The laughter in Hollywood has gone briefly silent as word comes that actor Don Knotts has passed away at age 81.
He died Friday night (Feb 24) at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills from pulmonary and respiratory complications, with which he had been suffering for some time.
The entertainer was born Jesse Donald Knotts on July 21, 1924 in Morgantown, West Virginia, the youngest of four sons. As a teenager, he performed as a ventriloquist at parties, but put the showbiz bug aside for a few years as he attended college and then enlisted in the Army during World War II. During his service, the then-19-year-old was assigned to the Special Services Branch where he entertained the troops.
After the war, he returned to college, graduating with degrees in education and theater. Around this time, he married and moved to New York City, where he split his time between doing stand-up at clubs and performing on several radio shows. He also landed a small role in the Broadway play "No Time For Sergeants," which starred Andy Griffith. The two would later reprise their roles when the production was turned into a film.
In 1956, Knotts joined the cast of characters on television's "The Tonight Show," which at the time was more of a variety show with host Steve Allen, and quickly became a show regular with his hilarious "man on the street" segments. When the format was changed to that of a talk show, it was moved to Los Angeles in 1959, with new host Jack Paar, and Knotts moved with the show.
Less than two years later, he was cast in a role which would serve as the defining moment in his career -- that of the loveable bumbling Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife on the "Andy Griffith Show." The role not only made him a tv legend, but won him an Emmy five times for Best Supporting Actor from 1961 to 1967.
During the show's run, Knotts decided to venture into film, and scored big hits with 1963's madcap It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and 1964's semi-animated family film, The Incredible Mr. Limpet. This landed him a five-year contract with Universal Pictures, which yielded several more hits, including The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1965), The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) and The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968).
Following the end of the "Andy Griffith Show" and his Universal contract, Knotts briefly starred in his own variety show before appearing in several Disney films. First up was The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), my personal favorite in which he teamed up with comedian Tim Conway (of the "Carol Burnett Show"), followed by No Deposit, No Return (1976), Gus (1976), Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo (1977), Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978) and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979).
It was also in 1979 that Knotts returned to television as a series regular on "Three's Company." For the last five years on the show, he played landlord Ralph Furley, who was forever suspicious of Jack's real sexual orientation.
In the late 80s and early 90s, Knotts landed the occasional television guest appearance, including a semi-regular role on Griffith's hit series, "Matlock." He also had a brief, but pivotal role in the film Pleasantville (1998).
In 1998, Knotts had a street named for him in his West Virginia hometown, and on January 19, 2000, the entertainer was recognized for his showbiz achievements and longevity with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
During the last five years of his life, Knotts kept busy by doing voice work for animated tv series and films. His last onscreen appearance was as the voice of Mayor Turkey Lurkey in last year's hit Disney animated film, Chicken Little.
Knotts is survived by his third wife, Francey Yarorough and his two children, Thomas and Karen, from his first marriage. A small memorial service is planned.