For late comedy legend and West Virginia native son Don Knotts, growing up in Morgantown during the Depression Era afforded seemingly few Mayberry-esque memories.
Born on July 21, 1924, Knotts lived in a boarding home run by his mother, following the death of his abusive, alcoholic father, who sometimes threatened his youngest son, Jesse Donald, with a knife.
āI felt like a loser,ā Knotts once said about his upbringing in an interview. āI was unhappy as a child most of the time. We were terribly poor and I hated my size. Mainly, I thought of Barney [Fife] as a kid. You can always look into the faces of kids and see what theyāre thinking, if theyāre happy or sad. Thatās what I tried to do with Barney.ā
Knotts attended Morgantown High School, then enlisted in the Army to serve in World War II. He earned a bachelorās degree in Education from West Virginia University in 1948.
Knotts had found he could make people laugh, often as a ventriloquist, during his military service. After graduating from WVU, he married and moved to New York. His first showbiz TV break came in 1953 with a two-year role as Wilbur Peterson on the āSearch for Tomorrowā soap opera. Later that decade, Knotts was a recurring (and often high-strung) character on āThe Steve Allen Plymouth Show.ā He made his debut as Deputy Barney Fife on CBSā āThe Andy Griffith Showā in 1960. (He and Griffith had co-starred in the 1958 film āNo Time for Sergeants;ā Knotts reprised his Broadway role from a year earlier.)
Morgantown has remembered him fondly over the years. Don Knotts Boulevard opened in 1998. A statue of Knotts was unveiled on High Street in Morgantown in 2016.
A daughterās tribute
His daughter, Karen Knotts, also honors his memory ā and her memories of him ā in both a 2021 memoir, āTied Up in Knotts: My Dad and Meā (with a foreword by actress Betty Lynn, Barneyās beloved Thelma Lou on āThe Andy Griffith Showā) and in a traveling comedy show, āTied Up in Knotts!.ā
She started writing the book prior to the pandemic, she said. āI got the deal, and the publisher wanted the book out in time for Christmas sales; that gave me just one year. I went to Morgantown and interviewed people whose parents had grown up with him. I learned a lot about his childhood. One story was, he entered a drama contest and was selected to be in the finals. He and his scene partner traveled to a high school in Ohio and won the competition. He was singled out as being an extraordinary young actor who had the sophistication to perform Noel Coward.ā
While no stage appearances are on the calendar for upcoming West Virginia visits currently, Karen will be performing one state to the east next week. āTied Up in Knotts!ā will start at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2, at the Cumberland Theatre, 101 Johnson St. in Cumberland, Maryland. She will sign and sell copies of her book afterward.
Karen launched her stage show in 2006, a few months after Don died at age 81. āIt was very different from what it is now ā it even had puppets! āTied Up In Knotts!ā started to become the show it is today around 2011. I began touring with it and it really took off in 2015. Iāve been improving it over the years, based on audience reaction. I can honestly say, itās the best it has ever been. Iām also performing more than ever,ā she said.
āTied Up in Knotts!ā includes 140 slides and video clips that serve as a backdrop to her anecdotes.
āAudiences love the stories about Dad and Tim Conwayās movies and seeing the video,ā she said. āTim would ad lib in every scene, which drove Don nuts. They were each otherās biggest fans.ā
Knottsā stage act invokes and involves another relative dear to her dad. āI also portray Dadās favorite aunt, Emma Belle, who was witness to the early days when he was performing ventriloquism. She tells how he ended up in the Army show, āStars and Gripes,ā and how he lost his dummy, Danny, overseas. Danny never got over it!ā
Father figure in life vs. Barney FifeKaren was born in early April 1954, one of two children from her fatherās first of three marriages (Don raised her as a single parent after his divorce). Her childhood home life didnāt always mirror idyllic Mayberry life, either, but it had its share of moments that let her bask and delight in her fatherās ineffable comedic side.
āDad was not like Barney Fife at home. He was wonderfully funny, but in his own way,ā she said. āWhen weād go out to dinner, there was some schtick he would do. He would thumb through the container of sugar packets and say, āIām sorry, your photos arenāt ready yet.ā Heād stand up and start tapping his spoon on the glass as if trying to get the restaurantās attention ā āIād like to make an announcement.ā Nobody noticed and we were dying laughing!ā
Don would perform magic tricks for Karen and her brother, Thomas, occasionally, she added, and āhe also wanted us to be informed. After dinner, heād read to us from the World Book Encyclopedia.
āWhen I first told him I wanted to pursue acting, Dad wasnāt happy because he knew how hard it is to make it in showbiz. A famous parent can only help so much. He did accept my ambition, though. In 1971, he had a variety show and he put me on it. I was a teenager then. Later, he helped me get an agent and I got parts on sitcoms.
āWhen I decided to do standup, he said, āThatās very hard for a woman to get into.ā At that time, it was even harder than now. Some of the best times were when he would put me in plays he was doing. I got to go on the road with him, and it was a thrill to be on stage with the master,ā Karen said.
Even her final moments with her father were leavened with laughter at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. āWell, Dad was dying and he was being funny. I started to laugh and I ran out of the room, because I didnāt want him to think I was laughing at him in that situation.
āI told the āMork and Mindyā director, Howard Storm, about it. He said, āYou should have stayed there and kept laughing. Itās what comedians live for.āā
Karen believes her fatherās indelible āThe Andy Griffith Showā role remains as hilarious and heartfelt ā and relevant ā three decades into the 21st century. āI am continually amazed at how the show has lived on since the 1960s. In a way, itās even more important now. Its popularity has grown since the world has become so complicated. We seem to be losing the basic human value we started with: āLove one another.ā
āAnd, of course, Barney is so funny.ā