The one and only Don Knotts, the beloved Barney Fife of The Andy Griffith Show, was on his deathbed in February 2006, when his daughter, Karen, felt the need to run out of the room… so she could laugh. As horrific as that might sound, anyone who knew Don wouldn’t be the least bit offended to hear that response.
“Here’s the thing about my dad,” says Karen in an exclusive interview. “He had this funniness that was just completely, insanely natural. When he was dying, he was making us laugh in hysterics. He was literally dying, but he did something or said something that caused my stepmother and I to go into fits of laughter, which is why I ran out. I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to be standing there in front of this man, my dearly beloved father, who’s dying, and laughing. I was telling this story to Howard Storm, who’s a director, and he said, ‘You should have stayed and laughed out loud. That’s what comedians live for!’ He was right; I should have just stood there and blasted out laughing.
“Being funny,” she adds, “was just something so natural. It was a gene or….well, I don’t know what it was, except that it was just an out of control natural funniness.”
That natural humor is somewhat surprising to hear, given Don's genuinely difficult childhood. He was born in 1924 in Morgantown, West Virginia, to a mother who was 40 at the time and a father who suffered from both schizophrenia and alcoholism — and would even go so far as to hold a knife to Don’s neck to threaten him. And as if that wasn’t enough, there was an abusive older brother (Willis) as well. As a result of all of that and more, he would eventually spend years in therapy.
“My dad,” says Karen, who was born in 1954, “was very burdened down by all these problems. He had problems with his father and an older brother who tormented him, because they were alcoholics. When his father passed, he was 13 years old. At that point, that burden — that huge burden — lifted off of him, and he became old enough that he was able to get the other brother under control, so he was no longer terrorized at home.”
(Photo Credit: Karen Knotts)
Given some emotional freedom, Don changed his life for the better when he attended Morgantown High School, which in many ways offered a salvation to all the angst he had been feeling. “His whole world changed,” Karen smiles warmly. “He just blossomed and he said those high school years were the best years of his life. He was class president every year, he had a column in the yearbook that was called 'Dots and Dashes by Knotts.' He was the most popular boy, and he had this best friend and they got into all of these adventures. The world was his oyster, and it was the first time he’d ever experienced such complete happiness, where all those problems fell away and there he was, living the beautiful life. Of course things came back to haunt him later, because he had a lifelong condition of hypochondria, which he battled. But he even conquered that in the end.”
Entertainment for dummies.
When he was growing up, Don fell in love with the idea of ventriloquism, which served as a kind of gateway drug to the entertainment world for him. Once developed, it was a skill that he would use at different school and church functions, and even in the US Army (which he served in from 1943-46), where he was part of the Stars and Gripes G.I. variety show that toured the Pacific. It wasn’t long, however, before he literally threw that dummy overboard from a ship he was on in the South Pacific, preferring a one-man act, if you will.
Notes Karen, “He saw ventriloquism as a way for him to get out of his impoverished surroundings. He used to listen to Edgar Bergen on the radio and was absolutely thrilled by Edgar Bergen’s routines with the dummy. Of course that was radio….” Which does beg the question of how strong a ventriloquist you need to be if you’re performing on the radio, but, she’s ready for that one: “Edgar Bergen was a genius at creating characters and jokes and it all came across, and it was convincing. In actual fact, he was not a very good ventriloquist. Television came along and, if anything, it should have hurt him, because you could see his lips moving, but nobody cared by that time.
(Photo Credit: Karen Knotts)
“My father,” she continues, “was just thrilled by this as a boy, and so he saw this magazine — Boy’s Life or one of those kinds of magazines — with an ad that said, ‘Be a ventriloquist. Send away for this device that you can use to throw your voice.’ He scrounged up every penny that he could. They were so poor, but he did manage to get that 10 cents or whatever it was and sent it in. What came back, the device, was, of course, completely a fraud, but it came with a booklet that explained how to manipulate your tongue and your mouth to throw your voice. He studied that book and learned how to do it, and things started to happen for him. He was always practicing around the house, of course, and would make his mother giggle with voices coming out of apple pies, loads of laundry and that kind of thing.”
Karen, who’s in the midst of writing a memoir — which she refers to as a “father/daughter story” — recently discovered that in Morgantown by the high school was a small walkway known as Senior Alley. “It was where all the older teens used to stand and check each other out,” she says. “He used to stand there next to another boy and throw his voice to a girl, and when she turned around to look, she would see that other boy. He was causing all kinds of havoc and having a good time.”
The road to Mayberry.
