As a child, Karen Knotts used to eavesdrop on her dad, Don Knotts, rehearsing for The Andy Griffith Show. “We weren’t supposed to bother him,” she reveals to Closer. “I would stand outside the door and listen to him run his lines over and over in different ways. It sounded like a concert pianist going over each bar with different emphasis.”
From Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife to Mr. Limpet, the talking fish, to Three’s Company’s Ralph Furley, Don’s collection of quirky everymen made fans laugh for more than five decades. But his daughter Karen, 67, a comedian and actress who recently released the memoir Tied Up in Knotts: My Dad and Me, remembers a down-to-earth father with strong family values. “We had World Book Encyclopedia. After dinner, he would say, ‘OK, kids, which letter of the encyclopedia should we read from today?’” she recalls.
Of course, Don was funny in real life, too — but not at all like Barney. “He was witty, clever and very deadpan,” says Karen. “He would set the joke up by acting like he was going to tell you something in confidence, then would lay this ridiculous line out there that would just crack you up.”
Don especially cherished time with Karen and her brother, Tom, because his own upbringing in West Virginia was so difficult. “He grew up during the Great Depression, his family was impoverished, and his dad was a schizophrenic who couldn’t work,” reveals Karen, who explains that her grandmother ran a boardinghouse to keep a roof over their heads. Don’s older brothers tried to help out, “but they didn’t have much education and were somewhat alcoholic,” she says.
Karen believes that anxiety-ridden Barney was born from Don’s insecure childhood. “He was emotionally very volatile and lived with a lot of fear and anxiety,” she says, noting that young Don sought refuge in learning ventriloquism and putting on shows with the neighborhood kids. “He got through his childhood by being creative,” she says. “He had this creative mind that was unstoppable.”
Karen doesn’t remember a time when her father wasn’t on TV, but she wasn’t raised to be a showbiz brat. Her family lived in Glendale, a bucolic LA suburb, and Don’s job was “just part of who he was,” she says. “We would watch the show as a family. I loved Barney Fife, just like everyone.”
Even after his 1964 divorce from Karen’s mother, Kathryn, Don remained an important part of his children’s lives. “When we were with him on weekends, he was very concentrated on us because our time was more limited,” she remembers. “He was not at all sports-oriented, but he taught my brother and I how to ride bikes. That was astonishing! Like, ‘Wow, my dad is out here in the sunshine teaching us to ride bikes!’ He really was a great dad.”
—Reporting by Fortune Benatar
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