If you’re a fan of classic American comedy, then you’re a fan of the legendary Don Knotts!
He was one of the most popular comic actors during the Golden Age of Television in America. He’s a classic example of Americana and is an icon of American comedy.
We lost Don Knotts in 2006. He was 81-years-old and was suffering from pulmonary and respiratory complications. Yet, even upon his deathbed, he hadn’t lost his charm or quick-wit.
His daughter Karen recalls that he said something on his deathbed that made her laugh so loudly that she stepped outside of the hospital room!
But life wasn’t always the easiest for Don Knotts. Let’s look back at his life’s journey and how he overcame struggles to achieve his incredible success…
Jesse Donald Knotts was born on July 21, 1924, in West Virginia. He was the youngest of 4 sons and had a 14-year age gap between him and his next oldest sibling. His father was a farmer and was able to provide his family a comfortable life through his labor.
But by the time Don was born, the family’s situation had taken a turn for the worse. His mother was in her forties and his father was mostly bedridden by this time. He had become an alcoholic and was also suffering from schizophrenia as well as hysterical blindness.
As one could expect, this didn’t create the best atmosphere at home. Physical abuse was part of Don’s childhood. He’d often walk by his father who would lie on the sofa. At times, this would greatly annoy his dad and threats were commonplace. There was even a time when Don was threatened by a knife that his father was brandishing!
As a young child, he was often pale and remained thin – which would later become part of his iconic look as an adult. But as a child, this was a great source of strain for Don and he was often ill.
He would even bear the brunt from his brothers who would fight and bully him. One of his brothers, Earl died from asthma attack when Don was still a teenager. This endless sadness is what made him want to strive for happiness. It’s also what made him want to bring happiness to others…
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When Don turned 13, his father died. While this was difficult for the family, it was rather liberating for young Don.
As he became older, his brothers began to leave him alone. He felt that he was free and that he could now pursue his dreams. It was during his teenage years that he realized he had a knack for entertaining others. He had bought a dummy doll named Danny and began performing as a ventriloquist.
He graduated from Morgantown High School and went on to enlist in the US Army during World War 2.
He served as an entertainer for the troops and got to hone his performing skills during this time. He also would serve as a nurse when needed. Upon his return from the War, he attended West Virginia University where he majored in Education and had a minor in Speech.
THE BIG BREAK
After he married Kathryn Metz in 1947, Don decided to relocate to New York to try to make it in show business.
He started performing stand-up comedy at several nightclubs throughout the city. He also had occasional radio gigs including work on a show called Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders.
His first foray into television was a small role on a soap opera. But this didn’t lead to anything bigger and one might have thought that Don’s career wouldn’t go any further than being an occasional working actor.
However, his life changed when he worked on a Broadway play called No Time for Sergeants and befriended one of his co-stars. That co-star was none other than Andy Griffith!
It was around this time that Don Knotts realized his unique niche. Because of his lanky frame, he appeared as a great sidekick to other men. He would help these burlier men look like leading men.
When Andy Griffith starred in his own show, Don Knotts was cast as the bumbling sidekick Barney Fife. This character launched his career and made him a household name. To this day, Barney Fife is the character that Don Knott’s is most associated with.
But he managed to forge a successful career for himself even after The Andy Griffith Show ended. He’d revive the Barney Fife character in many spinoff shows, films, and reunions. But he also became a major celebrity in his own right. He’d become a regular guest on talk shows and variety shows.
But what was his life like off-camera?
BEHIND THE SCENES
Outside of his life on-screen, Don Knotts had many struggles with anxiety. While his popular performances such as Barney Fife thrived on an appearance of anxiety, Don struggled with actual anxiety in real life.
He would sometimes feel very stressed before a performance and he briefly became dependent on anti-anxiety medication.
He also had a bit of difficulty with hypochondria as well as insomnia. But he knew that this was taking its toll on his health and his life. He knew that he had made huge sacrifices and overcome hurdles to succeed in life. He managed to kick his dependence on anti-anxiety medication and managed to deal with his anxieties on his own.
Don also spent time in therapy to deal with the difficult trauma of his childhood. He knew it wouldn’t be easy, but he knew that he had to do it.
His daughter Karen would recall that her father would strive to battle everything in his life that brought him down. He wanted happiness for himself and for others.
He also wanted to show his talents in different shows and films. He left The Andy Griffith Show after 5 seasons as he wanted to focus on working in feature films. While he did make a few guest appearances on later seasons of the show, these later seasons weren’t as popular as Barney Fife wasn’t a regular character.
It was clear that Don Knotts had created a character whom the American audience had fallen in love with. Even though he left the show prematurely, Don Knotts and Andy Griffith remained friends and continued to work together. Don Knotts would later play Les Calhoun in a series of episodes of Matlock – a courtroom drama show that starred Andy Griffith.
Following his work on The Andy Griffith Show, Don Knotts managed to find success in many great feature films. These films included The Apple Dumpling Gang, No Deposit, No Return, Gus, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. The Prize Fighter and The Private Eyes.
One of his major film successes was The Incredible Mr. Limpet. This was one of the first films to mix live-action and animation together and Don Knotts won praise for his work in the film. To this day, comedians such as Martin Short and Jim Carrey cite the film as an inspiration.
If you see any modern film that mixes these two art forms together, they are, in some way, paying homage to Don Knotts – even if they don’t know it!
Don’s later career did include a few hurdles as well. Perhaps the biggest disappointment for him was The Don Knotts Show which was a variety show that included many comedic sketches. This was during a time when variety shows were all the rage on American television.
Unfortunately, The Don Knotts Show didn’t manage to reach the level of success as other competing variety shows. It also didn’t match up to shows such as The Andy Griffith Show.
Nevertheless, the lack of success of The Don Knotts Show was only a minor bump in Don’s career. He was still one of the most sought-after actors in television.
He continued to make regular appearances in TV shows as varied as Three’s Company, Newhart, The Love Boat, and What A Country.
He also became a prominent voice actor in his later years. He had voice acting roles in Garfield and Friends, Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night, 101 Dalmatians: The Series, and several Hermie and Friend’s videos. Perhaps his best-known voice role was as Mayor Turkey Lurkey in the hit animated film Chicken Little. It was this role that introduced a new generation of fans to Don Knotts.
He was in his eighties when Chicken Little was released, and it showed audiences that he was still a treasured icon of American entertainment. He continued to work until 2006 when he passed away.
In the early 2000s, Don Knotts had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He spent much of his later years surrounded by friends and family – including Andy Griffith, who always remained by his side.
Even on his deathbed, as he was suffering from serious illnesses, he managed to crack jokes and make his daughter and others laugh. Don Knotts died on February 24, 2006, at the age of 81.
He’s left behind an incredible legacy, and we know he’ll serve as an inspiration for entertainers for years to come!
Are you a fan of Don Knotts?
Do you think his life already serves as inspiration to aspiring entertainers? Or do you think that it’s up to fans to introduce Don Knotts to aspiring entertainers?
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
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