Actor, comedian, father, friend. Don Knotts was all of these things and more during the remarkable 81 years of his life. Remembered primarily for his role of Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, Knotts’ work catapulted audiences into laughing fits. But Knotts had a complicated relationship with his coworker and dear friend, Andy Griffith. The two men shared an uncomfortable secret — which has finally come to light.
In 2015 a new book was released giving fans of the The Andy Griffith Show a more in-depth exploration of one of their beloved TV classics. Prominently featured, naturally, was the dramatic story of show host Andy Griffith and the Emmy Award-winning actor and comedian Don Knotts.
It was common knowledge that the two were close friends, and when they were working together on The Any Griffith Show their combined energy practically lit up the set. In spite of that, Knotts left the show abruptly, following some news from his pal Griffith. Most assumed it was just Knotts moving onto bigger things. Few people knew the story of what really happened — that is, until now.
Don Knotts was born on July 21, 1924 in Morgantown, West Virginia. His father, William Jesse Knotts, was a real estate agent who had grown up in the area, and his mother, Elsie Luzetta Moore Knotts, was already 40 by the time she gave birth to Don. Having already raised three boys, Knotts’ father suffered a nervous breakdown at the prospect of having yet another son to raise.
As a result of his mental illness along with other ailments, he died when Knotts was 13. Knotts’ mother began caring for the family by opening up a boarding house. This was not at all an environment where Knotts could find entertainment success. He knew he had to leave the house, but what could he do?
Don Knotts’ first attempt to break into show business was as a ventriloquist, and he decided to move to the nearest talent hub that he could: New York City. Unfortunately for Knotts, competition was a little too high, and the young amateur entertainer was a little too inexperienced. Failure to find work in New York City drove Knotts back to his home in West Virginia.
Unwilling to move back in with his mother, he enrolled at West Virginia University to study education and speech, and became a member of the Phi Sigma Kappa Fraternity. But whatever path he had hoped for was about to be interrupted. A seismic global event would change the trajectory of his life.
During Knotts’ first year attending university, several changes shook his world. First, his older brother William suddenly died at age 31. Mere months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, dragging the United States into World War II. Following the call to arms, Don Knotts became a soldier in the United States Army Special Services Branch. He found a way to incorporate his love of acting, serving as an entertainer for fellow soldiers fighting in the South Pacific.
While not a fighter himself, Knotts was often close to the scene of battle, and it was his job to put on a smile and entertain the troops, no matter the circumstances. He gained a lot of experience there and, upon release, Knotts was eager to turn his newfound entertainment skills from the army into a real profession. But something very important happened before he could.
Don Knotts had met Kathryn Metz while studying at West Virginia University after his career as a ventriloquist didn’t lead anywhere (reportedly, Knotts threw his dummy into the Pacific Ocean while still in the army). Upon returning home from the war, the future entertainer wasted no time in asking his college sweetheart to tie the knot with him.
She accepted, and the two were married in 1947. Now with a lovely and supportive partner by his side, Knotts was ready to get back to his journey to the top, not realizing that even after he got there, things were going to get very messy.
A newly-married man, Don Knotts began searching around for anyone who would hire him as an entertainer. Show business was already a difficult and competitive field to break into, and sadly, nobody understood that they were dealing with someone who had the potential to be one of America’s future favorite television personalities.
Knotts simply couldn’t find a job anywhere, and needed income fast to support himself and his wife. So, for the time being, Knotts began plucking chickens at a market in order to make due. He knew that something had to change if he was going to make it in entertainment, but his prospects were looking slim.
At last, Knotts landed a small part on a television series, appearing as the unconscious Wilber on the 1953 soap opera, Search for Tomorrow. It would turn out to be his only dramatic role. This inspired Knotts to try a new medium of entertainment which would change his career forever. But rather than initially pursuing television, he turned to Broadway, debuting in the hit comedy performance, No Time for Sergeants.
There, Knotts would meet the man who would become his friend and business partner, at least for the time being: the lead in that Broadway production, a man named Andy Griffith. Little did Knotts know just how fateful that friendship would become — and the difficult dilemma it would brew later on down the line.
Don Knotts was slowly becoming known for his trademark role of playing high-strung, socially inept men with low self-esteem. That, combined with his wide-eyed stare and high-pitched voice, was causing a ruckus as audiences laughed themselves into hysterics. Knotts ended up getting his second television gig, The Steve Allen Show, which was the second ever late night show after The Tonight Show.
At this point in his life, Knotts was jumping around from gig to gig across channels, and nothing seemed to stick. Finally, he got a call from Andy Griffith that would lead him down the road of success, which would be coupled by a complicated and difficult choice.
