Thursday, May 14, 2020

Come And Knock on His Grave

Jesse Donald Knotts was born in Morgantown, West Virginia on July 21, 1924.  Things pretty much went downhill from there.  His father, both a schizophrenic and an alcoholic, suffered a nervous breakdown following Don's birth.  Years later, he would terrorize the boy with a kitchen knife, before ultimately dying of pneumonia when Don was just 13 years old. 

After Don graduated from high school, he enlisted in the Army during World War 2.  He served with Special Services throughout his tour, entertaining troops stationed in the Pacific. Following the war, he returned to West Virginia and earned his bachelor's degree in education.

Don performs as Windy Wales.
Upon graduation, Knotts married and moved to New York City, where he started getting his first jobs in entertainment.  He had a stand-up comedy routine, and he also appeared on a radio western series called "Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders."  He played a know-it-all braggadocio named Windy Wales.  You can hear an episode in its entirety here.

He didn't land on television until 1953 and when he did it wasn't in comedy.  For two seasons, Knotts appeared as Wilbur Peterson on the daytime soap opera Search for Tomorrow.  Really.

For the next few years, he'd appear on Broadway and occasionally on television, before being cast in the role for which he is most famous, Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show.  His portrayal of the bumbling deputy would earn Knotts five Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actor.

Knotts left the series in 1965 and appeared in a number of now-classic Hollywood comedies, including It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1965) and The Reluctant Astronaut (1967).  In 1975, he teamed up with fellow comedian Tim Conway for a number of films, including The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) and The Private Eyes (1981).  Click on any of those titles to view their respective trailers.

The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975).
In 1979, Knotts disproved the rumor that lightning never strikes twice, when he accepted the role of Ralph Furley on the hit ABC sit-com "Three's Company."  For five seasons, he entertained a new generation of fans, while simultaneously intimidating his co-stars, who were in awe to be working with a star of his status.  Knotts joined the series as it suffered a series of dramatic departures, and is often credited with helping to smooth the transition. 

Following the show's conclusion in 1984, Knotts continued to act on television well into the early 2000s, often reuniting with friend and co-star Andy Griffith.  The two reprised their iconic roles in the made-for-TV movie Return to Mayberry (1986) and occasionally appeared together on Griffith's legal drama series, Matlock.

On September 12, 2003, Knotts was appearing in a stage production of On Golden Pond in Kansas City when he received a call from the family of his Three's Company co-star John Ritter, informing him that the actor had died suddenly that morning on the set of his series 8 Simple Rules for Dating for my Teenage Daughter.  Earlier that same year, Knotts had appeared on the series reprising his role of Furley in a Three's Company dream sequence, with Ritter assuming the Norman Fell role of Stanley Roper.  You can watch Knotts's scene here.  Around the same time, Knotts began losing his eyesight, and his television appearances became fewer and fewer.

In February 2006, Knotts checked into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles suffering from pneumonia.  He'd ultimately pass on February 24th with the official cause of death listed as lung cancer.  He was 81 years old.

Knotts was interred at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Cemetery in Los Angeles.  His marker depicts a number of his more famous roles, though shockingly, Mr. Furley is not among them.

Rest in peace, RF.


  • Unlike his Mayberry counterpart, Knotts was very comfortable around firearms, having earned the Marksman Badge during World War 2.

  • As originally envisioned, The Andy Griffith Show was to feature Knotts as the straight man with Griffith as the more comedic character.  By the second episode however, it was obvious to all concerned that Knotts was the funnier of the two, and the roles were quickly reversed.

  • Singer "Guns N Moses" delivered a Barney Fife tribute song to the tune of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire."  You can hear it here.  Worth two minutes of your time.

  • Following Don's death, Andy Griffith appeared on The Today Show to discuss his co-star's life and career with disgraced anchor Matt Lauer.  Watch it here.

  • This blog visited the grave of Don's Mayberry co-star Frances Bavier in 2018.  Read about it here.

  • Don's hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia unveiled a statue to their local legend on July 23, 2016.  You'll find it in front of the Metropolitan Theatre.

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