Your roots can make you stronger, or they can ‘break you in two.’ This is the
story of Don Knotts, born “Jesse” Don Knotts. His birthday, July 21, 1924 and
the day he died was, February 23, 2006. This July, he would have reached the
landmark birthday of 90 years old.
Jesse was only four years ahead of my Mom, in age. But so far behind, from the
standpoint of his childhood background.
Jessie’s roots were in West Virginia where a lot of ‘hard scrabble folks’ were
born and raised. It wasn’t easy growing up in his family or that part of the
country. It was a rough time, for many people with the onset of the Depression,
not too long into Jesse’s life and all.
Jesse was raised by a father who was known to be a ‘brute’ of a man, with high
expectations of his son. (Some biographers have decided, from their research,
that his father may have been mentally ill.) He was rough on his son. So was
Jesse’s older brother. There have been stories of his father wielding a knife at
him and beating him.
The young boy, raised in the country on a farm, was often picked on at school
since he was so scrawny and his clothes didn’t fit too well either.
While in school, he was often sickly. Jesse got in the habit of becoming almost a
“hypochondriac.” Being ill deflected his Dad’s wrath and also, kept him out of
school. There were times his mother comforted and took care of him, helping
make him feel better about himself. This and being a ‘day-dreamer’ managed
to help him survive school.
Jesse was someone who wanted to find a way to ‘fit in’ or get out of his life.
There were three brothers to be raised by his mother alone, once his father died.
One evidence of Jesse’s curiosity and use of imagination was shown in his choice
of reading and play materials. He developed a talent with utilizing sock dolls and
asking people for money for their entertainment factor. This meant they saw
him use the puppet, while throwing his voice, using varied tones to tell his
crazy stories and made up plays. He developed an early comedic timing, which
got some smiles and laughs. His hopes of being a ventriloquist was encouraged
by books on the subject he read.
One of the first jobs he got, sometimes he told people later in life, he felt he
‘deserved’ this pathetic job. He stood on a line at a chicken factory and his story
goes, plucked chicken feathers off dead chickens. This was helpful for saving his
money and purchasing a ventriloquist dummy. Much nicer than the sock puppet!
This brought more money into his savings for his future.
Jesse graduated from high school and afterwards joined the military. He
persisted through sickness, getting recognition for his talents. Once he was
‘discovered’ to be quite lively and entertaining, he was put into the Entertainment
Corps. This helped him to become more confident. He was part of the United
States Army, from 1943 to 1946.
Turns out, this choice of joining the Army changed his life. Knowing he was
not a ‘loser’ nor ‘worthless’ meant he could produce popular and interesting
character sketches. The more people laughed, the more original his material
became. He could “make fun of himself” and make money, too.
Jesse attended and graduated from West Virginia University.
Jesse’s star would rise, up into the sky, as Don Knotts.
Using his ‘hypochondria’ and his ‘paranoia’ to his advantage, this and his
skinny, slightly unattractive and awkward looks made him even more funny
to his audiences.
Don Knotts became a ‘hit’ in the true sense of the word!
Don was on a soap opera, he was the “Man on the Streets” where Steve Allen
would conduct “fake interviews” with him, as a nervous man on the sidewalk.
He was in the Broadway production, from 1955-57, of “No Time for Sergeants.”
Don later reprised his role in the movie version. This was where he met Andy
The movie, “No Time for Sergeants,” was filmed in 1958 with Don Knotts
and Andy Griffith.
Their television show, followed in 1960, where the two of them were partners,
When he got the part of “Barney Fife,” in the television show, “The Andy
Griffith Show,” he played the deputy sheriff to Andy Griffith’s role of sheriff.
This show lasted from 1960 until 1968. Don Knotts won five Emmy awards.
There were many more movie offers for Don Knotts.
My favorite role of his lifetime was as the fish in the animated children’s movie,
“The Incredible Mr. Limpet.” I did not know him from “Search for Tomorrow,”
nor did I really like the movie, “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.” I did laugh at his
flamboyant role as landlord, in the comedy television show, “Three’s Company.”
Do you have a favorite role that Don Knotts played?
Did you like him best as the shaky, nervous Deputy Barney Fife?
He was sixth cousins to Ron Howard, who played the character, “Opie.”
Andy Griffith and Don were known to be close friends, throughout their
filming the t.v. show and later years.
Don Knotts was married three times, his first marriage lasting from 1947-1967.
He had two children, a daughter named Karen Knotts and a son, Thomas Knotts.
His last marriage to Frances Yarborough was from 2002 up until he died in 2006.
Making millions of dollars over his lifetime, being a ‘household name’ and his
having the record of the most Emmy Awards for television shows sure showed
his father and those bullies who picked on “Jesse” Don Knotts!