When Don Knotts arrived onscreen in the now-famous fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina, he was only expected to shoot in one episode playing the role of Barney Fife. Knotts knew he only had one shot to impress the studio executives and prove to them that he was the right fit for a permanent place in the show.
Sure enough, after that first episode, producer Sheldon Leonard was so impressed with the chemistry between Knotts and Griffith that he was given a permanent role. Now, Don Knotts was going to become a recognizable television actor and his dreams would come true. But he would soon be hit with some unexpected news.
Andy Griffith liked to run his show like a gregarious and rowdy father at a fun and chaotic family dinner. One of his favorite hobbies on set was pulling practical jokes, particularly if they were aimed at his good friend Don Knotts.
For all his charisma on-screen, off-screen Knotts was surprisingly dignified and in fact was a rather reserved person. Griffith particularly relished annoying him by doing things like dropping metal film canisters next to Knotts while he was napping. While things were mostly fun and games on set, Knotts decided to branch out a bit with different jobs, which would ultimately prove to be a wise decision.
Don Knotts’ success on The Andy Griffith Show opened doors for him that had been shut up until this point. These were opportunities not only for roles in television, but in film as well, as he landed the role of Sergeant Percy Warren in the 1960 military comedy film, Wake Me When It’s Over. But it would be a few years before Knotts landed himself a starring role.
In the film The Incredible Mr. Limpet, he played the lead, Henry Limpet, who, after falling in to the water, becomes a talking fish and agrees to help the US Navy find and track Nazi submarines. The film was lauded by critics both for its humor as well as its surprising emotional depth. Success for Knotts would come with a price — but for now, he was on cloud nine.
Since his start on The Andy Griffith Show in 1960, Don Knotts had become one of the most beloved comedians on the show. His role as Deputy Barney Fife was so popular and renowned that it ended up earning the comedian a total of five Emmy Awards between the years 1961-1963.
As if that weren’t enough, Knotts earned two more Emmys, once in 1966 and yet again in 1967, also for his work on The Andy Griffith Show. The only other person to win an Emmy on the show was co-star Frances Bavier. While there were many other jobs being offered to Knotts, he was committed to The Andy Griffith Show and loyal to his friend Andy. That would soon become his undoing.
The terrific chemistry between Don Knotts and Andy Griffith wasn’t just excluded to on-screen filming, outside of work the two were thick as thieves. In the words of director Ron Howard, who had then played Andy’s on-screen son Opie, “nobody could make Andy laugh like Don could.”
He continued, “Andy was the world’s greatest audience for Don. Don had Andy literally in tears once a week.” In fact, it wasn’t too uncommon for viewers to see Andy Griffith sometimes breaking character while trying to contain his laughter after Knotts would deliver a line. It was perhaps this bond that led Andy to let Don in on a secret of his.
In spite of the show’s success, Andy Griffith had some news for his friend and employee. After five seasons, Griffith was planning on shutting the show down. Knotts was reportedly grateful for his friend being so honest and candid about the reason why he was leaving, and began making his own preparations for his departure.
After some deliberation, Knotts came to an agreement with the executives at Universal Studios. The studio, one of the biggest at the time, was willing to offer Knotts a five film contract. Just when things were looking like they would be neatly tied up, sudden news came and completely changed things for Don and Andy.
Don Knotts had been looking forward to starting his work at Universal Studios. Finally, he would be getting his shot at being a real big-time movie star. No doubt he would miss working with his friend Andy Griffith, but he was ready to forge his own path.
Shortly after making plans to begin his new partnership with Universal, Griffith returned to him with a surprising announcement. After being pressured by producers and studio executives, the show wasn’t being cancelled after all. Despite the twist, Knotts decided to leave anyways. He had big plans for his future and he couldn’t let Andy get in the way.
Shortly after his departure from The Andy Griffith Show, Don Knotts had the opportunity to see his own name up in lights, front and center. Having been relegated to the role of sidekick for so long, Don Knotts now had his own late night show, The Don Knotts Show.
Each week, he and his guests would sit, usually in a rocking chair, and quietly discuss life views and philosophies through topics like love and success. Sadly, in spite of following the spirit of talk shows of the time, the show didn’t make it for much longer than one season. But Don Knotts wasn’t going away that easily.
Even though The Don Knotts Show didn’t pan out the way that Knotts had hoped, he still had his five film contracts with Universal Studios. So after leaving The Andy Griffith Show, he began his life as a film star, beginning with his starring role as Luther Higgs in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.
A year later, it was as Roy Fleming in The Reluctant Astronaut, a film about a boy who starts off as a janitor at NASA before being reluctantly sent to space. This string of movies received modest reviews. Once again Knotts, knew he had to make a career change. But all the while, a final conversation with Andy was hanging over his head.
