It took a strong actor to play jittery Barney Fife, jumpy Mr. Furley and wimpy Mr. Limpet. It took Don Knotts.
Knotts, who made a career of being the shakiest man in Hollywood on The Andy Griffith Show, Three's Company and a string of movies, including The Incredible Mr. Limpet--which made him an unlikely, but leading comedy film actor of the 1960s--died Friday of lung cancer in Los Angeles. He was 81.
The iconic star was said to have been surrounded at his passing by family and friends, including Andy Griffith, his costar of more than 50 years.
Said Griffith of Knotts to the Associated Press on Saturday: "Don was special. There's nobody like him."
The announcement of Knotts' death was made, appropriately enough, by TV Land, the cable network specializing in shows, such as Andy Griffith and Three's Company, that have demanded repeated viewing.
Knotts costarred on the elemental The Andy Griffith Show from 1960-65, the comedy's first five seasons. He was the nervous Deputy Fife to Griffith's calm Sheriff Taylor. Fortunately for Fife, Mayberry wasn't the sort of town that would have drawn interest from a Cops camera crew.
Knott's run as Fife was unique in that it was as celebrated as it was popular. From 1961-63, Knotts won three straight Emmys for Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role by an Actor. In 1966 and 1967, after he'd left the series as a regular, he won two more supporting acting Emmys for guest-star stints. In all, Knotts hauled in five Emmys, among the most for an actor playing a single character.
Three's Company gave Knotts the opportunity for another memorable, though less decorated, sitcom character. On the sex farce, Knotts was Ralph Furley, aka Mr. Furley, the landlord to Jack Tripper and roommates. In his zip-up leisure suit, Furley was part letch and part mensch--though he kidded Tripper about the character's presumed sexual preference, he never threatened eviction because of it, though.
Knotts joined Three's Company in its fourth season in 1979. His Mr. Furley replaced the more outwardly hostile Mr. Roper. He remained with the show through its 1984 finale. Unlike Fife, Furley didn't bring Knotts any Emmys, much less any nominations.
In between Andy Griffith and Three's Company, Knotts was a bona fide movie star, one of the most reliable comedy draws of the 1960s.
As Jerry Lewis' career waned post-Nutty Professor, Knotts' stepped up with 1964's half-cartoon, half-live action The Incredible Mr. Limpet. Aside from a twist involving Knotts' transformation into a fish, Limpet was the model for all of the actor's subsequent comedies: A meek man sucks it up for the third act and saves the day.
His other signature films were: 1966's The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, in which Knotts tried out gumshoes; 1967's The Reluctant Astronaut, in which Knotts tried out a spacesuit; and 1968's The Shakiest Gun in the West, in which Knotts tried out a holster.
The effort to have Knotts try out turtleneck sweaters and assorted psychedelic wear proved less successful in 1969's The Love God? The following year, Knotts was back on TV as the host of a self-titled variety series. The show lasted only a season, and Knotts gave his feature persona another try in 1971's How to Frame a Figg, about a bookkeeper who saves the day, like Mr. Limpet, but doesn't turn into a fish, like Mr. Limpet.
The film ended Knotts' first run as a film star. His second run commenced when he became an out-and-out kiddie star in Disney films such as: 1975's The Apple Dumpling Gang, about hapless Old West bandits; 1976's Gus, about a field goal-kicking mule; and 1979's The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, about the return of the hapless Old West bandits. Knotts' Disney years also saw him costar with venerable actor Darren McGavin in two comedies: 1976's No Deposit, No Return and 1978's Hot Lead and Cold Feet. McGavin died Saturday at the age of 83.
Among his later credits, Knotts' most prominent film role came in the 1998 fantasy Pleasantville, in which he played a TV repairman who offers Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon a remote-control ride into a black-and-white 1950s sitcom.
"When he had a scene, we would stand like a set away and watch, and we were just cracking up," Witherspoon said of Knotts in a 1998 Entertainment Tonight interview. "He would just sit funny. And stand funny. He was just so funny in everything he did."
For his final screen credit, Knotts gave voice to Mayor Turkey Lurkey in last year's animated hit Chicken Little.
According to his official Website, Knotts, who played live shows in recent years with Apple Dumpling partner Tim Conway, gave his "farewell to theater" performance in a 2003 Kansas production of On Golden Pond.
Born Jesse Donald Knotts in Morgantown, West Virginia, on July 21, 1924, Knotts wrote in his autobiography, Barney Fife and Other Characters I Have Known, that he never remembered not wanting to be an actor.
"I suppose it all started with my mother," Knotts wrote. "She was a devoted movie fan and she started taking me to the movies along about the time that talking pictures were coming in."
After a false start or two, Knotts, a World War II veteran, began his career in earnest after graduating from college in 1948, according to official biographies.
In 1955, Knotts made his Broadway debut opposite Andy Griffith in the military comedy No Time for Sergeants. It was the first time he had worked with Griffith; it was not the last. In addition to Andy Griffith, Knotts and Griffith teamed up for the 1958 film version of Sergeants; the 1986 Andy Griffith made-for-TV reunion movie, Return to Mayberry; and several episodes of Griffith's 1986-1995 detective series, Matlock.
While Steve Allen gave Knotts his prime-time start--the young comic was a member of The Steve Allen Show's legendary ensemble from 1956-60--it was Griffith who gave Knotts the gift that was Barney Fife.
"I loved him very much," Griffith told the Associated Press. "We had a long and wonderful life together."