Don Knotts, the beloved comedian best known for playing Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, died at 81 on Feb. 24, 2006 in Los Angeles. He died of lung cancer at UCLA Medical Center, his longtime manager Sherwin Bash told the Los Angeles Times. One of his last visitors was his longtime friend, Andy Griffith, who died six years later.
Despite his poor health, Knotts continued acting almost right up until his death. He voiced the Turkey Mayor in the Disney animated film Chicken Little, which hit theaters in November 2005. That same year, he appeared in the That '70s Show episode "Stone Cold Crazy" and voiced a character in two episodes of Fatherhood. His final role was Sniffer in Air Buddies, which was released posthumously in 2006.
Knotts' longevity meant he lived long enough to see himself become a legend among younger comedians. "He was absolutely flappable," Virginia Heffernan wrote in the New York Times after Knotts' death. "No one had a better tremor or double-take, and with his unmistakable homeliness -- bulging eyes, receding chin, stooped shoulders, broad hips -- he didn't bother to play the wise fool; he wisely stuck to just the fool."
Knotts was born Jesse Donald Knotts on July 21, 1924 in Morgantown, West Virginia. He showed an early interest in comedy and ventriloquism, so he tried to start a career in New York City in the early 1940s. That did not pan out, so he went back to study at West Virginia University. He served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1946 and received several medals for his service during World War II. Afterward, he went back to West Virginia and moved back to New York after marrying his first wife, Kay Metz.
While in New York, Knotts' career began to take off, first on radio and then on the stage when he was cast in No Time for Sergeants in 1955. When the play made the transition to the movies in 1958, Knotts worked with Griffith for the first time. In 1960, the two reunited for The Andy Griffith Show, which ran until 1968 and earned Knotts five Emmys for Best Supporting Actor in a Television Comedy.
Knotts brought his familiar persona to the big screen during the 1960s, appearing in The Incredible Mr. Limpet, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Reluctant Astronaut, The Shakiest Gun in the West, and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. He also started a long association with Tim Conway, appearing in The Apple Dumpling Gang and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again for Disney. Knotts made several other Disney films during the 1970s as well. In 1979, Knotts found his second-biggest TV role. He was cast as Ralph Furley on Three's Company. Knotts stayed on the show until it ended in 1984.
In his later years, Knotts continued working with Griffith, starring in Return to Mayberry and nabbing a recurring role in Matlock. He also starred in Pleasantville and took on several voice-acting roles in animated films. In 2000, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and published a memoir, Barney Fife and Other Characters I Have Known. He was married three times and survived by two children, including actress Karen Knotts.
In a recent interview with Closer Weekly, Karen said her father was so funny until his death, she had to run out of his hospital room to laugh. "I thought to myself, 'I don't want to be standing there in front of this man, my dearly beloved father, who's dying, and laughing," she recalled. "I was telling this story to Howard Storm, who's a director, and he said, 'You should have stayed and laughed out loud. That's what comedians live for!' He was right; I should have just stood there and blasted out laughing."