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Friday, March 3, 2006 - Page updated at 04:50 PM

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Information in this article, originally published February 25, 2006, was corrected March 3, 2006. A previous version of this story reported erroneously that "The Andy Griffith Show" character Deputy Barney Fife carried just one bullet, in his shirt pocket, after shooting himself in the foot. The character was accident prone, but never shot himself.

Funnyman Don Knotts dies

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Don Knotts, 81, the skinny, lovable nerd who kept generations of television audiences laughing as bumbling Deputy Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show," has died.

Mr. Knotts died Friday night of pulmonary and respiratory complications at a Los Angeles hospital, said Paul Ward, a spokesman for the cable network TV Land, which airs "The Andy Griffith Show," and another Mr. Knotts' hit, "Three's Company."

His longtime manager Sherwin Bash said the actor had lung cancer.

Andy Griffith, who remained close friends with Mr. Knotts, said he had a brilliant comedic mind and wrote some of the show's best scenes. "Don was a small man ... but everything else about him was large: his mind, his expressions," he said Saturday. "I loved him very much."

Despite health problems, Mr. Knotts had kept working in recent months. He lent his distinctive, high-pitched voice as Turkey Mayor in Walt Disney's animated family film "Chicken Little," released in 2005. He also 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.

The West Virginia-born actor's half-century career included seven TV series and more than 25 films, but it was the Griffith show that brought him TV immortality and five Emmy Awards.

The show ran from 1960-68, and was in the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings each season, including a No. 1 ranking its final year. It is one of only three series in TV history to bow out at the top: The others are "I Love Lucy" and "Seinfeld."

As the bug-eyed deputy to Griffith, Mr. Knotts was constantly fumbling, a recurring sight gag that was typical of his self-deprecating humor.

Mr. Knotts, whose shy, soft-spoken manner was unlike his high-strung characters, once said he was most proud of the Fife character and wouldn't mind being remembered that way.

His favorite episodes, he said, were "The Pickle Story," where Aunt Bee makes pickles no one can eat, and "Barney and the Choir," where no one can stop him from singing.

Mr. Knotts appeared on six other television shows. In 1979, he joined the case of "Three's Company," playing the would-be swinger landlord to John Ritter, Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt.

Early in his TV career, he was one of the original cast members of "The Steve Allen Show," the comedy-variety show that ran from 1956-61. He was one of a group of memorable comics backing Allen that included Louis Nye, Tom Poston and Bill "Jose Jimenez" Dana.

Mr. Knotts' G-rated films were family fun, not box-office blockbusters. In most, he ends up the hero and gets the girl, one who can see his heart of gold.

In the part-animated 1964 film "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," Mr. Knotts played a meek clerk who turns into a fish after being rejected by the Navy.

He was among an army of comedians from Buster Keaton to Jonathan Winters to liven up the 1963 megacomedy "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." Other films include "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" (1966); "The Shakiest Gun in the West," (1968); and a few Disney films such as "The Apple Dumpling Gang," (1974); "Gus," (1976); and "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo," (1977).

In 1998, he had a key role in "Pleasantville," playing a folksy television repairman whose supercharged remote control sends a teen boy and his sister into a TV-sitcom past.

Mr. Knotts began his show-biz career before he graduated from high school, performing as a ventriloquist at local clubs and churches. He enlisted in the Army in 1943 and served in the Pacific, receiving the World War II Victory Medal among other decorations. Upon his return, he majored in speech at West Virginia University and took off for New York City.

"I went to New York cold. On a $100 bill. Bummed a ride," he recalled in a visit to his hometown of Morgantown, where city officials renamed a street for him in 1998.

Within six months, he had taken a job on a radio Western called "Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders," playing a wisecracking, handyman.

He could point to only one role that wasn't funny, a brief stint on the soap opera "Search for Tomorrow."

"That's the only serious thing I've done. I don't miss that," he said.

Two of Mr. Knotts' three marriages ended in divorce. The first, to Kathryn Kay Metz, lasted from 1947-64 and produced two children, Karen, an actress who co-starred with her father in a 1996 stage revival of "You Can't Take It With You," and Thomas, both of whom survive him.

From 1974-83, Mr. Knotts was married to Loralee Czuchna. He was married to actress Francey Yarborough at the time of his death.

Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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