Back in the 1960s, the line between TV and movie stars was never more clearly defined, with actors from television seldom being able to make it on the big screen while film actors turned their noses up at the small screen. Don Knotts, however, was an exception, not only dreaming of movie stardom, but actually achieving it. In some ways, that's pretty surprising when you consider just how successful he was as Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. He played the character with the understanding that series star Andy Griffith only intended to stay with it for five years, giving himself a deadline of sorts by which he needed to parlay that show's success into something bigger. Andy ended up changing his mind because of financial incentives thrown his way, while Don didn't, having been offered a five-film deal with Univeral. He chose to leave the show, making a handful of appearances as Barney over the Andy Griffith's final three seasons and one in the spin-off series, Mayberry R.F.D. For him, it would turn out to be the right decision.
(Photo Credit: MGM)
Don was certainly no stranger to film. He had made his movie debut in 1958's No Time For Sergeants, a film version of the Broadway stage play he had starred in alongside Andy Griffith, which is where the two of them established a life-long friendship. Two years later, he had a supporting role in the World War II comedy Wake Me When It's Over, which starred Ernic Kovacs and Dick Shawn; followed by another one in 1961, The Last Time I Saw Archie, starring Robert Mitchum and Jack Webb (Dragnet). In 1963, he joined what seemed to be every other Hollywood actor in the wild comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (his role, not surprisingly, being "Nervous Driver"), and in that same year was a shoe clerk in the Doris Day and James Garner comedy Move Over, Darling. He finally had a shot at a starring role in 1964's The Incredible Mr. Limpet.
Recently, as part of our Classic TV coverage, we had spoken to Don's daughter, Karen Knotts, about her dad's life and career. His films were only touched upon briefly, so we've followed up with Karen to take a more in-depth look at his movie career (with some stopovers at his famous TV roles as well). A comedian in her own right, Karen stars in a one-woman show that looks at her life and her relationship with her father. Called Tied Up in Knotts, she has a number of upcoming tour dates and it's highly recommended you catch the show if you want to gain a better understanding of who Don Knotts really was. For much more, check out her official website.
"Movies were everything back then," says Karen. "Now, of course, that's kind of gotten reversed. In those days, television was still kind of new, and it was much tougher to go from TV to movies and when you did, it was a big deal. They categorized people back then more than they do now."
Maybe so, but nobody puts Don in the corner! Below, a breakdown of his best roles, as told by his daughter, Karen.