Don got his real start in radio on shows like Bobby Benson and B-Bar-B Riders, was on the daytime soap Search for Tomorrow from 1953-55, became a part of The Tonight Show (which at the time was hosted by Steve Allen), and got his biggest breaks starring in the Broadway and film versions of No Time for Sergeants, which saw him acting opposite Andy Griffith. That, and the instant friendship he developed with Andy, resulted in him being cast as Mayberry Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show.
When the show made its debut in 1960, Karen was all of six years old, and it was a period where she actually didn’t get to spend a lot of time with her dad. “We didn’t see him a lot, because he worked 10, 12 hours a day,” she recalls. “And when he was home, he was always holed up in his room working on his lines and stuff like that. At the time, we kids [Karen and her brother, Thomas] were pretty young, and he confided whatever he was feeling about working on the show to my mom. But, like I said, I remember watching and listening to him rehearse. He asked me to run lines. At the time I already knew I wanted to act, so I would try to act it out and he’d say, ‘No, no, no. Just give me the lines straight, no inflection, nothing, otherwise you throw me off.’ I was just a part of that process. I do remember my mother telling me how much Andy and Don liked to gossip.”
She laughs at that memory: “Mom would go by and listen, and they would talk about everybody on the show. When he was on set, he was pretty immersed. I remember one time when I was there, one of the actors had a small part and he was so nervous working with my dad and apologized profusely. When they got the take, he came over and whispered something to me like, ‘Your dad is amazing.’”
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
Of course, she already knew that. And even though Don was busy working so hard during those years, he did take the kids to the set a number of times. Karen recalls being fascinated with them, because she had never been on a set before. “My first memory,” she says, “was the stores; how they always would have those cans piled up in the windows like they did in those days. I went inside the stores and would look around and think, ‘Gosh, everything looks so fake.’ One thing about that show, it’s done so well that you believe in its reality 100%. I kind of do, even though I knew my dad wasn’t really Barney Fife. Watching the show, you get so involved in it that everything seems real and I just remember walking around the set and being amazed at how not real it was.”
While there, she spent some time with Ronnie Howard, who was about the same age she was, and played Andy’s son, Opie (and who — no great revelation here — would go on to play Richie Cunningham on Happy Days and move on to a mega-successful career as a film director).
“Ron wasn’t like a kid at all,” Karen points out. “Not like any kid I knew. He just had this poise and this maturity about him. Almost like a whole other personality, in a way. He was very friendly to me. I remember him showing me a little transistor radio that could fit in your hand, which in those days was unheard of. I hadn’t seen anything like that. It was gold in color, and I guess was a precursor to him becoming a director.”
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
As to Andy Griffith himself, she reflects, “He was very friendly to me; he was like an uncle. He had different sides. You could see that sometimes he would be intense, and other times very, very warm and endearing. One thing I will tell you, and one thing that is different from what has been written in books, was that Andy was never jealous of my dad. He was his biggest fan and mentor. Everything later he was in, he wanted to get my dad in, too. Even when he was on Matlock, and my dad wasn’t working at the time, he went to the producers and said, ‘I want Don Knotts on the show.’ They said, ‘No, this is a dramatic show, there’s no part for a character comedian.’ He kept fighting and fighting, and then they put him on, but they didn’t want to pay him much. Andy went to the mat and fought with them on that. They gave him not really what he should have gotten, but at least a decent salary. Everything from the day he met them, he was in my dad’s corner.
“A lot of times,” adds Karen, “people say to me, ‘Oh, your dad really made the show.’ They don’t realize what Andy was to the show. He was the backbone. They took notes from each other. My dad would say, ‘Hey, Andy, could you get me that a little bit quieter?’ and Andy would give him a note back and say, ‘How about trying this or that?’ They constantly talked about their characters and their performances. They were both completely consumed with it.”
The big screen beckons.
Taking Andy at his word that he would leave the show after five years, Don made plans to do exactly that. But when Andy decided to stick around (he was offered a ridiculous amount of money to remain), Don chose instead to accept a five-film contract from Universal. Those films would be The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), The Reluctant Astronaut (1967), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968), The Love God? (1969), and How to Frame a Figg (1971).
(Photo Credit: Karen Knotts)
“Put yourself in his place,” Karen suggests as to why Don left. “That show was hard, hard work. Then think of the character, and also the energy that it took to play him. Imagine the intensity, plus the level of perfection that was being strived for. Then, all of a sudden, you get offered a five-picture deal to be a star in your own right and make all the decisions. After five years of Andy’s show, I don’t care what it is, writers start to run out of ideas. There’s only so many stories you can tell. If you keep on going, hitting yourself over the heard, you’re going to start repeating stuff and then it loses its quality and its perfection. That’s probably the reason why at first Andy himself said he only wanted to do the show for five seasons, but they offered him a fortune to keep on with the show. I don’t think he wanted to continue on, especially not without Barney, because they couldn’t replace him. They tried."
