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Home #Hwoodtimes The Perfect Deputy; The Acting Career of Don Knotts

The Perfect Deputy; The Acting Career of Don Knotts

By: Sarah Key

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 05/08/2020- Perhaps one of the most recognizable character actors worldwide is Don Knotts. Turning on a television screen, anyone would familiarize themselves with the trademarks of his wide-eyed stare used in the midst of shock, his signature laugh he used in many memorable characters, and his witty persona. 

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“I put my training to use in everything I do,” is what Don Knotts quoted about his career in acting. Unbeknownst to the success he would have on audiences worldwide, Knotts inspired millions through his famous roles, such as Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968), Henry Limpet in The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), and Ralph Furley in Three’s Company (1977-1984). The training he used in his roles comes from his experience on Broadway and on Radio, in which both helped debut his career.

Knotts made his Broadway debut as Corporal Manual Dexterity in the hit comedy No Time for Sergeants (1955-1956), where he first met acting partner Andy Griffith, who played Pvt. Will Stockdale. Also in the play were famous actors Roddy McDowall as Ben Whitledge and Robert Webber as Irving Blanchard.

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Running for a total of 796 performances in 1957, the play was later turned into a film in 1958 by Warner Brothers, starring both Griffith and Knotts, along with actors Myron McCormick (Sgt. Orville C. King), from the original play in the same role, Nick Adams (Pvt. Ben Whitledge), and Murray Hamilton (Irving S. Blanchard).

“Most people have no concept how much theater my dad did. He was on the road a great deal of the time between film and TV gigs. He absolutely loved it and one reason was it gave him an opportunity to play characters he never would’ve had the chance to otherwise. His enormous success on TV locked him into playing versions of the same character there. In theater, audiences are more receptive to seeing TV and film stars in other roles. He played the lead role in the play, Harvey, about a man’s love for his invisible rabbit. The role was played by Jimmy Stewart in the movie. He also portrayed Norman in the play On Golden Pond, played by Henry Fonda. Both of these would be considered leading man roles, albeit comedic ones. Dad also enjoyed doing Neil Simon comedies which were funny roles, but different from his usual persona,” Knotts’ daughter Karen said of her father.

Knotts grew his acting chops through radio. The story begins in 1948, when Knotts was a veteran and member of the Stars and Gripes, a G.I. show that entertained troops in the South Pacific during World War II. After a performance in New Guinea in the midst of the war, famous singer and film star Lanny Ross complimented Knotts for his act, offering Knotts to look him up for a job in New York if he had the chance to. Knotts was in New York looking for his debut in the industry. 

“After I had been knocking around New York for while, nobody had been giving me much time, I thought, maybe I’d better call Lanny Ross. I thought he’d forget about it,” Don Knotts quoted at the time.

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To his surprise, Ross gave Knotts the opportunity to do a monologue on his radio show. Ross’ writer for the program was at the time developing a radio western series entitled Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders. Knotts was cast as the role of Windy Wales, a wisecracking know it all handyman.

“In that day and age, practical jokes were common. On the radio program ‘Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders,’ he played Windy Wales, an old-timer. One time the show’s producer, who knew Gabby, got him to come down to the studio and act like he was ‘mad’ at Dad for ‘stealing’ his voice. Gabby actually loved what Dad was doing,” Karen said.

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Pertaining to the idea of a know-it-all, Knott’s most famous role is of Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. The role billed his name everywhere, gaining the attention from audiences in his comedic talents. The show ran from October 1960 through April 1968 with a total of eight seasons. Casting Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor, Ron ‘Ronny’ Howard as Opie, and Frances Bavier as Aunt Bee Taylor, Knotts knew he had to fill the role as partner Deputy Barney Fife, to Andy. He was offered a five-year contract playing Fife, and won five Emmy Awards for Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role for the show.

“Mainly, I thought of Barney Fife 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,” Knotts commented about his role as Barney.

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Knotts not only brought life to the screen, but brought the gags and fun backstage as well. 

“I have lots of fond memories of the visiting the set. The makeup room was where everyone hung out and the makeup man, Lee Greenway, was this amazing character. He had many talents, he was a champion skeet shooter, and he also played banjo. Andy, Lee, and Dad- who sang harmony, and even some of the crew would join in and play music during breaks or at lunch. Andy loved music so much and always had his guitar at the ready. Of course, I loved seeing Ronnie Howard because we’re the same age but he had a much older and wiser way about him. He had a love for gadgetry,” Karen said.

Knotts was known in other popular television shows as well such as landlord and apartment manger of Hacienda Palms Apartments, Ralph Furley, in Three’s Company, The Nervous Man on the Street in The Steve Allen Show (1957-1961), which grew his stardom from television audiences into playing nervous type characters, and a compilation of comedic and serious rolled characters on The Red Skelton Hour (1961-1965). He put strong passion and emphasis into each of the characters he played, and he transitioned in his career from Broadway and radio to television and then film.

As Knotts made his way into film, he became cast with other big-name celebrities, such as Tim Conway (who starred in most films with Knotts, such as in The Apple Dumpling Gang, 1975). Knotts still succeeded in standing in the spotlight. He played newspaper typesetter Luther Heggs in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), which was directed by Alan Rafkin with the screenplay by Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell, all connected through The Andy Griffith Show. Mocked for aspiring to become a reporter, this role gave Knotts a new perspective in children’s films.

