Don Knotts, TV's Barney Fife, Dies

Don Knotts, right, with Tim Conway, starred in the 1970s movie
Don Knotts, right, with Tim Conway, starred in the 1970s movie "The Apple Dumpling Gang" and its sequel. (Associated Press Photos)
By Louie Estrada
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006

Don Knotts, the rail-thin comic actor who was perhaps best known to millions of television viewers as the bungling Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife in "The Andy Griffith Show" and the squirrelly landlord in "Three's Company," died of lung cancer Feb. 24 at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 81.

Mr. Knotts, who often played high-strung characters, won five Emmys for Best Supporting Actor in the 1960s as the swaggering but hapless Fife. Mr. Knotts developed the idea of the deputy sheriff when he heard that Andy Griffith, with whom he had worked in the play "No Time for Sergeants," was putting together a TV pilot set in the fictional North Carolina town of Mayberry.

The series was a huge success when it aired, from 1960 to 1968, consistently ranking in the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings.

Fife, who grew into one of the most beloved comic characters in American popular culture, generated sympathy and laughs in scenes in which he fumbled to load his service revolver with the single bullet Griffith allotted him.

"Don meant everything," Griffith said in a telephone interview. "Don made the show. I've lost a lifetime friend."

The two actors remained close friends over the years and reprised their roles in the 1986 television movie "Return to Mayberry."

Mr. Knotts's wife, actress Francey Yarborough, said in a statement that Griffith visited Mr. Knotts at the hospital shortly before his death to say goodbye.

"Don was an actor who played comedy as opposed to a comedian who does stand-up," said Mr. Knotts's longtime manager, Sherwin Bash, in a telephone interview. "He was one of a kind."

Mr. Knotts, who lived in West Los Angeles, left television in 1965 to devote more time to family-oriented film comedies that featured his zany, bugged-eyed expressions, high-pitched voice and perfect slapstick timing.

His movie credits include "The Incredible Mr. Limpet" (1964), "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" (1966), "The Reluctant Astronaut" (1967), "The Shakiest Gun in the West" (1968) and "The Love God?" (1969).

In the 1970s, Mr. Knotts teamed with fellow comic actor Tim Conway in the Disney movies "The Apple Dumpling Gang" and "The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again."

"It's because of Don that I'm in this business," Conway said in an interview last year with the Kansas City Star. "When I used to watch the old 'Steve Allen Show,' with Don Knotts and Louie Nye and Tom Poston -- the 'Man on the Street' stuff -- I just thought Don was the funniest guy I'd ever seen. And I used to wait for that show at night."

Mr. Knotts returned to television in the late 1970s, joining the cast of ABC's popular sitcom "Three's Company" as the cad landlord Ralph Furley, a swinger who usually donned an ascot and bright, colorful leisure suits. He remained with the show until its final season in 1984.

In recent years, he had recurring roles on television, including a part on Griffith's show "Matlock" and the series "Pleasantville." He also performed in dinner theaters and did voice-over for animated films. Most recently, he was the voice of Mayor Turkey Lurkey in last year's "Chicken Little."

He was born Jesse Donald Knotts on July 21, 1924, in Morgantown, W.Va., where he grew up with three brothers. As a young man, he gravitated to the world of entertainment, starting as a ventriloquist. He lived in New York briefly before returning home and enrolling at West Virginia University.

He joined the Army during World War II and served as an entertainer. After the military, he returned to West Virginia University to finish his degree.

He worked in radio before getting his big break in the 1950s, when he won a spot to perform on "The Steve Allen Show." He drew howls from the audience playing a weatherman. The skit featured Mr. Knotts as a television weatherman forced to ad-lib the forecast without any information on the weather. As he wrote on a map about a weather system in California, stumbling over his words, it became clear he was writing "h-e-l-p."

His marriages to Kay Knotts and Loralee Knotts ended in divorce.

Survivors also include a son and a daughter.

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