Don Knotts Biography: Dive into Don Knotts’ Extraordinary Life Story

Don Knotts was born Jesse Donald Knotts on July 21, 1924 in Morgantown, West Virginia. His father William Jesse Knotts was a farmer and his mother Elsie L. Moore Knotts was a homemaker.

Knotts was one of four brothers. His family life was troubled due to his father’s alcoholism and mental health issues, which caused him to sometimes terrorize the family. As a result, Knotts turned to his mother, who was loving and nurturing towards him. He developed a close bond with her that lasted throughout his life.

From an early age, Knotts showed an inclination towards performance and entertained people he knew in Morgantown. He developed ventriloquism skills and often included this in his acts. During his teenage years, Knotts and his ventriloquist dummy Danny ‘Hooch’ Matador entertained World War II troops.

Early Exposure to Show Business

Knotts attended Morgantown High School, where he first gained exposure to acting by appearing in various school plays. After graduation, he enlisted briefly in the United States Army and served in the Pacific during World War II. However, he was discharged within months due to health reasons.

In 1941, Knotts traveled to New York City in hopes of advancing his show business career. He enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts on the G.I. Bill, studying alongside future stars such as Anne Bancroft, Grace Kelly and Rod Steiger. However, he dropped out due to the lack of income and returned home to West Virginia feeling like a failure.

Knotts married Kathryn Metz in 1947 when he was 22 years old. After their honeymoon, he was offered the chance to play the role of a lovesick chemistry student in a radio soap opera called “Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders”. This gave him critical exposure and enabled him to join the cast full-time, which led to appearances on other radio programs over the next few years.

Early Television and Broadway Success

Knotts got his big break on television in 1952, when he made a guest appearance on NBC’s “The Perry Como Show”. He so impressed host Perry Como that he was invited back multiple times and gained national attention for his comedy skills.

This exposure led to Knotts landing a recurring role as nervous salesman Maynard G. Krebs on the CBS sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” from 1953 to 1963. His portrayal of Krebs established his onscreen persona as a lovable, comedic nervous wreck.

In 1955, Knotts married actress Kathryn Kay Metz, to whom he stayed married until his death in 2006. The same year, he debuted on Broadway in the play “No Time for Sergeants”. His performance as a comedic military recruit earned him critical praise and a Theatre World Award. This also brought him to the attention of television and film producers in Hollywood.

When “No Time for Sergeants” was adapted into a 1958 film starring Andy Griffith, Knotts reprised his role and earned praised from the Los Angeles Times for adding “comic brilliance” to the movie. This cemented his ongoing working relationship and friendship with Andy Griffith.

Major Hollywood Success on The Andy Griffith Show

Knotts achieved his greatest fame in Hollywood when he was cast as bumbling deputy sheriff Barney Fife alongside Andy Griffith’s Sheriff Andy Taylor on the hit CBS sitcom “The Andy Griffith Show” from 1960 to 1965. Despite being the deputy, it was Knotts’ Barney Fife character that captured viewers’ attention and imaginations.

Comedic Persona as Barney Fife

As nervous, high-strung Barney Fife, Knotts established a classic comedic screen persona that endeared him to audiences. Barney Fife believed in law and order, but was totally incompetent as an officer of the law. He tried to present himself as an authority figure, but was childlike and naive. Viewers found his false bravado and childlike temperament irresistibly funny.

Knotts imbued the character with multiple eccentricities, including always carrying one bullet in his shirt pocket since he did not trust himself with a loaded gun. His trademark on the show was speaking into the sheriff’s office CB radio and malapropisms when quoting administrative regulations.

Barney’s desire to gain respect while displays of weakness prevented him from getting it created an enduring dynamic with Andy Taylor’s straight-man character. Their comedic chemistry was a major factor in the show’s popularity.

Primetime Emmy Awards

Knotts’ received unprecedented adulation for playing Barney Fife. He won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Comedy three consecutive years from 1961 to 1963. To this day, he still holds the record for the most awards won by a key supporting comedy character.

In a 1967 editorial, TV Guide even called Barney Fife “the greatest second banana in the history of television.”

The following table summarizes Don Knotts’ Primetime Emmy wins and nominations for playing Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show”:

1961Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a ComedyWon
1962Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a ComedyWon
1963Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a ComedyWon
1964Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a ComedyNominated
1965Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a ComedyNominated

By the end of the show’s run in 1965, Don Knotts had cemented his place in television history thanks to this unforgettable character.

Transition to Film Career

When “The Andy Griffith Show” ended, Don Knotts seamlessly transitioned to a successful film career. He primarily appeared in live action family comedy films as characters that extended his nervous persona and physical comedy skills.

