by William H. Benson
July 22, 2010
Jesse Don Knotts was born on July 21, 1924 in Morgantown, West Virginia into a truly dysfunctional family. The last of four sons, Don slept in the kitchen so that his mother could rent out his room to boarders in order for the family to survive the Depression, and his father, who suffered from anxiety and blindness, rarely left his bed. Two of his older brothers drank constantly, and quarreled. One brother, “Shadow,” died from an asthma attack when Don was still a teenager.
Don looked to escape: he practiced magic tricks and ventriloquism on the lodgers. He graduated from Morgantown’s high school, and if my memory is correct, his classmates voted him “the most likely to succeed.” At seventeen, he headed to New York City, where he hoped to find work as a ventriloquist, but he lasted only a few weeks. Back at home, he enrolled at the University of West Virginia.
His education was interrupted in late 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He enlisted, and spent the war years entertaining the troops with a dummy he had named Danny. But, one day on board a ship, he tossed Danny overboard: from then on, he would perform only straight comedy. After the war’s end, he returned to Morgantown and graduated in 1948 with a degree in theatre.
After marrying, he headed a second time to New York City, and this time he worked the contacts he had made in the army. From 1953 until 1955, he had a small part in the television soap opera Search for Tomorrow, and then in 1956, he became Mr. Morrison, a nervous uptight guy who shook constantly, on the skit “Man in the Street,” a feature of Steve Allen’s television show. If asked if he was nervous, Mr. Morrison would answer with a terse, anxiety-wracked, “Nope!”
He then teamed up with Andy Griffith, who had the lead in the hit Broadway show, No Time for Sergeants, in which Don played the part of an extreme by-the-book drill instructor with a whistle. Then, in 1958, Andy and Don made the film version of the show. The next year, Steve Allen, like most of the other television performers then, packed up and moved west to Hollywood, and Don Knotts followed.
Then, in 1960, he heard that Andy Griffith was getting his own television show, in which he would play the part of a small town Sheriff in Mayberry, North Carolina. Don called Andy and asked if he might need a deputy on the show, and Andy agreed.
For five seasons, until 1965, Don Knotts played the part of Barney Fife, Sheriff Taylor’s utterly incompetent deputy. His single bullet for his revolver was kept safely tucked in his shirt pocket, as he shouted, “Nip it in the bud!”, or blew his whistle. The show’s writers had intended that Andy would play the comic, and Barney the straight guy, but, Andy later said, “By the second episode, I knew that Don should be funny, and I should play straight.”
The old black and white Andy Griffith Show’s, I have always thought are truly funny, and others agreed: for those five seasons, Don Knotts earned five Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actor in a television comedy.
Believing the show would end after the five seasons, Don signed a contract with Universal Studios to perform in a series of movies, but then Andy, bowing to the network’s pressure, decided to continue the show. Don deeply regretted that he left the show when he did, and so did his television audience. It was filmed in color thereafter and without Barney Fife, it was never as funny, barely fifth-rate entertainment.
Unlike Woody Allen’s movies with their sophisticated adult humor, Don’s never achieved much. The Incredible Mr. Limpert, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, and The Shakiest Gun in the West, were more suitable for children.
Don finally had his own show, The Don Knotts Show, but it lasted for only a single season in 1970-1971. Then, in 1979, he began playing the part of Ralph Furley, the landlord in Three’s Company, alongside John Ritter and Suzanne Sommers, and stayed until 1984. Again, Don’s comic skills and his sense of timing had everyone laughing.
Macular degeneration late in his life took away his eyesight, much like his father before him, but a lifetime of smoking gave him lung cancer, and he died on February 24, 2006, the same day as Dennis Weaver and at the same age, eighty-one. Two deputies, one on a western, Gunsmoke, and the other on a comedy, bowed out together.