Don Knotts, the comic actor and costar of The Andy Griffith Show who raised bumbling to an art, died Friday night in Beverly Hills of pulmonary and respiratory complications. He was 81.
The actor, who later in his career played landlord Mr. Furley on TV’s Three’s Company, won five Emmys for his memorable portrayal of rural Mayberry’s shaky deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, which ran for 249 episodes from 1960-68.
Former costar Griffith was at Knotts’s bedside when he died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, as were his third wife, Francie, and his children, Thomas and Karen.
Speaking on Monday morning’s Today show, a despondent Griffith said: “I just lost my best friend.” Being with Knotts as he was slipping away this weekend, Griffith said, “I told him I loved him. I told him You gotta lick this. You gotta pull through.”
Of Knott’s contribution to their classic sitcom, Griffith said: “He turned our show around. Everything we did came out of our friendship.” In contrast to Knotts’s jittery screen character, in person he was calm and knowledgeable, said Griffith, who overall considered his costar a “sweet, wonderful man worth remembering.”
Knotts began his career by performing at parties as a ventriloquist in his Morgantown, W.V., hometown, and entertained troops as a soldier during World War II. “I went to New York cold,” he recalled years later. “On a $100 bill. Bummed a ride.”
TV audiences first saw him in the ’50s, when he played the unnamed nervous man on the street on The Steve Allen Show (in skits similar to those later done on the Late Show with David Letterman). Before Griffith he appeared on I Love Lucy; afterwards, on Seinfeld.
Knotts eventually appeared in big-screen comedies, including 1963’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, 1964’s The Incredible Mr. Limpet – a Walter Mitty-esque fantasy in which he daydreamed of being a fish (and became one through animation) – and 1968’s The Shakiest Gun in the West.
In 2005, he appeared on an episode of the TV show Las Vegas and did voice work for the animated series Robot Chicken. Saying he never had any intention of retiring, Knotts even played a serious role – on the TV soap Search for Tomorrow, the lone time he didn’t go for the laugh.
“That’s the only serious thing I’ve done,” he said. “I don’t miss that.”