Don Knotts Dies at 81
From Stephen Taylor comes some sad news:
Don Knotts, who kept generations of TV audiences laughing as bumbling Deputy Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show” and would-be swinger landlord Ralph Furley on “Three’s Company,” has died. He was 81.
Knotts died Friday night of pulmonary and respiratory complications at a Los Angeles hospital, said Paul Ward, a spokesman for the cable network TV Land, which airs his two signature shows.
Griffith, who remained close friends with Knotts, said he had a brilliant comedic mind and wrote some of the show’s best scenes.
“Don was a small man … but everything else about him was large: his mind, his expressions,” Griffith told The Associated Press on Saturday. “Don was special. There’s nobody like him. “I loved him very much,” Griffith added. “We had a long and wonderful life together.”
The West Virginia-born actor’s half-century career included seven TV series and more than 25 films, but it was the Griffith show that brought him TV immortality and five Emmys.
The show ran from 1960-68, and was in the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings each season, including a No. 1 ranking its final year. It is one of only three series in TV history to bow out at the top: The others are “I Love Lucy” and “Seinfeld.” The 249 episodes have appeared frequently in reruns and have spawned a large, active network of fan clubs.
I have almost no recollection of “The Andy Griffith Show,” so Knotts to me will be remembered as the flamboyant would-be stud from “Three’s Company.” Mr. Furley’s leisure suits and jokes about Jack Tripper’s faux homosexuality were hilarious, and that show stands as an interesting snapshot of a strange era in American sociopolitical culture.
Update James Joyner: Sad news, indeed. I’m older than Stotch but even I didn’t watch Don Knotts play Barney Fife when the show was on. Indeed, he played the character from 1960-1965, before I was born. Still, I have probably seen every episode numerous times in the intervening years.
I have often said that “The Andy Griffith Show” was the best television show of any genre ever made. My wife, growing up as she did in New England, did not have the cultural advantages that I did and had never seen the show. We are currently rectifying that situation and watching every episode, in order, on DVD via Netflix.
Knotts won an Emmy as Best Supporting Actor each of the five years he played Barney Fife. If there was ever a better sitcom character over a sustained period, I haven’t seen it. Andy Griffith, already a well-established comedic actor and stand-up comic when the show began, quickly realized that Knotts was stealing the show. Rather than try to grab the best lines for himself, he became the straight man and let Knotts have even more camera time. The result is the best five year run of any sitcom, ever. The three subsequent seasons, all in color rather than the black and white of the Knotts era, were fine but nowhere near as good.
Here’s a much more recent photo of Griffith and Knotts, taken for the “TV Land Awards,” 7 March 2004:
Wikipedia provides a concise career summary:
After being a regular performer in the soap opera Search for Tomorrow from 1953 to 1955, he gained additional exposure in 1956 on Steve Allen’s variety show, appearing in Allen’s mock “Man in the Street” interviews, always as a man obviously very nervous about being on camera.
Knotts’s portrayal of Deputy Barney Fife on the American television sitcom The Andy Griffith Show earned him five Emmy Awards. After leaving the series in 1965, Knotts starred in a series of film comedies: The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), The Reluctant Astronaut (1967), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968) and The Love God? (1969).
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, he served as the spokesman for Dodge trucks and was featured prominently in a series of print ads and dealer brochures.
In the 1970s, Knotts and Tim Conway starred together in a series of slapstick movies, including the 1975 Disney film The Apple Dumpling Gang, and its 1979 sequel, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again.
Knotts returned to series television in the late 1970s, appearing as landlord Ralph Furley on Three’s Company, after Audra Lindley and Norman Fell left the show to star in a short-lived spinoff series (“The Ropers”). Knotts remained on the show from 1979 until it ended in 1984. In 1986, he reunited with Andy Griffith in the 1986 made for television movie Return to Mayberry, where he reprised his role as “Barney Fife”. From 1989 to 1992, Knotts again co-starred with Grittith, playing a recurring role as pesky neighbor Les Calhoun on Matlock.
In 1998, Knotts made a cameo as the mysterious TV repairman in Pleasantville, and seven years later performed as the voice of Mayor Turkey Lurkey in Chicken Little (2005) (his first Disney movie since 1979).
My understanding is that Griffith and Knotts met when they starred in the 1955 Broadway hit “No Time for Sergeants.” They reprised their roles in the 1958 film of the same name. If you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so. Like most films about the military, the basic training (or, technically, in this case Air Force recruit induction center) sequence was much better than the rest of the picture. Still, when you see Griffith’s terrific comedic performance as Will Stockdale and then realize that Don Knotts stole his own show away from him two years later, you really appreciate Knotts’ unique talent.