was a member of Phi Sigma Kappa Fraternity. Phi Sigma Kappa began on March 15, 1873 at Massachusetts Agricultural College in Amherst.
The fraternity then merged with Phi Sigma Epsilon in 1985, which was the largest merger of Greek-letter fraternities. Being a member of the fraternity was very helpful in helping Knotts connect with people who would help him later in his career.
Don Knotts received his Bachelor’s degree in Education from West Virginia University in Morgantown in 1948. WVU has produced 24 Rhodes Scholars, including former WVU president David C. Hardesty, Jr.
The University has also produced 36 Goldwater Scholars, 22 Truman Scholars, and five members of USA Today’s “All‑USA College Academic First Team.” While in college, he performed stand-up comedy at clubs while also making regular appearances playing “Windy Wales” on the radio program Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders.
Don Knotts was born in Morgantown, West Virginia. Don was conceived after his parents had already raised other sons. His father had a nervous breakdown at the prospect of raising another child.
Knotts’ older brother Earl (nicknamed “Shadow” because of his thinness) died of asthma in 1942, when Knotts was still a teenager. After he finished college, Knotts moved to New York where he used his connections from the armed services to help break into show business.
Marriage Number One
Don Knotts’ first marriage was to Kathryn Metz from 1947 to 1966. He had two children with her. His son is Thomas Knotts and his daughter is actress Karen Knotts. Karen Knotts is not a very well-known actress, but her last name has helped her get some acting roles.
Karen worked as a stand up comic and is also a SAG/AFTRA actor. She studied at USC School of Cinematic Art, where he hones her craft.
Knotts took an early job plucking chickens for a market when he was told he didn’t have a future in acting. He sure proved them all wrong by becoming one of America’s favorite TV personalities! Knotts was known as a very hard-working and reliable actor, and he always showed up to set ready to go!
One of his first major breaks was in the show Search for Tomorrow. He made appearances from 1953 until 1955. In 1956 he gained national acclaim working on Steve Allen’s variety show.
The Truth Behind The Rumors Of His Daughter
As Don Knott’s laid on his deathbed, his daughter, Karen Knotts, stayed loyally by his side. Still, after he passed away rumors emerged that she might not have been as loyal as everyone believed.
Surprisingly there is some truth to the rumors. During his final days, Knotts kept cracking jokes, and Karen kept laughing. At certain points she would be laughing so hard she would leave the room so no one would think she was laughing at her father. Years later, she admitted he would have been with that.
“Don and Danny”
Before becoming a household name on “The Andy Griffith Show,” Don Knotts wanted to be a ventriloquist. When he got out of high school, he made it his full-time career. His doll was named Danny, thinking that “Don and Danny” was a catchy phrase.
Knotts eventually found more success pairing up with human partners like Tim Conway. The comedy duo made many films together. Still, training on his own at such a young age only helped him become a star later.
Often playing high-strung and socially inept men with low self-esteem, Knotts used a wide-eyed stare used to express shock or frustration, and also a high-pitched voice. His acting persona earned him numerous roles and a lifelong career.
Still to this day, he is often parodied on sitcoms and animated series like “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.” Thanks to his influence on modern comedy, the laughs that Knotts provided in his life have not been lost in his death.
Knotts was a guest four times on the “Hollywood Squares” television game show. Popular in its time, the program has since fallen out of favor with TV viewers who prefer game shows like “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”
In 2013, TV Guide ranked “Hollywood Squares” at No. 7 on its list of the 60 greatest game shows ever. Without the addition of Knotts and his quick wit, who knows where it might have placed!
Marriage Number Two
Don Knotts’ second marriage was to Loralee Czuchna and it lasted from 1974 to 1989. It was rumored that Don had become obsessed with his health and was experiencing bouts of deep depression. The depression was cited as one reason the couple grew apart and eventually split.
It would be many years before Knotts remarried for the third and last time. During the years between, he would continue to work and entertain the masses.
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken
Don Knotts starred with Joan Staley in the 1966 film The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Don Knotts played Luther Heggs, a newspaper typesetter who spent a night in a haunted house set in the fictitious community of Rachel, Kansas.
