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Don Knotts’ Lifelong Struggles and Unusual Death

To this day, The Andy Griffith Show remains a quintessential piece of Americana, thanks mostly to the legendary actor and comedian, Don Knotts. Knotts played Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife, and it’s still without a doubt the role he’s most remembered for.

Knotts had a long career that included playing the character of Ralph Furley on Three’s Company. He also starred in multiple comedic films, including the leading role in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and The Incredible Mr. Limpet. In 1979, TV Guide ranked him number twenty seven on its fifty Greatest TV Stars of All Time list.

But despite his hilarity as a performer, Knotts lived a life filled with sadness and tragedy. Join us as we take a look at the legendary comedian and find out what unfortunate adversities he had to overcome in life.


Born in Morgantown, West Virginia in 1942, Don Knotts reportedly had a horrible childhood. Knotts was an accidental child whose closest sibling was fourteen years his elder. Knott’s father, Jesse Sr., was mostly bedridden by the time he was born, who was apparently a schizophrenic alcoholic. Don Knotts’ childhood was filled with abuse. His father had even threatened him with a knife. Knotts was a pale, thin, and regularly sick young boy because of it.


Don Knotts’ relationship with his brothers was complicated and difficult. It is said that Knotts was mistreated by his brothers, William Earl and Sid. The two were often drunk and would fight, until one day William Earl died from a severe asthma attack. Knotts was just a teenager when it happened. In the challenging home environment, he managed to find some comfort by acting out dramas with imaginary characters.


Don Knotts’ home life was a constant source of terror, but things luckily improved as he became a teenager. His father passed away when he was just thirteen years of age. This was actually a relief for the young teen, who at the same time was able to get his other brother under control and ended the overwhelming terror. Entering high school, Knotts blossomed and became class president. But he still felt unhappy during this time, which led to him turning to a friend named Danny. Danny was a ventriloquist’s dummy, and gave Knotts an outlet and way to perform.


Don Knotts has been the subject of an oft-repeated rumor that some believe to be quite cruel. The rumour is that Knott’s was once an incredibly strict Marine Corps Drill Instructor. While it isn’t true, it has become part of an urban legend about unlikely-looking celebrities who have a hidden military past. Another example of this is Mister Rogers once being a military sniper.

The biggest shame of this rumour is that it ignores Knotts’ actual military service. While he wasn’t physically competent for war, he actually toured the Pacific front as part of the comedy troupe Stars and Gripes. Their unique mission was to entertain the troops. He also worked as a nurse when required. Thanks to being called funny by older comedian Red Ford, Knotts’ abandoned his ventriloquism and moved on to other types of comedy by the time he was out of the military.

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Don Knotts headed for New York City after the military and graduating from West Virginia University. With just $100 in his pocket, his career had a sour start. He was rejected and turned down for a series of radio gigs before he landed a spot on a soap opera. Seven more years led him to Broadway and finding a co-star that would become a life-long friend, Andy Griffith.

Knotts was becoming known as an actor suited to very specific character traits: nervous, anxious, and non-threatening. He became the actor who took side roles opposite male leads that the small, thin, and nervous Knotts made appear more manly. So the better Knotts performed, the better his co-star flourished.


Don Knotts found great success after suggesting himself for the role of Barney Fife to Andy Griffith. While it was a match made in TV heaven, not all was well behind the scenes. Knotts struggled with the uncontrollable feeling of inferiority and would become so overwhelmed before a performance that he could spend days in bed.

In the 1950s, he was given a prescription for anti-anxiety drugs by his doctors. This unfortunately led him to becoming addicted. Anxiety wasn’t his only enemy as he also suffered with hypochondria and chronic insomnia. But following an accidental overdose of sleeping pills, Knotts quit all his bad habits, including staying out too late with women, in an attempt to regain control.


While Knotts achieved great success, he was haunted by his difficult childhood. On top of this, he struggled with coming to terms with the type of characters he constantly played. The submissive, anxious, and nervous traits, alongside being the butt of jokes were harshly impacting his self-doubt and depression. But on the other hand, these roles brought him greater success than he’d ever imagined. This created a deep conflict within Knotts that had him sitting with a Hollywood therapist screaming profanities at God.

Don Knotts was mercurial. His different kinds of moods, alongside his depression, would lead him into an endless loop of negative thoughts and a continual downward spiral. He put in a huge amount of work to be a happy person.


With the huge success of The Andy Griffith Show, there’s inevitably several different stories as to why Don Knotts decided to leave. His daughter, Karen, related it to two things, the grinding hard work, and that there’s only so many stories that a show can tell. But others believe Knotts only ever intended to do five seasons of the show, and that’s exactly what he did. In 1967, Knotts spoke out about working on the TV show, and explained that the grind of television gets to you. That is why he decided to concentrate primarily on pictures.

While Knotts did make the occasional appearance, The Andy Griffith Show continued without him, for the most part. But without Knotts’ regular presence, the show simply wasn’t the same. Luckily, Griffith and Knotts remained friends and didn’t part ways because of it. But Knotts’ movie career never quite hit the traction he was hoping for.

The movies he worked on included The Incredible Mr. Limpet, The Reluctant Astronaut, and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, which are looked at today as being great and influential films. The Incredible Mr. Limpet was revolutionary for its day by mixing animation and live action.

Comedians such as Martin Short and Jim Carrey have been outspoken about the films and Knotts as being huge inspirations to them. This, unfortunately, wasn’t the notion at the time, and Knotts didn’t receive the critical acclaim he so deserved.


At the age of fifty seven, Knotts received some troubling news. He was diagnosed with macular degeneration, a condition that interferes with a person’s ability to see directly in front of them and makes anything in their direct line of sight appear distorted or blurry. In certain cases, it can develop into an inability to recognize faces.

This, understandably, led to Knotts falling deeper into depression, but later realising that a blind person would give their right arm to have his vision. This kind of perspective showed great progress in Knotts’ continual efforts battling with depression and anxiety. While he continued to work and enjoy his hobby of swimming laps, eventually his eyesight deteriorated and he could no longer drive or even read.


After leaving The Andy Griffith Show, Knotts was given the chance to host The Don Knotts Show. Premiering in 1970, the show had everything needed to be the next big thing. The show was given twenty two weeks to make an impact. But due to the huge number of variety shows hitting television at the time, Knotts simply couldn’t do enough to make the show get noticed. It came to a premature end, while Knotts continued to make appearances on other variety shows.


In the early 2000s it was reported that Don Knotts was diagnosed with lung cancer. At that point, Knotts and his longtime friend Griffith had fallen out of touch. But upon hearing the unfortunate news, Griffith rushed to his side to help him fight it. The two quickly fell into their friendly routine of singing, laughing and telling jokes. It was clear to those around them that they had missed each other very much.

Sadly, Knotts lost his battle with cancer on February 24th, 2006. He was eighty one years old. His daughter Karen spoke out about a regret she had at her father’s deathbed, saying, “Here’s the thing about my dad, 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.”

Karen regretted leaving her father’s side to laugh as she was later told by director Howard Storm that she should have stayed, laughed out loud, and let him hear her. Karen continued, “He was right; I should have just stood there and blasted out laughing.”

Was Don Knotts role as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show truly his best performance or is there another that better exhibits his comedy genius?

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