What's It Like to Have Don Knotts for a Dad?
By Pat Gallagher Posted Oct 5th 2010 10:00PM
Barney Fife. That's all one has to say out loud to get a big laugh. Don Knotts brought this lovable, bumbling sitcom character to life on 'The Andy Griffith Show' in 1960. The audience got to know him so well, that he became a television favorite almost immediately, and, now, 50 years later, millions of loyal fans still can't get enough of the skinny, high-strung deputy sheriff who gets "sinking spells" in the afternoon if he doesn't get a snack. Whether his nervous energy was due to" low sugar blood content" or he was just prone to wild outbursts because of that invisible "clock in his stomach," the fact is we love Barney as much as we loved Lucy.
PopEater caught up with Karen Knotts, 56, (Knotts' daughter with his first wife Kathryn) in Mt. Airy, N.C. recently where she was there to help honor her late father (he died in 2006) at the 21st Annual "Mayberry Days." She talked about her close relationship with her dad, how different he was in real life from Barney, why he was dead-set against her becoming an actress, her new one-woman show, and of course his relationship with boss and friend, Andy Griffith.
Your dad's character Barney Fife is one of the most beloved television characters ever. Someone had to write the show and create Barney on paper, but he had to create the role in the flesh. So how did he come up with that persona? Where did that come from?
I don't know if you know the back story about this, but originally Andy Griffith was supposed to be the funny one on the show. Then when my dad came in, Andy quickly realized that Barney should be the funny one so he readjusted the roles. But my dad really kind of created that character I think from the get go. He went in there and auditioned, and he created him right then and there, and they just went with it. They did write the show but some of the classic routines were written by my dad and Andy Griffith.
Did you recognize that Barney Fife character in anybody you've ever known?
It was [my dad's] child-like self. My personal belief is that Barney Fife was Don [Knotts] himself, the child. When he was a boy, he had a lot of fears and a lot of problems, so he would always tell people about the character when they would ask him; he would say that it was 'Barney Fife is a child.' That was always his answer. I think it was him as a child ... that's what the character was.
How was your dad different from Barney?
As a man, he was nothing like [Barney's childlike character]. He was a very worldly, sophisticated man. He was very intelligent ... very into the news and what was going on in the world. He was very humble. He knew he was good, but he was also humble about it. He was debonair, a great dresser, a great dancer, he was a great all-around man. Also, he was very low key in real life. I wouldn't say he was laid back, but he didn't have outbursts like Barney Fife. He had a very wry sense of humor. He was very witty. He had his own comic persona apart from the characters he played.
He and Andy played off of each other so brilliantly.
Fans always say they love Barney Fife. But there couldn't have been a Barney Fife without Andy. People don't realize this. They were a team. People used to say, 'Lucille Ball was so much funnier than Ricky.' (laughs) But they were a team.
What was your father's relationship like with Andy as an actor?
Well, they had worked together on Broadway, and that's how my dad got his start. He got this little role in 'No Time for Sergeants.' They just hit it off. They were like soul mates comedy wise. And Andy would always encourage my dad. My dad had this one thing where he dreamed up this monologue. He actually dreamed in his sleep this monologue. It was this nervous guy character. This was before he even got on 'The Steve Allen Show.' He was not anybody then. All he had was a part in the play, then he wanted to do this monologue and get on 'The Steve Allen Show.' And Andy said, 'Don this is brilliant. You've got to do that!' He just kept hounding after him because my dad was so insecure. All though his career Andy has been his mentor pushing him and pushing other people to recognize my dad's talent. He's always been his biggest champion and his biggest fan.
How about their relationship as friends?
They were very close but they didn't hang out together that much because they were very different. Andy was kind of a sportsman, he liked to hunt; they had different hobbies and they were both married. They didn't really hang out as couples. But when they hung out, they were really, really close.
How did your dad feel about winning Emmys, yet Andy never won?
There was no ego like there is today. Andy Griffith was a magnanimous, generous person in that he always wanted the show to be the best, and it was above and beyond his personal ego and pride or anything like that. I don't know that there was ever anything mentioned about Andy never being nominated. Of course he should have been nominated. The same thing happened to Jackie Gleason. He never won an Emmy. I don't think he ever won one. Ed Norton (Art Carney) did I believe. (Art Carney won five.) There's so much politics involved and all that.
