Last Updated on May 17, 2020
More sad news: Hollywood has lost one of classic television’s most beloved stars. Don Knotts, whose bumbling Deputy Barney Fife has entertained generations, died Friday night. He was 81.
Knotts’ entertainment career began shortly after graduating high school. Despite some early failures, he made it to the stage in “No Time for Sergeants,” where he met a fellow actor with whom he would build a lifelong friendship: Andy Griffith. Years later, when he learned that Griffith was preparing for a pilot for a situation comedy in which he would star as a rural sheriff, Knotts called his friend and suggested that he needed a deputy. Griffith invited him in to describe his ideas for the character, and the rest became history in “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“I was supposed to be the funny one on the show,” Griffith said in a 2002 interview. “But halfway through the second episode, I realized Don should be the funny one and I should play straight man to him. And that’s the best thing we ever did. That’s what made the show.”
Knotts wrote much of his own material for the show, and he collaborated with Griffith for much of the gags they performed together. As the show neared its fifth season, Griffith was making plans to leave. Knotts read the writing on the wall, and inked a movie contract with Universal. But when the fifth season came and went, Andy decided to stay on and the show was forced to go on without Fife’s character. For fans of the show, it just wasn’t the same.
Knotts was nominated for the Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy five times and won five times. The last two wins came as a result of guest appearances on the show after he had already moved on to films like The Incredible Mr. Limpet, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, and The Reluctant Astronaut.
He would entertain another generation of fans a decade later as would-be swinger Ralph Furley on later seasons of “Three’s Company.” There, he developed a good friendship with John Ritter, another comedy genius. The two shared a mutual respect for each other, according to a member of Knotts’ family.
Towards the end of his career, he partnered with Griffith again on “Matlock,” where he played the character of Les Calhoun, who was similar in personality to Andy’s faithful deputy. Why tamper with a winning formula?
This past August, Knotts was too ill to attend a special celebration in his hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia. A sufferer of hypochondria (and I can relate to that all too well!), Knotts battled a degernative eye disease in his later years, but kept working as long as he could, appearing in stage productions. His last role was the voice of Mayor Turkey Lurkey in the animated film Chicken Little.
On his off-time, he enjoyed reruns of “Seinfeld.”
Knotts criticized the changing landscape of comedy after his regular work on “Three’s Company.” His relative said that he felt that in the early days, the performers were allowed to contribute to the creative process and that the shows were about characters. More recently, he felt that the sitcoms had lost the focus on character development in favor of just trying to pack in more jokes, and that the performers found it harder to feel like a part of the creative process because of a “hierarchical” structure behind the scenes between actors and writers.
Of his good friend, Griffith said, “Don was a small man … but everything else about him was large: his mind, his expressions. Don was special. There’s nobody like him.”
Somewhere up there, Deputy Barney Fife is patrolling the streets once again, his one shiny bullet secure in his top pocket, watching for Jaywalkers.