Stand-up comic Karen Knotts grew up as the daughter of famous comedian and actor Don Knotts. And it’s probably fair to say that Karen knows the difference between comedy and tragedy, too – not least through her father’s famous role in The Andy Griffith Show. But humor and heartbreak were virtually intertwined as she sat at Don’s deathbed in February 2006. In fact, at one point, Karen was so overwhelmed that she had to run out of the room – and she’s since gone on record to explain exactly why.
Interestingly, Karen has talked about Don a lot since he passed away – although it perhaps helps that she has a great many stories to tell. “My father was a multifaceted character,” she said to The Wichita Eagle in 2014. “He was always a bit of a mystery. He could be so outgoing and charming, but he could also be introverted and shy.”
And in 2018 Karen embarked on an extensive interview with Closer magazine in which she naturally discussed her father. She went into detail about her personal relationship with him, too, as well as his career in movies and on The Andy Griffith Show. Perhaps most significantly, though, she spoke about running from the room where he lay on his deathbed – and she revealed exactly why she regretted that unusual move.
Nor was Karen shy about mentioning her dad’s difficult upbringing. Shockingly, Don had grown up with an alcoholic and mentally ill father who had even been known to threaten his son at knifepoint. “[Don] had problems with his father and an older brother who tormented him because they were alcoholics,” Karen told Closer.
When Don’s father passed away, then, it was something of a blessing to the 13-year-old future comedian. “At that point, that burden – that huge burden – lifted off of [Dad], and he became old enough that he was able to get the other brother under control, [meaning] he was no longer terrorized at home,” Karen explained.
It seemed that life improved for Don, too, when he started attending Morgantown High School in West Virginia. His daughter revealed to Closer, “[Dad] just blossomed, and he said those high school years were the best years of his life. He was class president every year, [and] he had a column in the yearbook that was called ‘Dots and Dashes by Knotts.’”
All in all, then, as a student Don was able to explore avenues he never had before. “The world was his oyster, and it was the first time he’d ever experienced such complete happiness where all those problems fell away and there he was, living the beautiful life,” Karen went on. “Of course, things came back to haunt him later because he had a lifelong condition of hypochondria, which he battled. But he even conquered that in the end.”
Following his high-school graduation, Don subsequently joined the U.S. Army in 1943. The country was fighting World War II at the time, and keeping morale up would’ve been important for the troops. It was lucky, then, that Don had already been honing his comedy skills, while he was a talented ventriloquist to boot. So, the future star spent the war performing shows for the soldiers as part of a Special Services unit.
And according to Karen, Don had loved ventriloquism ever since he was a small child. “My father was just thrilled by this as a boy, and so he saw this magazine – Boy’s Life or one of those kinds of magazines – with an ad that said, ‘Be a ventriloquist. Send away for this device that you can use to throw your voice.’ He scrounged up every penny that he could,” she told Closer.
Yes, even though his family was hard up, young Don was ultimately able to afford the “voice-thrower.” “The device, was, of course, completely a fraud, but it came with a booklet that explained how to manipulate your tongue and your mouth to throw your voice. He studied that book and learned how to do it, and things started to happen for him,” Karen continued.
However, Don eventually grew tired of ventriloquism – as well as his dummy. In the 1970s, you see, he revealed to TV Guide that he had thrown Danny “Hooch” Matador into the South Pacific while he had been serving aboard a naval ship. But it didn’t appear to matter; once he left the army, the entertainment world was at his feet.
Yes, Don utilized his contacts from the Special Services unit to provide him with an “in” to showbusiness. And those crucial links came in handy, too, as they ultimately helped him land the role of Windy Wales on a Western-themed radio show named Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders. During this period, the fledgling star was also earning his chops as a performer at comedy clubs.
Then Don finally made his television debut in the soap Search for Tomorrow. From 1956 he also showed off his comedic talents in Steve Allen’s variety series. But it was while filming the movie No Time for Sergeants in 1958 that he met Andy Griffith. And the rest, as they say, is history.
