Don Knotts spent his life as an actor on screen bringing joy and making people laugh, often as an endearingly silly and incapable character, and most famously as Sargeant Barney on The Andy Griffith Show. While he made a career out of other people’s happiness, his own personal life was a series of heartbreaking events.
1. He Was A Mistake
Don Knotts’s parents, William and Elsie, likely didn’t expect to have him, considering his mother had him 14 years after his next oldest sibling. They struggled to make ends meet and gave up their farm just one month before he came into the picture. Unfortunately, growing up poor in Morgantown, West Virginia, wasn’t the worst of their troubles.
2. His Home Felt Hostile
Knotts’s father was a very messed up man. Sources claim he suffered from several illnesses, including schizophrenia, addiction, and conversion disorder. Reportedly, he once threatened his young son with a knife. All this made for a scary childhood for Knotts, but his father wasn’t the only person in the family who didn’t treat him right.
3. His Brothers Harassed Him
Knotts probably didn’t connect easily with his much older brothers—and this set their sibling relationship up for trouble. Both his brothers drank too much like his father, and they took out their issues on their little brother. Still, he thought his brothers were funny, and he especially looked up to his brother, Sid, who’d make the family laugh in the toughest situations. Sadly, Sid’s run as the family comedian ended in tragedy.
4. He Lost His Idol
In his young teenage years, Knotts’s brother passed unexpectedly from a terrible asthma attack. He often found solace in the comic antics of his brother and felt devastated with his first comic idol out of the picture. The young boy must have needed a friend to turn to. Knotts’s choice for a “friend in time of need” was, however, a bit unusual.
5. He Made Friends Up
During his earlier childhood, Knotts spent much of his time with imaginary friends to escape his real-life horrors. After his brother was gone, he widened his imaginary friend group by inventing a friend named “Danny”—a ventriloquist dummy. He started performing with his new friend and seemed to hit his stride, but even his new hobby couldn’t keep him happy.
6. He Didn’t Like Himself
High School is tough for most teenagers, but Knotts hit the ground running. His peers liked him and even voted him class president. But even with all this positive attention, Knotts himself said he “felt like a loser.” Being poor and physically smaller than his friends, he probably felt insecure. His next steps only built on these feelings of inadequacy.
7. He Took a Risk
Knotts became well known for his comedy throughout high school, so much so that he felt he might have a chance of hitting it big as an entertainer in New York City. Right after graduating high school, he headed for Manhattan and his first real audition at the very tender age of eighteen. He took his first steps confidently towards stardom—but he was in for a shocking blow.
8. They Shut Him Down
His first audition was a complete disaster. He did so badly—the casting director advised him to give up on his dream completely, predicting he’d never have a place anywhere in entertainment. Knotts had no choice but to head back to his small town. No doubt discouraged, he forced himself down a much less desirable path.
9. He Tried To Be Normal
Back at home, Knotts picked up a job as opposite from the life of glam he wanted as you could imagine—plucking chickens for a local grocery store. Life looked nothing like he hoped, and he surely questioned if the future he wanted was possible. Interestingly enough, worldwide tragedy would soon become his chance to make his dreams come true.
10. He Found A Way
Shorter and thinner than the average man, Knotts probably looked like the least likely candidate to fight for his country when WWII rolled around in 1943. But, surprisingly, he found a spot as a member of “Stars and Gripes,” a comedy group commissioned to entertain those in the field. He blossomed as a performer, but not without learning to hate a part of himself.
11. He Got Rid Of His Friend
Don Knotts’s ventriloquist dummy, “Danny,” still played a huge role in his comedy routine. Eventually, however, Knotts got sick of it, especially when he noticed the dummy got more laughs than him. In a moment of quick decision, he tossed Danny overboard when on a ship in the South Pacific. That little bit of drama was only the beginning of the type of spectacle that characterized his career.