Knotts even played Henry Limpet in The Incredible Mr. Limpet, a complex character that grabbed the hearts of young children. His role as the meek bookkeeper provided with many passions, and one of those passions was to become a fish. Teaching children they can grow up with imagination, Knotts knew his role in family television and films would very well warm his heart.

“I don’t know if he had a preference but the camaraderie of the Andy Griffith Show and Three’s Company was something he really enjoyed. When he did movies at Universal, his contract stated that he was the sole star and he had a lot leeway in decision making. Ultimately it he was the boss. This was something that delighted and terrified him. When he made the Ghost and Mr. Chicken I remember he was pacing the floor. And when the picture was released, Dad snuck in to see it for the first time with an audience. When they laughed in all the right places, he was in Heaven, his heartburn went away,” Karen said.

In the midst of making a list of diverse films ranging in both adult and children’s humor, Knotts also did voice over work for many cartoons and films. As Limpet, for example, he had a voice over playing himself as a fish. 

Children of the early 2000’s era remember the 2005 film entitled Chicken Little, in which Knotts voiced the easily distracted (asks his bodyguards to hold up cue cards in his speeches) and nervous Mayor Turkey Lurkey. Very representative of his nervous character roles, this became one of his third to last voice overs and roles in the industry. He also voiced Deputy Sniffer the dog in Disney’s Air Buddies (2006), which was representative of his role as Deputy Barney Fife. In this film, he also has a Sheriff as a partner. From 2009-2019, Tim Conway, his acting co-star and best friend, took over the role after Knott’s passing. 

Before his passing in 2006, Knott’s wrote an autobiography entitled Barney Fife and Other Characters I Have Known (1999), about his entire acting career. Though it grew harder over time due to his health issues concerning Macular Degeneration and the developing stages of lung cancer, Knotts never gave up that strive to succeed in making audiences laugh and feel the same emotions his characters felt, ultimately leaving a memorable mark in time. His humor, wit, brilliance, and acting chops passed down to his daughter, Karen, whom I am grateful and honored to have interviewed for this article on the legacy of her beloved father.

“Dad enjoyed working on his autobiography. By that time he was older and was having trouble with his eyesight due to Macular Degeneration. So he would dictate into a tape recorder and then either I or my stepmother would transcribe the tapes. It was very exciting to listen to the tapes and hear Dad telling all these stories, most of them I’d heard but some I hadn’t. I might tell him, ‘hey dad, you forgot the part where you got sent to the principal’s office for practicing ventriloquism, your adenoids were confessing to the school nurse’. My uncle Bob (Robert Metz- on my mother’s side) helped Dad remember some of the events from his past. So, it was all in the family,” Karen said.

Karen is currently a stand up comedian and actress, following in the footsteps of her father. Born in 1954, she has seen her father evolve into a well-formed actor and even gained some training from her father into becoming a future actress. 

“Yes, my first acting lesson was cueing him on his lines for The Andy Griffith show at home, when he was learning them. I might have to read the part of Aunty Bee, or any of the other characters. I’d try to act the role, and he’d say “No, just give it to me straight”. So I got to see how a real professional works on his lines. Later, when I became an actress myself, he shared the technique of word association to help connect lines together. I use that to this day,” Karen said.

Karen Knotts and her father

“This pic was at the premiere for the 1986 TV movie’ Return to Mayberry’. I had a part as Rudene, secretary to the (now grown up) Opie. I even had a scene with Andy Griffith. Dad and I did not notice we were wearing the same colors until we arrived!”)

Currently, Karen has a stand up show entitled Tied Up In Knotts, a show full of humor and made as a tribute to her loving father. In her show, she relives her father’s best moments in cinema, recounting all of the tales told to her and through what she has seen through visiting all of the sets. A family friendly show, Tied Up in Knotts, serves to present and preserve the truths of her father’s legacy. 

“I get to relive all these wonderful memories of him and our family. There is something else I’ll share about being related to a famous person and that’s the aspect of being ‘in the shadow of’. It can take a toll emotionally and I think it’s one reason you see a lot of stars’ kids having problems with drugs, etc. It’s hard to be compared to someone ‘more popular’ than you constantly, whether that person is a parent, a sibling, or a friend. It can be a challenge developing your own identity. If you don’t have strong sense of self it can lead to an inferiority complex, which it did in my case. I’ve gotten over all that now but it took work and therapy. Fortunately, my dad believed in therapy and our whole family had the same psychiatrist. We called ourselves, Knotts’ nuts. (No berries, please),” Karen added.

Don Knotts passed away from complications of lung cancer in 2006. Upon his deathbed, he continued on with cracking jokes to Karen and her stepmother, both eventually laughing to tears. Today, audiences are still left laughing even after his death, proving to preserve his legacy in modern times.

Photos Courtesy of Karen Knotts

With great appreciation to Karen Knotts for this interview

‘Tied Up in Knotts’

Date: TBD

Whitefire Theatre:

13500 Ventura Blvd. Sherman Oaks, CA.

For further info: 818-505-1229

For more shows and bookings: www.KarenKnotts.com/calendar