Collaborations with Tim Conway

Knotts made several comedy features with Tim Conway, another sitcom star who had exceptional skills with physical comedy. Their collaborations included:

  • “The Apple Dumpling Gang” (1975) – Knotts played an inept Wild West bandit paired with Conway. The movie was a major box office hit and spawned a sequel.
  • “The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again’ (1979) – Knotts and Conway reprised their roles from the first film. It was another commercial success.
  • “The Private Eyes” (1980) – Knotts and Conway played bumbling detectives in early 20th century London. While not as successful as their “Apple Dumpling” films, it further showcased their comedic chemistry.

Children’s Films

Knotts also appeared in several children’s comedy films in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including:

  • “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo” (1977) – Knotts played mechanic Wheely Applegate who tends to the magical Volkswagen Beetle Herbie. In roles like this, he extended his nervous comedic persona to family audiences.
  • “Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night” (1987) – Knotts voiced Gee Willikers, the conscience of the wooden boy hero Pinocchio who guides him on a journey. Voicing Gee Willikers enabled Knotts to bring his trademark persona to animation.

While these G-rated comedies were not critical successes, they further cemented Don Knotts’ reputation as a wholesomely funny performer that appealed to viewers of all ages.

Later Television Performances

Even while enjoying big screen film success, Don Knotts continued appearing on television in the 1970s and into the late 1990s. He took roles that capitalized on audiences’ comfort and affection for his familiar comedic screen presence.

Various TV Series Guest Appearances

Knotts made dozens of guest appearances on popular TV programs during the 1970s and 1980s, often playing offbeat characters similar to Barney Fife. Some examples include:

  • Playing himself on “The Jim Nabors Show” variety program alongside Andy Griffith in a mini “The Andy Griffith Show” reunion skit.
  • Portraying Barney Fife’s cousin, an inept plumber, on “The New Andy Griffith Show”.
  • Guest starring as the nervous cousin of “Three’s Company” landlord Ralph Furley.

These guest appearances provided nostalgic comfort food for longtime fans of Knotts’ brand of comedy.

Knotts won another Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series in 1979 for playing tight-lipped repairman Ralph Furley on “Three’s Company”.


In conclusion, Don Knotts left an indelible mark on American comedy over his decades-long career. While he passed away in 2006 at age 81, his greatest role as Barney Fife remains one of the most beloved sitcom characters of all time.

Knotts came from humble beginnings in West Virginia to achieve unprecedented fame and acclaim during the pinnacle of Hollywood’s studio system heyday. He crafted an enduring comedic screen persona portraying high-strung yet lovable underdogs. Audiences related to his nervous energy and thin physique, finding humor in seeing his characters’ best-laid plans going hilariously awry.

While he never matched the iconic status of playing Barney Fife, Knotts succeeded throughout his career by essentially reprising aspects of this beloved character in film and television roles for younger 1970s audiences. His extensive filmography stands as a testament to his comedy skills and universal appeal.

Off-screen, those who worked with Don Knotts describe him as a consummate professional with incredible comedic timing who was nothing like his screen roles. His dedication to embodying comedic characters who made people of all ages laugh earned him accolades as a great entertainer and friend.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was Don Knotts’ big break?

Knotts’ big break was appearing on “The Perry Como Show” in 1952, which impressed host Perry Como so much that Knotts became a recurring guest. This national TV exposure led to his being cast on multiple sitcoms throughout the 1950s.

How did Don Knotts meet Andy Griffith?

Knotts and Andy Griffith met when they both appeared in the 1955 Broadway play “No Time for Sergeants.” They reprised their roles for the 1958 film adaptation and their on-screen chemistry led directly to Knotts joining the cast of Griffith’s sitcom “The Andy Griffith Show” playing Deputy Barney Fife.

What was Don Knotts’ most famous role?

Knotts’ most famous role was playing the bumbling, high-strung deputy sheriff Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show” from 1960 to 1965. As Barney, Knotts established his trademark comedic persona as a loveable nervous wreck and won a record-setting 3 Primetime Emmy Awards for the role.

Why was Don Knotts so skinny?

It is believed that Don Knotts’ extremely thin build was due to a combination of factors including high metabolism, being vision impaired (nearsighted), anxiety issues and health problems later in life such as macular degeneration and COPD. His skinny appearance became an element of his on-screen persona.

What movies did Don Knotts make?

Some of Don Knotts’ most popular movies included multiple comedic films with Tim Conway including “The Apple Dumpling Gang” (1975), “The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again” (1979), and “The Private Eyes” (1980). He also appeared in Disney’s “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo” (1977) and voiced characters in animated films like “Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night” (1987).