12. He Fell Hard
After his “Stars and Gripes" run, Knotts went back to school, enrolling himself at West Virginia University. He spent his time there performing and recouping his image as a campus funnyman, but perhaps the most noticeable win from his time on campus was the fact that it set the stage for him to fall hopelessly in love.
13. They Made An Unlike Pair
Kathryn Metz was already engaged to be married when she met Knotts. Furthermore, the well-spoken, well-raised minister’s daughter probably seemed like an unlikely match for the outgoing, outrageously funny Knotts. He didn’t care about any of that, though. He went for what he wanted, tossing caution to the wind.
14. He Stole Her Away
Knotts used his very best material to keep Kathryin laughing until she too fell in love and broke off her engagement to date the young comedian. After only two years of dating, the couple married. Falling in love didn’t change Knotts’s real dream, though. As a matter of fact, falling in love might have been the easy part.
15. He Couldn’t Give Up
Even with his first major rejection under his belt, Knotts craved a spot in the limelight. After getting married, his wife agreed to go to New York City with him in pursuit of his dreams once again. Knotts borrowed $100 and took his wife to the big apple in 1949. If he thought he’d fare better the second time around, he definitely thought wrong.
16. He Failed Again
Once again, casting directors rejected him. He may have made a splash in his small town, but making it in the big leagues proved to be a far greater challenge. Eventually, Knotts landed moderately successful gigs on the radio, but he’d have to learn to be patient if he wanted to land a role that truly made a difference.
17. He Kept Going
Seven years of work flew by before Don got his first big role in a Broadway comedy, No Time for Sergeants. Even with his big moment on Broadway, his biggest takeaway from the show was the co-star he met who’d eventually change his life forever—Andy Griffith. Things were looking up for Don, but every upside has its drawbacks.
18. He Wasn’t Man Enough
His role on Broadway launched Knotts into several opportunities. However, he appeared far different than the traditional “leading” man. In fact, he was consistently cast in goofy sidekick roles that made the main stars of his projects appear even more heroic.
Most actors hate the idea of being tied to one type of character, and Don was likely no different. Still, his biggest role of all would tie him even tighter to playing the role of the silly sidekick.
19. It Was A Joke
In 1960, Knotts saw his old friend Andy Griffith on the pilot of a new show and had an idea. He called Griffith up, telling him rather jokingly that he’d need a deputy on the show, and that it should be him. Griffith connected Knotts to the show’s production, and the rest is history.
The Andy Griffith Show served as the stage for the most recognized and awarded role of his life as Sgt Barney. The show may have been a smashing success, but things in Knotts’s personal life were anything but.
20. His Wife Didn’t Fit
Knotts’s chemistry with Andy Griffith was as clear as day, and you can judge for yourself on a TVLand rerun of The Andy Griffith Show. However, his wife didn’t fit in with the show’s crowd nearly as well. Reports say she didn’t get along with Andy’s wife, and sadly, it seemed she didn’t really get along with her husband either.
21. He Couldn’t Do it All
As far as tv viewers were concerned, Knotts flourished as Griffith’s co-star, the pair bringing laughter and warmth to American homes weekly. Filming the show was hard work, and Knotts took his comedy seriously. If the outcome of his own relationships is any evidence, though, he didn’t take care about his own home nearly as well.
22. His Relationship Fell Apart
Ten-hour, long days on the set of a hit show eventually started to wear on Don Knotts's family—especially his wife, Kathryn. The more famous and busy Knotts became, the more the two grew apart. They divorced thirteen years and two kids into their marriage. It could have been that Knotts was just too busy for his family, but it seemed like more sinister factors were at work.
23. He Couldn’t Take It
Knotts struggled to cope with his life as a comic long before he hit it big in the 1960s. In fact, back when he did smaller live performances, he’d be unable to get out of bed for hours and sometimes even days before a performance. He often played a nervous man on stage as a joke, as it turns out, his own personal fears weren’t nearly as amusing.