The movie was made with the help of many people involved with The Andy Griffith Show. It was part of a film deal the actor made with Universal. Joan Staley had a multi-episode role on “Perry Mason,” as well as many roles on Broadway.
TV Land Awards
One of Don Knotts’ last award show appearances was the 2nd annual TV Land Awards in 2004. It was one of Knotts and Griffith’s last appearances together, with many critics commenting on Knotts’ aging appearance in comparison to Griffith.
Awards are given in various categories (which change slightly from year to year) and originally included awards voted on by visitors to TV Land’s website. The awards show last aired in 2016.
The Andy Griffith Show
Don Knotts left “The Andy Griffith Show” after 1965 because he had already signed a multi-picture deal with Universal Studios, thinking that the show was over. However, Andy Griffith kept the show on the air for several more years after network studio pressure.
Don Knotts said later that he deeply regretted having to leave the show, but his film commitments with Universal Studios prevented him from continuing as a cast regular.
Marriage Number Three
Don Knotts’ third marriage was to Frances Yarborough from 2002 until his death in 2006. Frances Yarborough is an actress best known for her role in the 1976 film The Electric Chair. The film was a dud and was easily forgotten by audience members and critics.
Yarborough had no other notable performances other than being Knotts’ wife. During his three marriages, Knott’s only had children with his first wife, a boy and a girl
The Reluctant Astronaut
In 1967’s The Reluctant Astronaut, Don Knotts stars as Roy Fleming, who’s father Arbuckle, played by Arthur O’Connell, wants better things for him and sends an application to NASA. Roy later learns from his mother, played by Jeanette Nolan, that NASA has accepted him as a “WB-1074.”
Paul Hartman, who plays Arbuckle’s friend “Rush,” would later star in “The Andy Griffith Show.” It’s amazing how many people Knotts worked with over and over again throughout his career.
The Shakiest Gun in the West
In 1968, Don Knotts appeared in The Shakiest Gun in the West as Dr. Jesse W. Heywood, who graduates from dental school in Philadelphia in 1870 and goes west to become a frontier dentist. This comedic western did well with audiences. Knotts could always draw people to the movie theaters.
The film is a remake of The Paleface, a 1948 movie starring Bob Hope and Jane Russell which was a big hit when it was originally released.
The Love God?
Don Knotts appeared in Universal Pictures’ The Love God? in 1969. This film was a very odd departure for Knotts, in that it placed him the role of playboy. He was not known to be a male celebrity that women lusted for!
The film was written and directed by Nat Hiken, who died after it was shot but before it was released in theaters. This is one movie in Knotts’ career that is best left forgotten.
How to Frame a Figg
For Universal Pictures, Don Knotts appeared in How to Frame a Figg in 1971. Knotts returned back to his goofball comedic role for this film, flashing his trademark wide-eyed surprised face throughout the film.
This film is about a bookkeeper’s assistant, Hollis Alexander Figg, in the Dalton city hall, who finds himself framed for embezzlement. The film was directed by Alan Rifkin from a story developed, but not written by, Knotts.
The Steve Allen Show
Don Knotts had a recurring gig on the “The Steve Allen Show” hosted by Steve Allen, starting in 1956. He was an audience favorite and his appearances made him a household name, as well as one of Steve Allen’s personal favorites.
The show was a spin-off of “The Tonight Show,” which Allen hosted from 1954 to 1957. Later hosts of “The Tonight Show” include Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Fallon.
Knotts appeared in several television guest spots, including a recurring gig as the pesky neighbor Les Calhoun on Griffith’s “Matlock” series until 1992. Griffith and Knotts loved having the second chance to work together again, and both commented on how it was a pleasure coming to work every day.
“Matlock” ran for nine seasons and aired 193 episodes. Griffith played the title role. Halfway through its run, the series changed networks from NBC to ABC.
The Andy Griffith Show Reunion
He appeared as Barney Fife for a 1986 reunion of “The Andy Griffith Show.” The revival was watched by many, but received mixed reviews from critics who thought that perhaps the time had passed for a special reunion show. But reunion shows are common for beloved shows!
Today, older shows are even being revived and full continuations of the original series. These include Will and Grace, The X-Files, Prisonbreak, Mad About You, and countless others.
