Every sheriff wishes they could have a deputy like Barney Fife. Actor Don Knotts brought to life his greatest creation on the streets of Mayberry. For five seasons and some change, Knotts portrayed the clumsy if loyal deputy on the hit TV series “The Andy Griffith Show.“
While audiences may know Knotts for the role, the actor’s career stretched far beyond the streets of Mayberry. He even teamed up with Scooby-Doo and the gang on a few occasions. Let’s take a look back at one of the great comedic actors and his remarkable career.
Don Knotts Was Born in West Virginia
Don’t call him Jesse. Born on July 21, 1924, in Morgantown, West Virginia, Jesse Donald Knotts hated his first name. He preferred to go by his middle name instead, shortening it to Don.
The future actor had a rough childhood with a father who treated his schizophrenia with alcohol. On more than one occasion, Knotts’ father attacked him in a drunken rage. Once his father even put a gun to his head. Knotts’ brother also passed away when he was 13. Taking all this pain, Knotts channeled his at-home problems through comedy.
With dreams of being a comedian, Knotts’ first job was actually as a chicken plucker at a factory. He would pluck the animal’s feathers before it was ready for consumption. As a teen, Knotts performed both comedy and a ventriloquist act for church and school events.
Eventually, he moved to New York City with dreams of becoming a star for real. But the future actor’s dreams were crushed when his career failed to take off. Returning to West Virginia, he attended college before joining the U.S. Army after his freshman year. Like many of his generation, Knotts fought in World War II.
The Army actually proved to be a blessing for his comedy career. The actor toured the Pacific Islands as part of the Army-sponsored variety show “Stars and Gripes.” After graduating college, Knotts moved to NYC again to pursue his comedic goals.
The Actor Had Over 83 TV & Film Credits
Though he’s known for Barney Fife, Knotts has appeared in various movies and TV shows across his career. In fact, Knotts had over 83 acting credits on his resume.
Knotts’ other biggest small-screen role was on “Three’s Company” in 1979. The actor joined the cast as the eccentric but well-meaning landlord Mr. Furley. His appearance was a hit with viewers, and the actor remained on the show until it went off the air. Knotts’ role was expanded in part because actress Suzanne Somers demanded a raise. She wanted $150,000 an episode instead of $30,000 and refused to tape episodes. Producers retrofitted Somer’s lines to Knotts’ character.
Knotts also lent his voice to a series of team-ups with the Mystery Incorporated gang in “The New Scooby-Doo Movies.”
Besides TV shows, Knotts also launched a successful film career. He appeared in various small budget family comedies like “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” one of his first big-screen efforts. That film was actually inspired by an “Andy Griffith” episode and featured many of the same cast and crew. Griffith himself helped write the film.
- “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo“
- “The Reluctant Astronaut“
- “The Shakiest Gun In The West“
- “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken“
- “The Apple Dumpling Gang“
Later in his career, Knotts experienced a career resurgence appearing as the eccentric TV repairman in 1998’s “Pleasantville.” It was a role that felt perfect for Knotts. The film examines the nostalgic lens that viewers gave small-town America in the 1950s, places like Mayberry. And in what proved to be one of his final roles, Knotts lent his signature voice to the animated film “Chicken Little” in 2005.
Don Knotts Wins Five Emmy Awards
During his career, Knotts was awarded five Emmy Awards for his role on “The Andy Griffith Show.” In 2004, he was also awarded the TV Land Legend Award for his contribution to the small screen.
After his passing in 2006, Knotts received not one but two statues in his honor. Artist Tom Hellebrand wanted to construct a statue in Knotts honor in Mount Airy, North Carolina. The town had been Griffith’s hometown and the inspiration behind Mayberry. But Paramount withdrew their approval because Knotts’ estate owned the rights to his likeness. The town was forced to destroy the statue.
Fortunately, Knotts finally got a much-deserved statue in 2016. Sculpted by Jamie Lester, the statue now stands in Knotts’ hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia.
Barney Fife Was The Actor’s Breakout Role
Barney Fife marked Knotts’ first breakthrough hit. But he actually met Andy Griffith earlier. The two appeared in “No Time For Sergeants” together on Broadway and later in the film version in 1958. They also acted in “The Steve Allen Show” together, starting a lifelong friendship.
When Griffith got his own show, Knotts was a natural addition. The actor actually didn’t have a contract when filming started. But he quickly wowed producers with his comedic timing and his natural chemistry with Griffith. The two’s friendship formed the heart of the show. But it was just as strong off-screen.
The two would perform pranks on each other, much to the annoyance of other actors like Frances Bavier who portrayed Aunt Bee. In fact, the actor had such a good time that many people wonder why he left after season five. The show was never the same after Knotts’ departure. But the actor blames Griffith ironically.
Don Knotts and Andy Griffith Were Friends Until The End
For much of the show’s run, Griffith insisted the show would only run five seasons. Don Knotts took his friend at his word and made arrangements to begin a film career. He didn’t renew his contract. But Knotts made various guest appearances in the shows’ last three seasons. Both Knotts and Griffith later reprised their characters in the 1986 special “Return to Mayberry.”
Knotts also made guest appearances on Griffith’s show “Matlock,” playing a nosey neighbor for several years. The sheriff and deputy were together up until the end. Griffith sat beside Knotts bedside as he succumbed to lung cancer. The actor couldn’t help but share one final joke between the two.
“I was able to tell him I loved him and I asked him to ‘Breathe, breathe, keep breathing Jess,’” Griffith said. “His name was Jesse and he never liked that name but he let me know it one time and I always called him Jess.”
Knotts passed away a few hours later. The world may have lost one of the greatest comedic actors of his generation. But Barney Fife lives on. He lives on in black and white bumbling his way through the streets of Mayberry with Sheriff Andy Taylor. And that’s where we will leave him, somewhere in the immortal 1950s timelessly welcoming viewers for generations to come.