As fans know, of course, Griffith and his self-titled show changed the course of Don’s career, as Deputy Barney Fife would become his defining role. In fact, the performer ended up winning no fewer than five Emmys in the Best Supporting Actor in a Television Comedy category as the accident-prone law enforcer.
Don left The Andy Griffith Show in 1965, however, after believing that the series would only last for five seasons. After that, he returned to his career on the silver screen, adding the likes of spoof Western The Shakiest Gun in the West and dramedy The Ghost and Mr. Chicken to his resume. And by then, he also had two children: Karen and her brother, Thomas. Karen still remembers when she and Thomas joined their dad on sets, too.
But Karen certainly wasn’t a fan of all Don’s movie roles. In fact, when she was younger, the comedian’s part in The Incredible Mr. Limpet actually made her burst into tears. “When it came to that part where my dad turned into a fish, I would start to cry. I don’t know why. My dad was obviously still alive – he was actually in the same room with me – and he wasn’t a fish, but it just made me sad,” she revealed.
And although both Karen and Thomas were allowed to be extras in The Shakiest Gun in the West, Don’s daughter remembers that she wasn’t exactly a natural. She told Closer, “I was just happy and kept smiling. So, I’m standing there in the background during this shootout Dad has with the gunslinger, and I’m smiling. [But] the crowd is supposed to be terrified.”
To hide the young girl’s glee, then, the film crew had to improvise. Karen went on, “[The team] gave me this Western hat [that] was big and flat with a wide brim, and the hat covered my face. It put my face in shadow so you couldn’t see me smiling. My brother and I were hamming it up like crazy on the set of that movie. We were all over the place.”
Interestingly, one of the films that Karen remembers most is 1969’s The Love God? And in the movie, Don plays a Hugh Hefner-esque character – one that stands in marked contrast to his squeaky-clean public persona. “I honestly don’t know how Dad felt about it,” Karen later confessed to Closer. “He loved being Barney Fife and all that, but then as we got into the late 1960s, everything had this sexual innuendo to it. It was the days of free love and all this stuff, so he was hindered by that because of his image.”
Don moved with the times, though, and eventually won a role in the fourth season of ABC’s hit series Three’s Company. “What was wonderful about the show is that it introduced [my dad] to a whole new generation who was discovering him,” Karen told Closer. “So, in every phase of his career, he became known to a new age group of people. It was fantastic.”
But as time went on and health problems caught up with him, Don had to slowly stop acting. Instead, he turned to voiceover work, including a role in Disney’s Chicken Little. And as it happens, his last part saw him give voice to the dog of a sheriff in Air Buddies.
Air Buddies was actually released several months after Don’s death in February 2006 at the age of 81. The veteran star had been receiving treatment at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for complications arising from lung cancer, although he also returned home for a spell. And both his family and his good friend Griffith had been there for him in his final days.
Following Don’s passing, in fact, Griffith paid heartfelt tribute to his buddy via a statement made to the Associated Press. “Don was a small man… but everything else about him was large: his mind, his expressions,” he said. “Don was special. There’s nobody like him. I loved him very much. We had a long and wonderful life together.”
And both Griffith and Karen spoke to People magazine about the late comedian not long after Don had passed away. In a heartbreaking account, Griffith shared his memories of being at his best friend’s side when he died. “I told him I loved him, and I held his hand,” the legendary actor said. “His chest heaved several times, and I believe he heard my voice.”
Meanwhile, Karen reminisced about her father’s personal life. “Dad was kind of wild. He was really quite a ladies’ man, especially between marriages,” she said. Yes, Don was wed to Kathryn Metz, Loralee Czuchna and Frances Yarborough, with his first wife being Karen and Thomas’ mom.
And Frances would tell People that her late husband had tried to remain upbeat even after getting diagnosed with lung cancer. “[Don] didn’t even tell his own children [about the disease]. He figured he’d beat it and go on with his life,” she said. Karen eventually found out, of course, and she was at her father’s bedside towards the end. “I found myself telling him everything I wanted to say before he left. He was listening. I know it. I could feel it,” she said of those heartrending moments.
