Don Knotts, TV's Deputy Fife, dies

HOLLYWOOD — HOLLYWOOD -- Don Knotts, the saucer-eyed, scarecrow-thin comic actor best known for his roles as the high-strung, small-town deputy Barney Fife on the 1960s CBS series The Andy Griffith Show and the leisure-suit-clad landlord Ralph Furley on ABC's '70s sitcom Three's Company, has died. He was 81.

Mr. Knotts, who lived in West Los Angeles, died Friday night of lung cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to Sherwin Bash, his longtime manager.


Family members said that his longtime friend Mr. Griffith was one of his last visitors.

Despite health problems, Mr. Knotts had kept working. . He did guest spots in 2005 on NBC's Las Vegas and Fox's That '70s Show. He occasionally co-headlined in live comedy shows with Tim Conway, his sometime co-star in Disney films including The Apple Dumpling Gang. Mr. Knotts also appeared as the TV repairman in director Gary Ross' whimsical 1998 comedy Pleasantville.


As he grew older, Mr. Knotts became a lodestar for younger comic actors. The new generation came to appreciate his highly physical brand of acting that, at its best, was in the tradition of silent-film greats such as Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel and Harold Lloyd.

Mr. Knotts first rose to prominence in the late 1950s, joining Louis Nye and other comedy players on The Steve Allen Show. In 1961, United Artists Records released a comedy album titled Don Knotts: An Evening With Me, which featured takeoffs on the "nervous man" routine the comic had made famous on Mr. Allen's show.

Many TV viewers remember Mr. Knotts as Ralph Furley, the ascot-wearing, middle-aged landlord who mistakenly viewed himself as a swinger on ABC's hit sex farce Three's Company.

But it was his portrayal of Barney Fife - a role for which he won five Emmy Awards - that immortalized Mr. Knotts to TV viewers. Deputy Fife, an inveterate bumbler, was not in the series pilot, and was, at first, intended simply to be part of a large ensemble that would surround Mr. Griffith, who played Sheriff Andy Taylor in Mayberry, a fictional North Carolina town.

But not long after the debut of the series in October 1960, Mr. Knotts stole the show. The writers began beefing up Fife's role and creating episodes that depended on the sheriff rescuing Fife from his latest predicament. Andy Griffith was the most popular comedy on television in its first season and never dropped from the Top 10 during its eight-year run.

In Mr. Knotts' hands, Fife was a hick-town Don Quixote who imagined himself braver, more sophisticated and more competent than he was. His lack of self-control led him into desperate jams that usually culminated with Fife bug-eyed and panting with anxiety.

Two of Mr. Knotts' three marriages ended in divorce; the first produced two children. He was married to actress Francey Yarborough at the time of his death.

"He saw poignancy in people's pride and pain, and he turned it into something endearing and hilarious," Mrs. Yarborough said in a statement yesterday.


Scott Collins writes for the Los Angeles Times.