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Biography of Don Knotts, famous TV and movie clown

Don Knotts (July 21, 1924 – February 25, 2006 )

(Editor’s note: Don Knotts has died of pulmonary and respiratory complications at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills, California, U.S.A. on February 25, 2006). Jesse Donald Knotts, known worldwide as Don Knotts, is best known for playing the part of the nervous, hyperactive fall guy, exemplified by the role that brought him fame, Deputy Barney Fife.

Don Knotts was born July 21, 1924, in Morgantown, West Virginia, U.S.A. Don was a sickly child, nervous, who suffered periodic bouts of depression. He was the youngest child in his family; in fact, his sibling were all virtually grown when he was born. He became interested in acting at a young age.  By the time he entered high school he had developed a ventriloquist act with “Danny” his dummy partner.

Don Knotts enlisted in the United States Army at the age of 19, serving during World War II. In addition to serving on the field, he used his time in the Army to hone his entertainment skills.  He entertained his fellow soldiers, eventually discarding his ventriloquist dummy and standing on his own as an entertainer. He served the U.S. Army honorably and was awarded the World War II Victory Medal, Philippine Liberation Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (with 4 bronze service stars), Army Good Conduct Medal, Marksman Badge (with Carbine Bar) and Honorable Service Lapel Pin. Don Knotts was honorably discharged on January 6, 1946.

After his discharge from the Army, Don Knotts returned to civilian life, and married Kathryn Metz on December 27, 1947. This marriage would result in the births of his two children, Thomas and Karen. He also graduated from the University of West Virginia in his hometown of Morgantown in 1948, with a BA degree in Education.

Don Knotts enters the entertainment field

After graduation, Don Knotts began trying to launch his entertainment career. He auditioned for numerous roles on radio and on Broadway.  He earned a role on the “Bobby Benson” radio show as well as a small but important role in the play “No Time for Sergeants”.  Don Knotts worked there for the first time with a fellow teacher-turned-entertainer named Andy Griffith.

In 1958, Andy Griffith was cast in the starring role for the movie version of No Time for Sergeants.  He was quick to point out Don Knotts as a natural for a role.  The same role that he had played on Broadway. In the meantime, Don Knotts continued working, with a steady role on the “Search for Tomorrow” soap opera from 1953 to 1955. He had begun a recurring role in the Man on the Street interviews on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1956.  He played a nervous, hyperactive man who was ill at ease about being on television. This was the kernel of the clown character that he would later bring to worldwide fame.

Don Knotts as Barney Fife

With the success of “No Time for Sergeants,” Andy Griffith was quick to parlay his success into a television series that is still watched the world over, “The Andy Griffith Show.” Andy Griffith played Sheriff Andy Taylor, a widower raising his young son in a small town. Andy’s deputy was Barney Fife, played with great comic zeal by Don Knotts.  He was able to showcase his comedic genius in this role. It allowed Don to use his nervous, hyperactive clown character in a fleshed out role.  It also earned him 5 Emmy Awards from 1961 to 1967.

Don Knotts used his popularity as Barney Fife to launch his career as a movie star, playing the unlikely hero. His character was typically a variation on Don’s nervous hyperactive characterization. One notable exception was “Don Knott’s first starring role, “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” released in 1964, with Don Knotts playing a henpecked husband who miraculously turns into a fish and helps the U.S. Navy win World War II. Sadly, in that same year, he and Kathryn divorced.

Don Knotts, Movie Star

Don Knotts continued with his movie career, with starring roles in some classic comedies such as “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” (1966), “The Reluctant Astronaut” (1967), “The Shakiest Gun in the West” (1968), and “The Love God?” (1969). In 1970, Don Knotts returned to television with “The Don Knotts Show,” a comedy that lasted one season. He returned to movies with “How to Frame a Figg” (1971), which he also wrote. He appeared in several TV movies, and then a series of films co-starring Tim Conway.

Don Knotts’ nervous, hyperactive character worked well with Tim Conway’s lovably stupid character, and they made several films together. Examples include “The Apple Dumpling Gang” (1975), “The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again” (1979), “The Prize Fighter” (1979), “The Private Eyes” (1981). In his private life, Don Knotts remarried on October 12, 1974, to Loralee Czuchna. He also made several movies for the Walt Disney company.  These included the 2 Apple Dumpling films, No Deposit, No Return (1976), “Gus” (1976), “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo” (1977), and “Hot Lead and Cold Feet” (1978).

In 1979, Don Knotts returned to television again, playing Ralph Furley, the landlord on “Three’s Company,” a would-be ladies’ man crossed with the skills and charisma of Barney Fife. He played this role until the end of the series in 1984. In 1983, he and Loralee divorced.

Don Knotts spent the next few years of his life working on TV, movie and video projects, including a Barney Fife-like CHP officer in “Cannonball Run II” (1984), resuming the role of Barney Fife as though he had never stopped in the exceptionally well-done “Return to Mayberry” (1986), “What a Country” (1987), and a reunion with his old friend Andy Griffith on Andy’s “Matlock” TV series, playing Les “Ace” Calhoun from 1989 to 1990, as well as in “Matlock: The Picture” in 1991. Film roles included the school principal in “Big Bully” (1996) and the part of T. W. Turtle in “Cats Don’t Dance” (1997), a vastly underrated animated film musical, as well as the television repairman in “Pleasantville” (1998).

Don Knotts’ twilight years

In recent years, as his health as been declining, he was doing mostly voice work, such as in “Cats Don’t Dance” (1997), “Jingle Bells” (1999), “Tom Sawyer” (2000), the “Hermie and Friends” series of videos (2003-2005, once again appearing with Tim Conway), and most recently in Disney’s “Chicken Little” (2005) as Mayor Turkey Lurkey,

Don Knotts died of pulmonary and respiratory complications at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills, California, U.S.A. on February 25, 2006.

Don Knotts hometown statue in his hometown of Margantown, West Virginia

Don Knotts hometown statue in his hometown of Margantown, West Virginia

You may also enjoy the Don Knotts photo gallery.

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Computer nerd by day, professional clown on evenings and weekends (Raynbow), who combines the two by maintaining a bunch of websites dedicated to the history and performances of clowning, such as Free Clown Skits, and comedy such as Best Clean Funny Jokes.

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