Don Knotts was born in Morgantown, West Virginia, the son of William Jesse Knotts and his wife, the former Elsie L. Moore. Knotts's paternal ancestors had emigrated from England to America in the 17th century, originally settling in Queen Anne's County, Maryland. Knotts' father was a farmer. Because of the burden of a fourth child (Don) being born so late (his mother was 40), he had a nervous breakdown, becoming a shell of his former self. Afflicted with both schizophrenia and alcoholism, he sometimes terrorized his young son with a knife, causing him to turn inward at an early age.
Knotts' father died of pneumonia when he was 13 years old. Knotts and his three brothers were then raised by their mother, who ran a boarding house in Morgantown. Knotts' mother died in 1969, at age 84. Son William Earl Knotts (1910–1941) preceded her in death in 1941, at age 31. They are buried in the family plot at Beverly Hills Memorial Park, in Morgantown, West Virginia. Knotts is a sixth cousin of Ron Howard, a co-star on the Andy Griffith Show. An urban legend claims that Knotts served in the United States Marine Corps during World War II, serving as a drill instructor at Parris Island. In reality, Knotts enlisted in the United States Army after graduating from Morgantown High School and spent most of his service entertaining troops.
Knotts began his career performing in many venues, including a ventriloquist act with a dummy named Danny "Hooch" Matador. In a TV Guide interview in the 1970s, he spoke about how, when he was in the Army, he was getting tired of playing straight man for a hunk of wood. According to Knotts, while on a ship in the South Pacific, he took the dummy topside and tossed him overboard. He swore he could hear the dummy calling for help as the ship sailed on, leaving him bobbing helplessly in the waves. Knotts got his first major break on television in the soap opera Search for Tomorrow where he appeared from 1953 to 1955. He came to fame in 1956 on Steve Allen's variety show, as part of Allen's repertory company, most notably in Allen's mock "Man in the Street" interviews, always as an extremely nervous man. In 1958, Knotts appeared in the film No Time for Sergeants alongside Andy Griffith.
In 1960, when Griffith was offered the opportunity to headline in his own sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show (1960–1968), Knotts took the role of Barney Fife, the deputy—and originally cousin—of Sheriff Andy Taylor (portrayed by Griffith). Knotts’s portrayal of the deputy on the popular show earned him five Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actor in a Television Comedy, one award for each of the five seasons he played the character.
A summary of the show from the website of the Museum of Broadcast Communications describes Deputy Barney Fife:
Self-important, romantic, and nearly always wrong, Barney dreamed of the day he could use the one bullet Andy had issued to him although he did fire his gun on a few occasions. He always fired his pistol accidentally while still in his holster or in the ceiling of the court house, at which point he would sadly hand his pistol to Andy. This is why Barney kept his one very shiny bullet in his shirt pocket. In episode # 196 Andy gave Barney more bullets so that he would have a loaded gun to go after a bad guy that Barney unintentionally helped to escape. While Barney was forever frustrated that Mayberry was too small for the delusional ideas he had of himself, viewers got the sense that he couldn't have survived anywhere else. Don Knotts played the comic and pathetic sides of the character with equal aplomb and he received three Emmy Awards during the show's first five seasons.
When the show first aired, Griffith was intended to be the comedic lead with Knotts as his straight man, similar to their roles in No Time for Sergeants. However, it was quickly discovered that the show was funnier with the roles reversed. As Griffith maintained in several interviews, "By the second episode, I knew that Don should be funny, and I should play straight."
Believing earlier remarks made by Griffith, that The Andy Griffith Show would soon be ending after five seasons, Knotts began to look for other work. He signed a five-film contract with Universal Studios. He was caught off guard when Griffith announced he would be continuing with the show after all, but Knotts’ hands were tied. In his autobiography, Knotts admitted that he had not yet signed a contract when Griffith made his decision, but he had made up his mind believing that he would not get this chance again. Knotts left the series in 1965. Within the series, it was announced that Deputy Fife had finally made the "big time", joining the Raleigh, North Carolina police force.
Knotts went on to star in a series of film comedies which drew on his high-strung persona from the TV series: he had a cameo appearance inIt's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and starred in The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), The Reluctant Astronaut (1967), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968), The Love God? (1969) and How to Frame a Figg (1971).Knotts would, however, return to the role of Barney Fife several times in the 1960s: he made five more guest appearances on The Andy Griffith Show (gaining him another two Emmys), and later appeared once more on the spin-off Mayberry RFD, where he was present as best man for the marriage of Andy Taylor and his longtime love, Helen Crump.
After making How to Frame a Figg, Knotts’s 5-film contract with Universal came to an end. He continued to work steadily, though he did not appear as a regular on any successful television series until his appearance on Three's Company in 1979. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Knotts served as the spokesman for Dodge trucks and was featured prominently in a series of print ads and dealer brochures. On television, he went on to host an odd-variety show/sitcom hybrid on NBC, The Don Knotts Show, which aired Tuesdays during the fall of 1970, but the series was low-rated and short-lived. He also made frequent guest appearances on other shows such as The Bill Cosby Show and Here's Lucy. In 1970, he would also make yet another appearance as Barney Fife, in the pilot of The New Andy Griffith Show. In 1972, Knotts would voice an animated version of himself in two memorable episodes of The New Scooby Doo Movies; one being "The Spooky Fog of Juneberry", in which he played a lawman who bore a remarkable resemblance to Barney Fife, and the other being "Guess Who's Knott Coming to Dinner". He also appeared as Felix Unger in a stage version of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple with Art Carney as Oscar Madison.
