Don Knotts, the legendary television character actor, was born Jesse Donald Knotts on July 21, 1924 in Morgantown, West Virginia, to William Jesse Knotts and the former Elsie L. Moore. He was the youngest of four sons in a family that had been in America since the 17th century.
His first stint as an entertainer was as a ventriloquist, performing paid gigs at parties and other events in Morgantown. He decided to make a stab at a career in show business, moving to New York City after graduating from high school, but he only lasted in the Big Apple for a few weeks. He decided to go to college, enrolling at West Virginia University but, when World War II engulfed America, he enlisted in the United States Army. The 19-year-old soldier was assigned to the Special Services Branch, where he entertained the troops. It was while in the Army that Don ditched ventriloquism for straight comedy.
Don returned to West Virginia University after being demobilized. After graduating with a degree in theater in 1948, he married and moved back to New York, where connections he had made while in the Special Services Branch helped him break into show business. In addition to doing stand-up comedy at clubs, he appeared on the radio, eventually playing the character “Windy Wales” on “The Bobby Benson Show”. From 1953 to 1955, he was a regular on the soap opera Search for Tomorrow (1951). Destiny intervened when he was cast in the small role of the psychiatrist in the Broadway play “No Time for Sergeants”, which starred Andy Griffith, who would play a large part in Don’s future career. Don also appeared in the film adaption of the play with Griffith.
Don’s big break before he hooked up again with Andy Griffith was a regular gig on the The Steve Allen Plymouth Show (1956) hosted by Steve Allen, starting in 1956. He became well-known for his “nervous man” shtick in the “Man-on-the-Street” segments that were a staple of Allen’s show. His character in the segments was a very nervous man obviously uptight about being interviewed on camera. He developed this into the fidgety, high-strung persona that he used successfully for the rest of his career.
When “The Tonight Show” moved to Hollywood in 1959 with new host Jack Paar, Don also moved to California as a regular. However, he was soon cast in Andy Griffith‘s new television series about a small-town sheriff, The Andy Griffith Show (1960), in the role that would make him a legend. For playing “Deputy Barney Fife”, Don was nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor five times from 1961 to 1967, winning each time.
He soon tasted big-screen success, starring in The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964). Don cut back his appearances on The Andy Griffith Show (1960) to concentrate on making movies after signing a five-year contract with Universal Pictures. For Universal, Don appeared in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), The Reluctant Astronaut (1967), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968), The Love God? (1969) and How to Frame a Figg (1971). His mid-1960s popularity as a movie comedian began to wane towards the end of the decade, and the contract was not renewed. Don returned to television as the star of his own variety show, but it was quickly canceled.
During the 1970s, Don had a spotty career, appearing in regional theater and making guest appearances on other television series. He eventually made some slapstick movies with Tim Conway for the Walt Disney Company, but it wasn’t until the end of the decade that he tasted real success again. He was cast as would-be-swinger landlord “Ralph Furley” on the popular sitcom Three’s Company (1977) after the original landlords, “The Ropers”, were spun off into their own series. Since the show was canceled in 1984, he appeared as “Barney Fife” for a 1986 reunion of The Andy Griffith Show (1960) and in television guest spots, including a recurring gig as the pesky neighbor “Les Calhoun” on Griffith’s Matlock (1986) series until 1992.
He remained busy for the next ten years touring with plays and doing voice-over work for cartoons. In 2005, Don provided the voice of “Mayor Turkey Lurkey” in Disney’s animated film Chicken Little (2005). It turned out to be one of his final films. He died at age 81 on February 24, 2006.