Don Knotts was cast as the bungling landlord Ralph Furley on the popular sitcom “Three’s Company” after the original landlords, the Ropers, were spun off into their own series. “Three’s Company” aired eight seasons on ABC, from March 15, 1977, to September 18, 1984.
It is based on the British sitcom “Man About the House.” The network originally thought the show was going to flop, but it quickly turned into one of the biggest hits of the time.
Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo
Don Knotts appeared in the 1977 film Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. The film did very well at the theaters and was responsible for reviving the Herbie franchise. The film stars Dean Jones as returning champion race car driver Jim Douglas, joined by his somewhat cynical and eccentric riding mechanic Wheely Applegate, who is played by Knotts.
The movie was a big-screen return for the screwball comedian who proved he was still in perfect form.
Don Knotts died at age 81 on February 24, 2006 at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California from pulmonary and respiratory complications to pneumonia related to lung cancer.
He had been undergoing treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in the months before his death, but had gone home after he reportedly had been feeling better. A few years later his headstone was replaced with a bronze plaque that listed his most prominent and hilarious roles.
In 2005, Don Knotts provided the voice of Mayor Turkey Lurkey in Disney’s animated film Chicken Little in 2005. It turned out to be one of his final films. The film was a success in theaters! It was dedicated to a Disney artist, Joe Grant, who died of a heart attack before the film’s release.
After the film’s success a sequel titled “Chicken Little 2: The Ugly Duckling Story” was developed. Unfortunately, the film was never made.
In 1988, Don Knotts’ recurring guest role on “Matlock” reunited him with his old friend Andy Griffith, 20 years after “The Andy Griffith Show.” The two best friends loved working together and always spoke highly of these experiences.
The show’s format is similar to that of CBS’s “Perry Mason,” with Matlock identifying the perpetrators and then confronting them in dramatic courtroom scenes. Today the show is remembered fondly by fans of both Griffith and Knotts.
Most Popular Roles
Don Knotts is best remembered by the public for his roles as Deputy Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960) and as Ralph Furley on “Three’s Company” (1977). Knotts received universal acclaim and many awards for both shows.
During his time on television, he was one of the most popular actors around. His last television appearance was on as episode of The ’70s Show where he played Fez’s landlord. His last screen appearance was in Air Buddies.
Never retired from acting, he was an active thespian up until his death in 2006. He was known as one of the hardest-working actors in the business and was always a fan favorite. During his career, Don Knotts appeared in over 86 movies and television shows. Many of those television shows were very long-running!
Long-Time Best Friend
Don Knotts was best friends with the late Andy Griffith. They remained life-long friends and worked together many times throughout their careers. It was often stated that the two never had a fight, or at least one that wasn’t easily resolved in just a few minutes.
Three’s Company Friends
Knotts was longtime friends with the late John Ritter. He had appeared with John Ritter in a cameo on “8 Simple Rules” in 2002. It was an episode that paid homage to their earlier television series. Don Knotts was the last “Three’s Company” star to work with Ritter.
Cannonball Run II
Don Knotts appeared in the 1984 film Cannonball Run II. This film was a commercial flop and was quickly forgotten after its release. Many critics were confused why the film was even made! The film’s plot is very similar to the original Cannonball Run and it is set around an illegal cross-country race.
Hollywood Walk of Fame
Don Knotts was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7083 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California on January 19, 2000. The Hollywood Walk of Fame comprises more than 2,500 five-pointed terrazzo and brass stars embedded in the sidewalks along 15 blocks of Hollywood Boulevard and three blocks of Vine Street in Hollywood, California.
Don Knotts appeared in the 1976 film Gus. For much of the film, Don Knotts plays a coach who is seen screaming at players from the sidelines. The film did well at the box office and was released on home video in 1981. The movie is remembered primarily for two sequences: one involving a hotel and one set in a supermarket.
Dave the Barbarian
Don Knotts’ last television role was a guest appearance on the animated series “Dave the Barbarian” in 2004. The series was a big favorite of children, and always drew in a good audience. The show centers around a barbarian named Dave and his friends and family, who go on surreal Medieval-themed adventures.
