Don Knotts’ daughter recalls life with ‘Barney’
Tom Joyce Staff Reporter
Don Knotts is no longer around, but the audience in a jam-packed Earle Theatre experienced the next-best thing Friday afternoon when his daughter Karen presented a one-woman show that answered the question:
What was it like to grow up around one of the top comedy stars of all time?
“When I was about 6, I realized that my dad, Don Knotts, was also that Barney Fife on ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’” the late actor’s daughter said during her humorous presentation, “Tied Up in Knotts.”
Every Monday at 8 p.m., her family would gather around the television set for the weekly episode of the show, Knotts recalled Friday.
“He made us believe Barney Fife was a real person,” including her dad’s antics with only one bullet for his gun.
Filled with behind-the-scenes stories and anecdotes of how he achieved stardom as one of TV’s most-memorable characters, Karen Knotts’ show has become a highlight of Mayberry Days each year. It has sold out each time, and on Friday folks filled the main auditorium of the theater and its balcony.
Karen Knotts’ appearance was accompanied by a stage full of props, including an array of hats she wore to highlight different characters or stages in her life. Meanwhile, the movie screen in the darkened theater continuously displayed old photographs, TV clips and other visual material that provided what one observer called “an amazing trip down Memory Lane.”
At one point, Karen Knotts, now 59 — a talented comedian and actress in her own right — asked the audience if they could see a resemblance between her and Don Knotts. This wasn’t that noticeable until she made a goofy face mirroring one simultaneously shown on the screen behind her — of a surprised look that Barney Fife exhibited numerous times.
“Sometimes I like to look like him so I can get free haircuts at Floyd’s Barber Shop,” Knotts joked, “other times not — so I can get dates.”
She also recalled her time as a student at Beverly Hills High School, after her dad bought a house in that community. “I’m not like those other Beverly Hills brats,” Knotts said, mentioning Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears.
“For one thing, I still have my driver’s license.”
Began As Ventriloquist
Knotts’ father’s career, and his Barney Fife characterization, did not come about overnight, his daughter said, citing an evolutionary process spawned in his native West Virginia.
Don Knotts’ first show-business influence was his older brother Earl, who was a bit of a clown, as illustrated by a vintage black-and-white photograph shown to the audience. “He was called ‘Shadow,’” Karen Knotts said, “because he was no skinny he didn’t have one.”
As a child, Don Knotts ate Wheaties in the hopes they would make him as big and strong as the professional athletes featured on the boxes. The only problem was, his daughter told the audience, Wheaties was the breakfast of champions, not that of “nervous comedians,” which he would become.
The elder Knotts was born in 1924 and listened to radio shows such as one featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. Knotts decided to follow in Bergen’s footsteps with his own dummy named Danny.
By age 13, Knotts was earning money at parties with his ventriloquist act, which followed him into the U.S. Army. Knotts took part in shows for fellow troops, while learning the show-business ropes from professional entertainers who were part of his outfit.
While in the service, her dad abandoned his ventriloquist act in favor of straight comedy, Karen Knotts said. “He was tired of lugging that heavy dummy all around the Philippines.”
He later returned to Morgantown, W.Va., and took drama classes at West Virginia University, where he would meet his future wife Kay, Karen’s mom. While Knotts was interested in drama as a profession, Kay was taking the classes for fun.
“And she ended up with the funnest guy on campus,” Karen Knotts said.
The couple eventually migrated to New York City as Knotts sought to launch his career.
But he was told by someone in the business there that he needed to lose his “twang,” his daughter related, to which Knotts replied, “I didn’t know I was infected.”
Knotts’ first major break came when he appeared as a mute on the daytime drama, “Search for Tomorrow.”
“That was the only dramatic role Dad ever had,” Karen Knotts said.
Her father then landed a dual role in a Broadway show, “No Time for Sergeants,” where he first met a young actor from Mount Airy, N.C., named Griffith.
“They were two country boys in downtown Manhattan who hit it off,” Karen Knotts said.
Don Knotts subsequently became a regular on a TV comedy show hosted by Steve Allen, where he perpetuated his “nervous speaker” routine, she continued.
That proved to be a springboard for the role that would make him famous, coinciding with plans to launch “The Andy Griffith Show.” Knotts pitched the idea of adding a high-strung deputy for Sheriff Taylor to the producers, who were receptive.
“And Barney Fife was born,” Karen Knotts said.
As a youngster, she sometimes went on the set of “The Andy Griffith Show” and was shocked to see Aunt Bea (actress Frances Bavier) smoking a cigarette. “That’s right, kid,” Bavier told the disbelieving youngster in between puffs. “I’m still a hot chick.”
Karen Knotts also recalled how Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle) once asked her father, “Goll-eee, how can you be so funny?”
“It helps if you look like me,” she said her father replied.
The blossoming of Don Knotts’ career coincided with a low point in his family life, when he moved out of the house and began a trial separation with Kay that would lead to divorce.
“I guess the pressures of Dad’s fame were just too much and they drifted apart,” Karen Knotts observed. She elected to live with her father.
Exit From Show
Also Friday, Karen Knotts discussed her father’s departure from “The Andy Griffith Show” at the height of its popularity in the mid-1960s after five seasons.
“People often say to me, ‘your dad really made that show,’” she told the attentive audience. “And I know what you’re saying.” But Griffith was a big part of the series as well, Knotts added, “because they were a team,” with him playing the straight man.
Griffith originally had planned on only a five-year run for it, but later decided to continue on, which coincided with Don Knotts landing a contract with Universal Pictures to make five movies.
However, her father remained a part of the show in a sense, due to the fact it has survived in reruns for more than 50 years, Karen Knotts said. “And I think it will go on forever.”
Karen appeared as an extra in one of her father’s films, “The Shakiest Gun in the West,” and also had a speaking role in “Return to Mayberry,” a TV-movie that reunited the former cast members.
She said Knotts was supportive of her efforts to have a career in the entertainment field and acted as a mentor.
“He was also my best friend,” said Karen Knotts, whose show Friday included many photos with her dad.
She also read an open message that he had written before his death for her future audiences, which she recites at every show. If it is good, the elder Knotts wrote, he is happy to take the credit.
But if not, “she didn’t learn it from me.”
Don Knotts probably would have been proud of his daughter’s work here Friday, which brought frequent applause, and laughter, from the crowd.
“You guys are the best Mayberry fans in the world,” she responded, adding one regret with regard to her father:
“I wish he could be here to see this.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.
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