Beginning in 1975, Knotts was teamed with Tim Conway in a series of slapstick films aimed at children, including the Disney film The Apple Dumpling Gang, and its 1979 sequel, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. They also did two independent films, a boxing comedy called The Prize Fighter in 1979, and a mystery comedy film in 1981 called The Private Eyes. Knotts co-starred in several other Disney films, including 1976's Gus, 1976's No Deposit, No Return, 1977's Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo and 1978's Hot Lead and Cold Feet.
In 1979, Knotts returned to series television in his second most identifiable role, the wacky-but-lovable landlord Ralph Furley on Three's Company. The series, which was already an established hit, added Knotts to the cast when the original landlords, Helen Roper and her husband Stanley Roper, a married couple played by Audra Lindley and Norman Fell, respectively, left the show to star in their own short-lived spin-off series (The Ropers). Though the role of the outlandish, overdressed, nerdy-geeky-buffoon landlord was originally intended to be a minor recurring character, Knotts was so funny and lovable as a character who fantasized that he was an incredibly attractive lothario, that the writers greatly expanded his role. On set, Knotts easily integrated himself to the already-established cast who were, as John Ritter put it, "so scared" of Knotts because of his star status when he joined the cast. When Suzanne Somers left the show after a contract dispute in 1981, the writers started giving the material meant for Somers's Crissy to Knotts's Furley. Knotts remained on the show until it ended in 1984. The Three's Company script supervisor, Carol Summers, went on to be Knotts’s agent—often accompanying him to personal appearances.
In 1986, Don Knotts reunited with Andy Griffith in the made-for-television film Return to Mayberry, where he reprised his role as Barney Fife. In early 1987, Knotts joined the cast of the first-run syndication comedy What a Country!, playing Principal Bud McPherson for series' remaining 13 episodes. The sitcom was produced by Martin Rips and Joseph Staretski, who had previously worked on Three's Company. In 1988, Knotts joined Andy Griffith in another show, playing the recurring role of pesky neighbor Les Calhoun on Matlock until 1992.
After his appearances on Matlock ended in 1992, Knotts’ roles became sporadic, including a cameo in the 1996 film Big Bully as the principal of the high school. In 1998, Knotts had a small but pivotal role as a mysterious TV repairman in Pleasantville with Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon. That year, his home town of Morgantown, West Virginia, changed the name of the street formerly known as South University Avenue (U.S. Route 119) to Don Knotts Boulevard on "Don Knotts Day". Also that day, in a nod to Don's role as Barney Fife, he was also named an honorary deputy sheriff with the Monongalia County Sheriff's Department.
Knotts was recognized in 2000 with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Though he continued to act on stage, much of his film and television work after 2000 was as voice talent. In 2002, he would appear again with Scooby-Doo in the video game Scooby-Doo: Night of 100 Frights (Knotts also sent up his appearances on that show in various promotions for Cartoon Network and in a parody on Robot Chicken, where he was teamed with Phyllis Diller). In 2003, Knotts teamed up with Tim Conway again to provide voices for the direct-to-video children's series, Hermie and Friends which would continue until his death. In 2005, he was the voice of Mayor Turkey Lurkey in Chicken Little (2005), his first Disney movie since 1979. On September 12, 2003, Knotts was in Kansas City in a stage version of On Golden Pond when he received a call from John Ritter's family telling him that his former Three's Company co-star had died of an aortic dissection that day. Knotts and his co-stars attended the funeral four days later. Knotts had appeared with Ritter one final time in a cameo on 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. It was an episode that paid homage to their earlier TV series. Knotts was the last Three's Company star to work with Ritter.
During this period of time, macular degeneration in both eyes caused the otherwise robust Knotts to become virtually blind. His live appearances on television were few. In 2005, Knotts parodied his Ralph Furley character while playing a Paul Young variation in a Desperate Housewives sketch on The 3rd Annual TV Land Awards. He would parody that part one final time, in his last live-action television appearance, an episode of That ’70s Show, ("Stone Cold Crazy"). In the show, Don played Fez and Jackie's new landlord. Knotts's final role was in Air Buddies, the 2006 direct-to-video sequel to Air Bud, voicing the sheriff's deputy dog, Sniffer.
Knotts was married three times: Kathryn Metz from 1947–1964; Loralee Czuchna from 1974–1983; and Frances Yarborough from 2002 until his death. He had a son, Thomas Knotts and daughter, actress Karen Knotts, from his first marriage. Don Knotts died on February 24, 2006, at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California from pulmonary and respiratory complications to pneumonia related to lung cancer. He had been undergoing treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in the months before his death, but had gone home after he reportedly had been feeling better. His long-time friend, Andy Griffith, visited Knotts’s bedside just hours before his death. Knotts's wife and daughter stayed with him until he died. He was buried at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Knotts’s obituaries cited him as a major influence on other entertainers.
His statue stands in Morgantown, West Virginia in a memorial park on Don Knotts Boulevard.