What do you think about the huge fan base that attends "Mayberry Days"?
It's getting to be rather astonishing. Last year was my first time going there. It was big then, but this year it was huge! It was the 50 year anniversary, but more and more people are starting to go, and it's so fantastic how the people get so swept up in the show. I've always been amazed at how well loved my father is and continues to be and continues to grow. As a child growing up, he was my dad, and I knew he was famous, but I never quite realized the extent of it because you want to keep your relationship with your father normal and grounded so you kind of shut some of that out because you don't want it to affect everyday life with a person.
Was your father aware of the kinds of fans he had?
I think he was amazed at how it continued to grow and stay so viable. The comments from the fans, dad would say things like: 'Where did you find that? You really want me to sign this?' (laughs). He was kind of a humble guy to begin with, but I think he was just amazed when he saw the Mayberry phenomenon.
It's hard to even think of Barney Fife as being a father, but of course Barney and Don are two different people.
Exactly, and that's what my show ('Tied Up in Knotts') is about. That's what I'm trying to do [separate Barney from Don], and it's difficult especially during "Mayberry Days" because the people want Barney Fife to be real, and it's difficult for them to separate them ... the whole concept of Don Knotts being an entity other than Barney Fife is a difficult concept for some people. (laughs) It's kind of a challenge doing the show. I'm talking about him as a real person in different situations and things in his life. I don't know if people are actually getting it or not.
Tell me about your one-woman play, 'Tied Up in Knotts.'
I talk about my relationship with my father. We were very close. He encouraged me in a lot of things in his career. I was extremely lucky to be a part of so much of his life in his career so I share that with the audience and some more private parts of the man that I knew as my father. It kind of gives a little bit more of an insight into him. He was quite a dimensional person. I talk about the different ways I knew him ... and my own life too and how he affected my life. I talk about being a librarian because he convinced me that I should not just focus on show business, and so he got me into becoming a librarian and how that changed my life. In addition to being my father, he was my best friend. It was wonderful because I knew I had this best friend who was a worldly man. But he also had some neurosis [about his career] and things, and he kind of depended on me for friendship too in a lot of ways.
You said you're a librarian. When did you decide to pursue a career in entertainment?
I always wanted that. As a child, he absolutely forbid it because he thought it was too lonely of a life. Then as I grew older, he tried to discourage me from it because he said it's just too difficult to get into. He said, 'I've seen so many people that didn't make it, and their lives [are difficult.] I want you to have a full, happy life.' And he was just fearing the worst. He was trying to talk me out of it for a long time. He'd always come and see me whenever I had a part in a play. He never missed a single show I was in. And then he cast me in a few shows, and he took me on the road with him, and I talk about that in my show, what it was like to work with him. It was a thrilling experience.
When your dad left TAGS in 1965, everybody was sad to see him leave the show.
The reason that he left is because Andy had said in the beginning that he would never go longer than five seasons. So when it started to get close to the end of that fifth season, dad started looking around for work. He got a five-picture contract offered to him from Universal Studios, and then Andy changed his mind and decided to keep on going, but, by that time, dad already had this offer, and it was a great offer and he had agreed to it verbally I think. And so Andy didn't want to stand in his way. Andy is a very generous man.
You and Ron Howard are the same age. Were you friends growing up?
I knew Ron when I visited on the set, and we hung out. He showed me his new toys, one being a gold transistor radio, very small for its time. We were not exceptionally close but we were good friends. These days, I don't see or hear from him much.
I understand that Andy was at your dad's bedside at the day that he died.
Yes, he was there before I got there. He was very much in touch. I didn't see him that day, but he was there earlier. They relationship continued to be strong all the way through my dad's life.
If people want to come see you, how can they find out where you are?
I can do fundraisers, or I can do a big show in a large theater for a couple thousand people or I can do a smaller event. I have different versions of the show for different kinds of events. The can contact me through my website: www.karenknotts.com.
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