But it wasn’t until 2018 that Karen shared the story of her running away from her father’s deathbed. “Here’s the thing about my dad,” she told Closer. “He had this funniness that was just completely, insanely natural. When he was dying, he was making us laugh in hysterics. He was literally dying, but he did something or said something that caused my stepmother and I to go into fits of laughter, which is why I ran out.”
Mind you, Karen does harbor some regret about running out of the room. “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. 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,” she said.
Then Karen reminisced to Closer about the time when her dad worked on The Andy Griffith Show. “We didn’t see him a lot, because he worked ten, 12 hours a day,” she explained. “And when he was home, he was always holed up in his room working on his lines and stuff like that.”
But the famous actor was nonetheless there for his children when it counted. “At the time, we kids were pretty young, and he confided whatever he was feeling about working on the show to my mom,” Karen went on. “But, like I said, I remember watching and listening to him rehearse. He asked me to run [through] lines.”
What’s more, thanks to her dad, Karen caught the acting bug. “I already knew I wanted to act, so I would try to act it out and he’d say, ‘No, no, no. Just give me the lines straight, no inflection, nothing – otherwise you throw me off.’ I was just a part of that process,” she told Closer.
And it seems that Karen has followed in her father’s footsteps by becoming a performer herself. These days, she puts on a one-woman show called Tied Up in Knotts, in which she talks about her beloved father. “The story is about growing up in a celebrity lifestyle,” she told The Wichita Eagle in 2014. “It is about looking through the eyes of a kid at my father. He and I were very close. It is a loving story. There is no celebrity backbiting.”
If not for her father’s work, then, Karen may not have chosen the career she did. Indeed, she was amazed the first time that she saw the set of The Andy Griffith Show. “It was astounding to see the actors up close [and] the set up close,” she told The Clarion-Ledger in 2016. “I loved walking the street that was downtown Mayberry and looking in the windows and realizing [that] none of it was real.”
In fact, it appears that the young girl became fascinated by the whole process of making a TV show. “I learned that it was the acting that made the place seem real. And [the cast] were nothing like their characters,” Karen added. “The woman who played Aunt Bee [Frances Bavier] was nothing like the character. She was a tough New York actress.”
Yet Karen’s father hadn’t exactly wanted her to follow his lead into showbiz – and he had his reasons, too. “I think [my dad] knew how tough it is, and he didn’t want me to be disappointed or hurt,” she explained. Regardless, though, Don’s daughter spoke warmly of her parent to The Clarion-Ledger, saying, “He was a wonderful father, always making Thomas and me laugh.”
And while Karen told the newspaper that Don got on well with a number of his The Andy Griffith Show castmates, his most enduring bond proved to be with Griffith himself. “Those two were soul mates,” she continued. “I know Andy truly cared about my dad.”
It seems that Griffith was eager to help Don’s career as well. “One thing I will tell you – and one thing that is different from what has been written in books – was that Andy was never jealous of my dad,” Karen revealed. “He was his biggest fan and mentor. Everything later he was in, he wanted to get my dad in, too.”
And Karen tries to keep the humor of The Andy Griffith Show alive in her show. “I act as characters, I tell stories sometimes as a character [and] sometimes as my dad in his natural delivery. Sometimes I even act out Barney Fife,” she told Closer. “The biggest compliment to me is when people say, ‘I feel like I really know your dad now.’”
But one thing Karen wants to get across in her act is that her father wasn’t perfect. That’s right, Don had struggles like everybody else, including spells of hypochondria. “He had a lot of different kinds of moods. He fought a lot of depression and I helped him, or thought I did, because I could see how he had this endless loop of thought that would always lead to a downward spiral,” she said.
Ultimately, though, Don was able to break out of his periods of dark mood and become, in Karen’s words, a “loving” father to his kids. “By the end, he had overcome everything that was down in his life,” the comedian’s daughter told Closer. “I felt really, really proud of him for all the work that he put into being a happy person. And the truth is [that] he loved people.”