24. He Got Addicted
Knotts’s pre-performance anxiety affected him so much that doctors put him on anxiety medication in the 1950s. Like many Hollywood performers, he eventually found himself too dependent on the pills, adding addiction to his troubles. Perhaps he could have managed life with anxiety, but Knotts had even worse issues.
25. His Mind Tricked Him
Knotts often felt physically ill, so much so that he’d exhibit symptoms in a state of hypochondria. In short, he tricked himself into thinking he was sick when he was actually perfectly well. This no doubt interfered with his personal life, and he certainly tried his best to cope. Eventually, though, things got so bad that he felt he had no choice but to turn to professionals for help.
26. He Couldn’t Forget
Don Knotts's new fame gave him the life of wealth and success he dreamed of, but his past continued to haunt him. Knotts fought to overcome the memories of his challenging childhood and even cursed God in a therapy session as he tried to find a way to cure himself.
Sick, anxious, and depressed, it’s no wonder he also struggled with insomnia. Perhaps all his mental troubles led him to one of his most shocking career decisions.
27. He Walked Away
Knotts won a total of five Emmy awards for his role on The Andy Griffith Show. But neither the show’s success nor his close friendship with its star was enough to keep him there. The show would continue for several more seasons, but he officially left in 1965, and with it, a whole boatload of rumors as to why he would leave a show in its prime.
28. It Was Too Much
Knotts appeared as a guest star in later episodes, but audiences felt like the actor's departure diminished the quality of The Andy Griffith Show. His daughter said that Knotts left due to the daily “grind” of working on television. Filming a television is certainly hard work, but apparently, that wasn’t the only thing filling up Knotts's schedule!
29. Women Loved Him
His first marriage ended in disaster, but Knotts certainly didn’t let that keep him off the market. He regularly played second fiddle on screen, but off-screen he dated women profusely, with other celebrities considering him every bit a “ladies' man". He may have been hitting it out of the park in the dating world, but unfortunately, it all got to his head.
30. He Tried Too Hard
Like many actors, Knotts had no desire to spend his entire career playing a supporting role. Ultimately, he hoped to see himself on the silver screen as a big movie star. With his success on TV, the dream of being a movie star didn’t seem too out of reach. Disappointingly, he discovered that the type of roles he wanted were always just out of reach.
31. He Couldn’t Change
In 1969, Knotts landed a role as the lead in the raunchy comedy film The Love God. He played a magazine owner who’d revive his business by publishing much more racy material, turning him into a popular bachelor. Knotts jumped at the chance to play something opposite to the beloved Sgt Barney, but he didn’t play the bachelor in the film nearly as well as he did in real life.
32. He Flopped
Some critics loved the movie, but it ultimately failed, and many theaters didn’t even show it. Audiences just couldn’t accept Knotts as a Don Juan, and he’d never try a role quite like that again. He didn’t seem ready to give up on a career as a leading man, but if his next steps proved anything, maybe he should have!
33. He Wasn't Satisfied
Knotts turned his attention to film and even signed a huge deal with Universal. He led several comedy films in the years to follow, including The Incredible Mr Limpet and The Reluctant Astronaut. None of these films received anywhere near the acclaim of his work on TV, and Knotts could feel it. He went back to the drawing board but without much luck.
34. He Wasn’t A One-Man Show
In 1970, The Don Knotts Show aired for the very first time. Knotts had signed on to host his own variety show, and the expectations for its success were through the roof. However, with Knotts competing with several other popular variety shows at the time, it was a disastrous flop. The time came to accept that his career wasn’t going to look quite the way it did in his wildest dreams.
35. He Went Back To Basics
Knotts returned to a more familiar role as an eccentric landlord on Three’s Company in 1979. His portrayal of the character hit it off with audiences, and the production kept him on until the show finished its run in 1984. Knotts seemed to have figured out his place in entertainment, but it’d be a bit more difficult to find stability in his personal life.