Variety is the spice of life.
Anyone looking at Don's career would no doubt note The Andy Griffith Show, his feature films and, later, joining the cast of Three's Company. What they may not realize is how big a fixture he — as well as Andy Griffith — was on TV variety shows.
"That was a really big part of his career during and after his Univeral film days," Karen says. "There were tons of them on the air. Anybody who had any kind of a name had a special on, and they had singing and ancing. He was a guest on the Smother Brothers, Donny & Marie — he just did the circult of all these variety shows. In those days, they didn't know that there was going to be DVDs or even VHS, and so these shows that were on Beta — those big, huge tapes that were sitting in the vaults at the studio — were taking up a treendous amount of space, and so they burned them. Literally destroyed thousands of these shows. Can you imagine the fortune they could be making now if they had held onto these things? A lot of his work and a lot of other people's work just died right there. A lot of people don't know that Andy and dad and Jim Nabors did Lake Tahoe together. And Jerry Van Dyke was a guest. They did a whole musical variety show at Lake Tahoe after the Griffith show was over, so they kept on working together."
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
In 1979, he joined ABC's hit series Three's Company as landlord Ralph Furley, who would interact with regulars John Ritter, Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt. "The main thing that show did," says Karen, "is allowed him to reach a new audience; another generation who had not really seen the reruns of The Andy Griffith Show the way you can now. So all of a sudden, these young people were seeing him for the first time. That was really fantastic. And that was great for my dad, because he enjoyed the mystique that Andy Griffith had, but he had this amazing ability to put the past in the past. He never went back and watched old episodes or any of that kind of thing. He was always in the present moment."
Tied Up in Knotts
Don stayed with Three's Company until the show ended its run in 1984, and would appear in the TV reunion movie Return to Mayberry (1986), before playing a recurring role on Matlock. He would show up on different TV shows and films, and provided quite a number of voices for animated characters. In between it all, he became plagued with health issues though, including macular degeneration in both eyes that rendered him virtually blind.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
And Karen, of course, has been through it all. She was with him on the set of Andy Griffith, appeared on variety shows with him and, bottom line, loved her father. And one way that love has been manifesting itself has been in the one-woman show Tied Up in Knotts, which she has been performing for the past decade or so. In it, she says, "I act as characters, I tell stories sometimes as a character, sometimes as my dad in his natural delivery. Sometimes I even act out Barney Fife. It's a great, funny show, and I also show about seven video clips of him, which are fairly rare. By the end of it, I actually manage to get through his whole life in 90 minutes, which is a miracle. I don't know how I do it, but I do. It's taken me 10 years to get the show to where it actually works so well that I can feel good about it. The biggest compliment to me is when people say, 'I feel like I really know your dad now.'"
And thanks to the show, Karen has had an opportunity to really look at her father for who he was — the positive and the negative — as well as their relationship with each other. "He was mercurial," she says. "He had a lot of different kinds of moods. He fought a lot of depression and I helped him, or thought I did, because I could see how he had this endless loop of thought that would always lead to a downward spiral. I would try to break through that and was like the Pollyanna, pointing out the positives. Of course, I couldn't do much. I was a kid. He got a great psychiatrist named Dick Renniker. Dick was able to help him a lot. By the end, he had overcome everything that was down in his life. I felt really, really proud of him for all the work that he put into being a happy person. And the truth is, he loved people.
(Photo Credit: Karen Knotts)
"He was also a very loving father," Karen adds. "He didn't like to go out and do things like you picture most fathers going out and doing — you know, outdoorsy stuff — because he was a very internal kind of person. He liked to tell stories and talk. He talked a lot about other celebrities, like Jackie Gleason. We talked about show business a lot. He was a showbiz person."
Which actually became an issue in her life that Karen says she was able to recover from. "You always walk a fine line when you're related to somebody that famous," she muses. "As we got older, the situation got better, because a lot of people that I've met weren't as familiar with my dad and he wasn't the center of everything anymore. I just never had the confidence that anybody wanted to talk to me because I was of any interest. But as time went on, I started being associated with people who had less awareness of him, and then I had a little bit more chance to grow in myself. I started getting more confidence, and then once that happened, I really embraced even more who my father was, because I felt like I was also being appreciated for myself. One time I asked him, 'Dad, does it ever bother you that people just want to talk to you because you're a movie star?' Something like that. And he said, 'At first people want to focus on that, but they get over it.' It was good advice, although in his case, I don't think people got over it so much when they were talking to him."
For much more, you can check out Karen Knotts' official website. And if you would like to take a heart-warming, but funny, trip to the past with Karen and, of course, Don, you should absolutely try and catch one of the tour dates for Tied Up in Knotts.