No Time for Sergeants
Don Knotts appeared in the 1958 film No Time for Sergeants. One of his earlier films, Knotts appeared with lifelong best friend Andy Griffith. As usual, Knotts played the goofball of the group! The film is based on a Broadway play that was inspired by the original novel of the same name.
Don Knotts and Dennis Weaver
Don Knotts died on the same day and at the same age as Dennis Weaver. Weaver and Knotts worked together many times throughout their careers. Weaver’s two most notable roles were as Marshal Matt Dillon’s trusty helper Chester Goode on the CBS western “Gunsmoke” and as Deputy Marshal Sam McCloud on the NBC police drama “McCloud.”
Sadly, Don Knotts passed away in February of 2006. He is buried among the stars at Westwood Memorial Park, at 1218 Glendon Avenue, Los Angeles. Knotts’ gravestone is one of the more animated ones in the group, and we’re sure he wouldn’t have it any other way! R.I.P, Don Knotts.
The Last Time I Saw Archie
Don Knotts played Captain Harry Little in the 1961 comedy, The Last Time I Saw Archie. The film is set in the last days of World War II. Robert Mitchum stars as Arch Hall Sr., a lazy, scheming American in an aviation school for pilots too old to fly aircraft but not too old to fly military gliders and liaison aircraft. The film was critically panned by most major newspapers.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Don Knotts played the nervous motorist in the 1963 comedy, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. This film is about the madcap pursuit of $350,000 ($2,705,000 today) in stolen cash by a group of strangers. The cast of strangers are iconic actors of the time and include Edie Adams, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, and Jonathan Winters.
The Incredible Mr. Limpet
Don Knotts plays the title character in the 1964 film The Incredible Mr. Limpet. The film is about a man named Henry Limpet who turns into a talking fish resembling a tilefish and helps the U.S. Navy locate and destroy Nazi submarines. The USS Alfred A. Cunningham was the naval ship featured in this film. Another ship used in filming was the USS Galveston (CG-3), which was referred to as the USS Los Angeles in the film.
The Apple Dumpling Gang
Don Knotts played Theodore Ogelvie in the 1975 film The Apple Dumpling Gang, an American comedy-western film. The plot centers around a gambler named Russell Donovan (played by Bill Bixby) who is tricked into taking care of a group of orphans who eventually strike gold during the California Gold Rush.
No Deposit, No Return
Don Knotts played the goofy sidekick Bert in the 1976 comedy film No Deposit, No Return. It was written by Arthur Alsberg and Don Nelson. In the movie, two children (Tracy and Jay) hold themselves for ransom, reluctantly aided by a couple of clumsy petty criminals, an expert safecracker, Duke, who never manages to steal anything and his sidekick Bert. This film is one of many family movies Knotts did during his long career.
Hot Lead and Cold Feet
Don Knotts played Sheriff Denver Kid in the 1978 American comedy-western film Hot Lead and Cold Feet. The film involves twin brothers who compete for possession of a rickety cow town founded by their father while a crooked mayor tries to put an end to the competitors so he can inherit the town himself. This film is part of the string of comedy-westerns Don Knotts starred in during the 60s and 70s.
The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again
Don Knotts reprised his role as Amos in the 1979 sequel The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again along with Tim Conway as Theodore. The film also stars Tim Matheson, Harry Morgan, and Kenneth Mars. “Laugh-In” star and comedian Ruth Buzzi appeared in a small cameo as a wild farsighted woman. The film received mixed reviews, but fans of the original were pleased with sequel.
The Prize Fighter
Also in 1979, Don Knotts and Tim Conway teamed up in the boxing-comedy film The Prize Fighter. Conway played the underdog boxer “Bags” with Knotts playing his manager. The film was a box office hit, earning $6.5 million during its initial release, and was one of the most financially successful films ever released by New World Pictures. Comedies like this were popular in the 70s and 80s and this film capitalized on this successful genre.
The Private Eyes
Just a year later in 1980, Don Knotts and Tim Conway teamed up again in the American mystery comedy The Private Eyes. The pair play moronic American detectives who work for Scotland Yard. The film characters are parodies of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. This was the last time that Knotts and Conway would team up in starring roles in a film together.
Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night
In 1987, Don Knotts ventured into voice acting in the animated film Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night, voicing the character of Gee Willikers. The movie received generally negative reviews from critics during its initial release and the movie bombed at the box office, costing $10 million but only making $3.2 million in its entire run. The film’s production company Filmation soon became defunct.
After a long hiatus from films, Don Knotts had a role in the 1996 comedy-drama Big Bully. The film starred Rick Moranis and Tom Arnold as childhood classmates, with Arnold playing the bully of Moranis’ character, who reconnect as adults. Don Knotts had supporting role as the principal. The film was a box office flop! It grossed only $2,042,530 from an estimated $15 million budget. It was also a critical failure, currently holding a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Cats Don’t Dance
A year later, in 1997, Don Knotts returned to voice acting in the animated film Cats Don’t Dance. The film is about a cat with aspirations of Hollywood fame with Knotts voicing the character sidekick of T.W. Turtle. The film also stars the voices of Scott Bakula, Jasmine Guy, Matthew Herried, Ashley Peldon, John Rhys-Davies, Kathy Najimy, Hal Holbrook, Betty Lou Gerson (in her final film role), René Auberjonois, George Kennedy, and Dindal. Randy Newman composed the musical numbers and includes Gene Kelly’s contributions as choreographer, before his death in 1996. This film is Gene Kelly’s final film project and is dedicated to him.
In 1998, Don Knotts had a smaller role as a TV repairman in the critically acclaimed and widely popular film Pleasantville. The film starred Tobey Maguire, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J. T. Walsh, and Reese Witherspoon! The plot centers around teen siblings (Maguire and Witherspoon) trapped in a 1950s TV show in a small town in Iowa. The film earned three Academy Award nominations and was a big box office hit!
Don Knotts again found more voice acting work in 2000, voicing the character of “Mutt Potter” in the direct-to-video animated film Tom Sawyer. The film is an adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but with a cast of animals instead of humans. The characters’ voices are generally performed by country music singers and featured many musical numbers. It was not widely reviewed by critics and did not make much of a splash in the direct-to-video market.
In 2006, the straight-to-DVD comedy film Air Buddies was released. It is the sixth film in the Air Bud series and the first in the direct-to-DVD spin-off series. The film centers around the life of a lonely teenager and his dog who has the uncanny ability to play every sport. This was Don Knotts’ final film and was released after his death. Don Knotts voices the character of “Sniffer,” the old Bloodhound who has lost his sense of smell.
Don Knotts made a guest appearance in 1973 on the television show “Here’s Lucy,” the sitcom starring Lucille Ball. The series co-starred her long-time partner Gale Gordon and her real-life children Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr. The seventies was a good decade for Knotts, as his film career was steady and television roles were numerous. The episode Knotts appeared in garnered good ratings and was one of the highlights of the season.
Don Knotts continued his string of guest appearances on popular 1970s television shows with multiple appearances on “Fantasy Island” in 1978 and 1979. “Fantasy Island” was notorious for its numerous guest stars of the most popular celebrities of the time. The series was so popular that a decade after the original series ended, the network created a revival series. The revival was not as popular as the original, as many had predicted.
The Love Boat
Don Knotts did a guest appearance on another very popular 1970s and 1980s show, “The Love Boat.” In the 1979 episode titled, “Crew Confessions/Haven’t I Seen You?/Reunion” Don Knotts plays a famous TV star disguised as a shoe salesman. It’s not until the attractive Julie Newmar hits on him that he’s willing to reveal who he really is!
Step by Step
In the Season 3 Christmas episode of “Step by Step” in 1993, Don Knotts made a special guest appearance as Deputy Fife! As you may recall, Don Knotts’ most iconic role is that of Deputy Fife. Don Knotts played this character on “The Andy Griffith Show” and it earned him numerous Emmy Awards and Emmy Award nominations.
The Muppet Show
In 1977, Don Knotts made a now famous appearance on “The Muppet Show”! Knotts played himself and was part of the majority of the show sketches. The most popular scene was when Fozzie has a hard time coming onstage to talk to Don Knotts because he’s wearing sunglasses that are so dark that he can’t see anything or where he is going. The sketch ends with Don falling off stage!