In 1979, Don Knotts once again appeared back on living room televisions all over the nation, this time playing the role of building manager, Ralph Furley. Knotts snagged the role after the actors playing the building complex owners, Norman Fell and Audra Lindley, left the show for their own sitcom.
Three’s Company became a smash hit, regularly listed as one of the highest rated shows of its time and Knotts’ character, Mr. Furley, was well-recognized for his catchphrase, delivered with shock and confusion: “What’s going on in here?” Yet even though things were going well professionally, Knotts’ personal life was getting much more complicated.
Just before leaving The Andy Griffith Show, Knotts’ marriage to his college sweetheart Kathryn Metz began to fall apart. Two children and 19 years of marriage later, the two divorced in 1966, just one year before Knotts was set to leave his friend’s show and become more independent. Eight years afterward, just following the end of Three’s Company, Knotts married again, this time to Loralee Czuchna.
For a bit, it seemed like things were back on track for the comic film and TV star. But shortly after the wedding bells finished ringing, rumors began to spread that Knotts was showing signs of depression, and some thought it was related to something that had happened with Andy Griffith during his time on the show.
Long after leaving The Andy Griffith Show, Knotts was finally reunited with his old friend (and former boss) Andy Griffith in the 1986 made-for-television film, Return to Mayberry. That film brought Knotts back to the world he had helped create on The Andy Griffith Show, and had him donning that familiar deputy’s badge as Barney Fife.
In the 1998 film Pleasantville, starring Tobey Maguire and Jeff Daniels, Knotts played the television repairman; although a lesser-known fact is that because he was unavailable for re-recording his voice, actor Craig Shoemaker had to fill in, doing his best Don Knotts impression. As the years went by and Knotts continued to entertain, he had one last thing to get off his chest before passing.
One of Don Knotts’ last roles was in the 2005 animated film Chicken Little. After that, his health began to decline and the once-highly physical funnyman was confined to the hospital. Fortunately, things seemed to turn around for this legendary, award-winning comedian and he was released back to his home.
Sadly, that stay at home didn’t last long. The following year, Knotts’ health took a sudden turn for the worse, and he was rushed back to the hospital. He was then visited by his dear longtime friend, Andy Griffith. There, the two men discussed something that had been on Knotts’ mind for years. He had previously agreed not to share what had happened when Knotts left the show.
On February 24, 2006, after a lengthy battle with lung cancer, Don Knotts died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. Even while on his deathbed, his daughter Karen noted that she couldn’t help laughing at his constant wisecracks. She even left the room to laugh, believing that it wouldn’t be appropriate to do so while her father was in such a state.
In retrospect, Karen later admitted in an interview that her father probably would’ve rather seen her laughing in those final moments. But it seemed as though Knotts’ family weren’t the only ones moved by his passing. Shortly after, Andy Griffith approached Knotts’ former manager to let him know what had really happened on the fateful day that his friend left the show.
The official line had always been that Don Knotts had signed with Universal after assuming The Andy Griffith Show would end. After years of hiding the reason, Griffith decided it was finally time to step forward and inform the world what had really happened.
Apparently, Knotts had approached Griffith at the end of those five years, saying that he wanted an ownership stake of the show, rather than just being an employee. Griffith, assuming that Knotts was talking about taking half of his share, balked, and the two left on an awkward and sour note. Now, perhaps to make amends, Griffith decided to do something monumental to honor his old friend.
While Griffith wanted a statue of Don Knotts to be in his friend’s hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia, he also felt it should be a statue of the man himself, not of the character he played, Deputy Barney Fife. In the end, Griffith lost out to others who wanted the statue to be in memorial to Knotts’ most recognizable role.
Sadly, the statue’s construction ran into legal problems after Paramount and CBS, who owned the likeness of Barney Fife, said they didn’t have the legal authority to grant permission for the statue. The statue was demolished. But that wasn’t the end of efforts to honor this legendary comedian.
Eventually, Don Knotts got that statue, and both he and his beloved character of Barney Fife were immortalized. What’s more, Griffith revealed another moment that had occurred moments before Knotts’ passing. “Don was a small man…but everything else about him was large: his mind, his expressions,” Griffith reminisced.
“Don was special. There’s nobody like him. I loved him very much. We had a long and wonderful life together I told him I loved him, and I held his hand. His chest heaved several times, and I believe he heard my voice.” Today, the Don Knotts statue sits in his hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia, drawing many visitors who wish to pay respect to one of the great comedic actors of the 20th century.
Sources: IMDb, Biography, LA Times