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Emmy-Winning Comedic Actor Don Knotts

by Scott Collins

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Don Knotts

LOS ANGELES, California - Don Knotts, the saucer-eyed, scarecrow-thin comic actor best known for his roles as the high-strung small-town deputy Barney Fife on the 1960s CBS series "The Andy Griffith Show" and the leisure-suit-clad landlord Ralph Furley on ABC's '70s sitcom "Three's Company," has died. He was 81.

Knotts, who lived on Los Angeles' Westside, died of lung cancer on Friday, February 24 at UCLA Medical Center, according to Sherwin Bash, his longtime manager. Family members said that Knotts' longtime friend, Andy Griffith was one of his last visitors at the hospital on Friday night.

Despite health problems, Knotts had kept working in recent months. He lent his distinctive, high-pitched voice as Turkey Mayor in Walt Disney's animated family film "Chicken Little," which was released in November. He also did guest spots in 2005 on NBC's "Las Vegas" and Fox's "That '70s Show."

Knotts occasionally co-headlined in live comedy shows with Tim Conway, his sometime co-star in Disney films such as "The Apple Dumpling Gang." Knotts also appeared as the TV repairman in director Gary Ross' whimsical 1998 comedy, "Pleasantville," and voiced the part of T.W. Turtle in the 1997 animated feature, "Cats Don't Dance."

As he grew older, Knotts became a lodestar for younger comic actors. The new generation came to appreciate his highly physical brand of acting that, at its best, was in the tradition of silent-film greats such as Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel and Harold Lloyd.

'Nervous Man' Born

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Louis Nye, Don Knotts and Steve Allen on 'The Steve Allen Show'

Knotts first rose to prominence in the late 1950s, joining Louis Nye and other comedy players on "The Steve Allen Show." In 1961, United Artists Records released a comedy album titled "Don Knotts: An Evening with Me," which featured various takeoffs on the "nervous man" routine the comic had made famous on Allen's show.

One of the bits, "The Weatherman," concerned a TV forecaster forced to wing it after the meteorology report fails to make it to the studio by air time.

During the mid- to late 1960s, in a largely unsuccessful bid for major film stardom, Knotts made a series of family films that many connoisseurs now say were critically underappreciated at the time. These include 1964's "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," 1966's "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" and 1967's "The Reluctant Astronaut." The latter two were made as part of a five-picture deal with Universal Pictures.

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Don Knotts in 'The Incredible Mr. Limpet'

"The Incredible Mr. Limpet," the tale of a meek man who is transformed into a fish, has particularly won recent acclaim. Its early mix of live action and animation was a forerunner of such later films as "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and "Space Jam." At one point, Jim Carrey was said to be considering starring in a 'Limpet' remake.

Although the project has yet to materialize, when Knotts visited the set of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," Carrey paid tribute. "I went to him, and I was just like, 'Thank you so much for "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,"'" Carrey later told an interviewer. "I watched it a hundred times when I was a kid."

Martin Short has likewise hailed Knotts as a major influence, and at least one of Short's recurring characters, shifty-eyed lawyer Nathan Thurm, owes a debt to Knotts' "nervous man" character, created for "The Steve Allen Show" in the 1950s.

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Don Knotts (top row L-R) as Ralph Furley in 'Three's Company'

with Richard Kline and Suzanne Somers. Cast members (bottom

row L-R) Joyce Dewitt, the late John Ritter and Ann Wedgeworth

Many TV viewers remember Knotts as Ralph Furley, the ascot-wearing middle-aged landlord who mistakenly viewed himself as a swinger on ABC's hit sex farce "Three's Company." The series starred the late John Ritter as Jack Tripper, a chef who pretended to be gay in order to share an apartment with two attractive young women.

The plot of many episodes hinged on Tripper struggling to keep his secret from an ever-suspicious (and homophobic) Furley. Knotts introduced the character in 1979, during the show's fourth season, when the original landlords, Norman Fell and Audra Lindley, had departed for their own spinoff, "The Ropers."

Immortal Barney Fife

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Don Knotts as Barney Fife

For Knotts, who typically worked in Disney comedies and other family-friendly fare, appearing in a sex comedy

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This should be a loving tribute to a well beloved comic genius. I've heard Andy Griffith interviewed recently and it was touching he was at his old friend's bedside just hours before his passing. How fitting to have these two men reunite to eulogize and reminisce about Don Knotts.

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(Topics are subject to last minute change. Guests are announced on a daily basis.)

Wednesday, March 1

Exclusive. Remembering Don Knotts with Andy Griffith and Ron Howard

Exclusive. Andy Griffith and Ron Howard say goodbye to Don Knotts in their first interview together since his death. Tune in at 9 p.m. ET.

Sunday, March 5

(3/1/06)

Encore Presentation. Remembering Don Knotts with Andy Griffith and Ron Howard

Encore Presentation. Tonight, exclusive, Andy Griffith and Ron Howard remember their friend and one-time co-star, Don Knotts, in their first interview together since his death on Friday, February 24. Also, saying goodbye to a comic legend and sharing their personal memories are Jim Nabors, another member of the beloved "Andy Griffith Show" gang and Don Knott's daughter, Karen Knotts. Joining the panel later to share her memories is Joyce DeWitt, Don's co-star in "Three's Company." Tune in at 9 p.m. ET.

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(guests may be subject to last minute changes)

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