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Actor Don Knotts dies at 81
Griffith: 'Don was special. There's nobody like him'


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LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- Don Knotts, who kept generations of TV audiences laughing as bumbling Deputy Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show" and would-be swinger landlord Ralph Furley on "Three's Company," has died. He was 81.

Knotts died Friday night of pulmonary and respiratory complications at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center, said Sherwin Bash, his friend and manager.

Griffith, who had visited Knotts in the hospital before his death, said his longtime friend had a brilliant comedic mind and wrote some of the show's best scenes.

"Don was a small man ... but everything else about him was large: his mind, his expressions," Griffith told The Associated Press on Saturday. "Don was special. There's nobody like him.

"I loved him very much," Griffith added. "We had a long and wonderful life together."

Unspecified health problems had forced Knotts to cancel an appearance in his native Morgantown in August.

The West Virginia-born actor's half-century career included seven TV series and more than 25 films, but it was the Griffith show that brought him TV immortality and five Emmys. (Watch scenes from Knotts' long career -- 1:47)

The show ran from 1960-68, and was in the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings each season, including a No. 1 ranking its final year. It is one of only three series in TV history to bow out at the top: The others are "I Love Lucy" and "Seinfeld." The 249 episodes have appeared frequently in reruns and have spawned a large, active network of fan clubs.

As the bug-eyed deputy to Griffith, Knotts carried in his shirt pocket the one bullet he was allowed after shooting himself in the foot. The constant fumbling, a recurring sight gag, was typical of his self-deprecating humor.

Knotts, whose shy, soft-spoken manner was unlike his high-strung characters, once said he was most proud of the Fife character and doesn't mind being remembered that way.

His favorite episodes, he said, were "The Pickle Story," where Aunt Bee makes pickles no one can eat, and "Barney and the Choir," where no one can stop him from singing.

"I can't sing. It makes me sad that I can't sing or dance well enough to be in a musical, but I'm just not talented in that way," he lamented. "It's one of my weaknesses."

Knotts appeared on several other television shows. In 1979, he joined the cast of "Three's Company," also starring John Ritter, Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt.

Early in his TV career, he was one of the original cast members of "The Steve Allen Show," the comedy-variety show that ran from 1956-61. He was one of a group of memorable comics backing Allen that included Louis Nye, Tom Poston and Bill "Jose Jimenez" Dana.

Knotts' G-rated films were family fun, not box-office blockbusters. In most, he ends up the hero and gets the girl -- a girl who can see through his nervousness to the heart of gold.

In the part-animated 1964 film "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," Knotts played a meek clerk who turns into a fish after he is rejected by the Navy.

When it was announced in 1998 that Jim Carrey would star in a "Limpet" remake, Knotts responded: "I'm just flattered that someone of Carrey's caliber is remaking something I did. Now, if someone else did Barney Fife, THAT would be different."

In the 1967 film "The Reluctant Astronaut," co-starring Leslie Nielsen, Knotts' father enrolls his wimpy son -- operator of a Kiddieland rocket ride -- in NASA's space program. Knotts poses as a famous astronaut to the joy of his parents and hometown but is eventually exposed for what he really is, a janitor so terrified of heights he refuses to ride an airplane.

In the 1969 film "The Love God?," he was a geeky bird-watcher who is duped into becoming publisher of a naughty men's magazine and then becomes a national sex symbol. Eventually, he comes to his senses, leaves the big city and marries the sweet girl next door.

He was among an army of comedians from Buster Keaton to Jonathan Winters to liven up the 1963 megacomedy "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." Other films include "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" (1966); "The Shakiest Gun in the West" (1968); and a few Disney films such as "The Apple Dumpling Gang" (1974); "Gus" (1976); and "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo" (1977).

In 1998, he had a key role in the back-to-the-past movie "Pleasantville," playing a folksy television repairman whose supercharged remote control sends a teen boy and his sister into a TV sitcom past.

Knotts began his show biz career even before he graduated from high school, performing as a ventriloquist at local clubs and churches. He majored in speech at West Virginia University, then took off for the big city.

"I went to New York cold. On a $100 bill. Bummed a ride," he recalled in a visit to his hometown of Morgantown, where city officials renamed a street for him in 1998.

Within six months, Knotts had taken a job on a radio Western called "Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders," playing a wisecracking, know-it-all handyman. He stayed with it for five years, then came his series TV debut on "The Steve Allen Show."

He married Kay Metz in 1948, the year he graduated from college. The couple had two children before divorcing in 1969. Knotts later married, then divorced Lara Lee Szuchna.

In recent years, he said he had no plans to retire, traveling with theater productions and appearing in print and TV ads for Kodiak pressure treated wood.

The world laughed at Knotts, but it also laughed with him.

He treasured his comedic roles and could point to only one role that wasn't funny, a brief stint on the daytime drama "Search for Tomorrow."

"That's the only serious thing I've done. I don't miss that," Knotts said.

Saturday, February 25, 2006; Posted: 9:27 p.m. EST (02:27 GMT)

Don Knotts may be best remembered as the bumbling Deputy Barney Fife.
Comedic actor Don Knotts dies (1:47)
Film and TV credits
Film credits include:
"Chicken Little," 2005
"Pleasantville," 1998
"Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo," 1977
"No Deposit, No Return," 1976
"Gus," 1976
"The Apple Dumpling Gang," 1974
"The Love God?" 1969
"The Shakiest Gun in the West," 1968
"The Reluctant Astronaut," 1967
"The Ghost and Mr. Chicken," 1966
"The Incredible Mr. Limpet," 1964
"It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," 1963
------
TV credits include:
"Three's Company," 1979-84
"The Andy Griffith Show," 1960-68
"The Steve Allen Show," 1956-61
What is your favorite Don Knotts work?
"Three's Company"
"The Andy Griffith Show"
"The Ghost and Mr. Chicken"
"The Incredible Mr. Limpet"
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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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