Anxious Astronauts and Shaking Sheriffs – Remembering Don Knotts (1924 – 2006)

Posted in Remember by - April 07, 2014
Anxious Astronauts and Shaking Sheriffs – Remembering Don Knotts (1924 – 2006)

With his large eyes, small frame and worried smile, Don Knotts was just made for comedy. His hilarious ‘nervous man’ routines made him famous, and he would later utilise this guise in a succession of popular comedy roles on both television and film.

Born Jesse Donald Knotts on July 21st 1924, Don began performing as a ventriloquist, and it was while entertaining the troops in the army that he decided comedy was for him. After a stint on radio, Knotts was cast in the Broadway play ‘No Time for Sergeants’, alongside Andy Griffith. This later led to a part in Mervyn LeRoy’s excellent 1958 screen adaptation of the play, where Don perfected his nervous, high-pitched persona. Knotts then put these to good use when he appeared as a “chicken-plucking expert” and “nervous man” in the popular television programme ‘The Steve Allen Plymouth Show’.

It was in 1960 that Don’s career really took off when he landed the role of Deputy Barney Fife in ‘The Andy Griffith Show’. During the shows long run, Don was nominated for an Emmy Award five times from 1961 to 1967, and won each time. After playing a nervous motorist in the epic farce ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ and a shoe clerk flirting with Doris Day, in ‘Move over Darling’ (both ’63), Don’s starring career was launched with the 1964 comedy-fantasy ‘The Incredible Mr Limpet’. Mixing animation with live action, the story about a man who turns into a fish to help the Navy’s war effort, remains a nostalgic oddity and a children’s favourite. Although not the ideal vehicle to kick-start Knotts solo career, it does at least remain one of his most likable films.

Around this time Knotts began a five movie contract at Universal Studios. One of his best was the 1966 comedy ‘The Ghost and Mr Chicken’, where his novice reporter has to spend a night in a supposed haunted house, which was the site of a murder-suicide some 20 years before. The scene where he nervously attempts to make a speech about bravery in front of a local crowd is genuinely hilarious, and this is the movie where most people associate Knotts from. Another popular title was ‘The Reluctant Astronaut’ (’67), where Don’s acrophobic fairground operator is sent into space by NASA, in an attempt to beat Russia in a ‘least likely to go to space’ contest. One of his best pictures was a reworking of the Bob Hope spoof ‘The Paleface’. ‘The Shakiest Gun in the West’ (’68), had his dental graduate becoming a reluctant hero in 1870’s west. A more adult-orientated comedy followed with ‘The Love God’ (’69). Here Knotts is a publisher for a bird-watching magazine, who unwillingly becomes something of a playboy when his publication is turned into a nudie mag by an unscrupulous agent. Not remembered as one of Don’s best, it is nevertheless an enjoyable satire and, although co-stars Edmond O’Brien and Anne Francis were good, they were obviously slumming it in roles rather beneath their talents.

Don was later paired with Tim Conway for a series of films at Disney, beginning with the enjoyable comedy ‘The Apple Dumpling Gang’ (’75), which had the duo as a pair of bumbling crooks. After co-starring with David Niven in ‘No deposit, No Return’ (’76), playing an inept criminal, Don was mechanic Wheely Applegate in ‘Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo’ (’77). After a sequel; ‘The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again’ in 1979, Conway and Knotts made a couple of independent comedies, ‘The Prize Fighter’ (’79) which was massive hit, and ‘The Private Eyes’ (’80), which saw the duo as a pair of clumsy detectives. Their final pairing would be a cameo as highway cops in the painful sequel ‘The Cannonball Run II’ (’84).

In 1979 Knotts made a welcome return to television when he took the part of lovable landlord Ralph Furley in the huge hit ‘Three’s Company’, where he stayed until the show ended in 1984. In 1988 Don’s long-time friend Andy Griffith gave him a recurring role in his series ‘Matlock’, as an annoying neighbour, which he played until 1992. In 1998 was nostalgic to see Knotts appear in the wonderful period fantasy-drama ‘Pleasantville’, in a small but crucial role as a mysterious TV repairman. After being left almost blind due to macular degeneration in both eyes, Don’s final movie work was lending his voice to various animation productions. These included playing a turkey in Disney’s 2005 hit ‘Chicken Little’, and as the narrator, “Sniffer” in the ‘Air Bud’ sequel; ‘Air Buddies’ (’06).

Married three times, with a son and daughter from his first marriage, Don Knotts died of lung cancer aged 81, on February 24th, 2006. A true one-off with perfect comic timing, just the sight of Don is enough to bring a warm smile to your face. And there are not many today who can do that!

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