36. He Wanted The Real Thing
Ten years of running around with dozens of beautiful women likely tired Knotts out, as he found himself in love again, this time with the gorgeous Loralee Czuchna. Much of their relationship remained private, but what didn’t remain private was the fact that Knotts’s life continued to spiral. He just couldn’t seem to keep everything together.
37. Things Went Wrong
With his career stabilized and his love life in order, Knotts should have been able to celebrate, but he soon realized he was struggling to do common things like read, drive, and even recognize faces—his eyes were blurry. When he finally got checked out by medical professionals, the truth was worse than he could have imagined.
38. He Got Terrible News
Doctors diagnosed Knotts with macular degeneration. The comedy star was losing his eyesight, and quickly. Getting that kind of news could throw anyone off-kilter, and unfortunately, Knotts was no different. He might have been thinking about the way blindness might end his career, but his eyesight wasn’t the only loss on the horizon.
39. He Panicked
The idea of losing his eyesight put him into a tailspin. According to his wife at the moment, Loralee, the diagnosis pushed him to "live out some sort of bucket list". Whatever it was that filled the to-do list, Knotts was certainly depressed, and he allowed his worry and frustration to affect those he loved most. It proved all too much for Loralee.
40. He Failed Again
After almost ten years of marriage, he and Loralee divorced in 1983. According to her, his impending blindness and his dramatic response to it put the final nail in the coffin. Luckily for Knotts, he could afford the best care and had eye surgery that ultimately restored his vision. Tragically, more trouble lurked around the corner.
41. His Habit Sneaked Up On Him
We all have our vices, and one of Knotts’s was his nicotine habit. The habit was definitely trendy among other celebrities during his time in Hollywood. To his credit, he did eventually ditch the habit as he got older, perhaps as the risks started to become more well-known. But the damage was already done, and his attempt at reform came too late.
42. He Responded Like a Comedian
Doctors diagnosed Knotts with lung cancer in the early 2000s, even though he put the bad habit away more than ten years before. He responded in the way you might expect a man of comedic prowess to respond. After all, he'd beaten blindness and therefore felt hopeful about his survival. Perhaps that was the reason he handled it in an unusual way.
43. He Kept Secrets
Even when it became clear that he needed chemotherapy, Knotts kept the seriousness of his diagnosis away from his children. He had a reputation for making everyone laugh, including his children, and likely wanted to keep things light. Knotts was also so sure that he'd beat his cancer.
He clearly held out hope, so much so that he still proceeded with a major life change.
44. He Remembered Her
Back in 1987, Knotts worked on a sitcom called What a Country! He was already older and in his 60s, and production hired a young and beautiful actress, Francey Yarborough to assist Knotts with committing his lines to memory. Although the show itself didn’t turn out to be anything very special, his meeting with Frances must have been, considering what he did when he saw her again.
45. Third Time Was The Charm
Despite their gaping decades-long age difference, the two fell in love. Frances said she ultimately fell for his “vulnerability,” and the two married in 2002. If you’re keeping track, this would be his third marriage. Unfortunately, we’ll never truly know if this was the love Knotts was always searching for, as they’d run out of time together far too soon.
46. It Got Worse
In 2006, Knotts’s condition took a tragic turn. Chemotherapy wasn’t enough to combat his cancer, and he developed further complications induced by his cancer diagnosis. His condition progressed beyond being able to be helped by staying in the hospital, and he returned home. Dying or not, though, Knotts kept up his antics to the very end.
47. He Left As He Lived
According to his daughter, Karen, Knotts made a point of keeping everyone in hysterics even in his final days. He’d make everyone around him laugh regardless of the way he felt, the same way he had during his entire career. But heartbreakingly, when it came to her father's final days, Karen had one burning regret.
48. His Daughter Had One Regret
While Don Knotts tried to lighten the mood with his hilarious jokes, his daughter would run out of the room to release her laughter. She later confessed that she should have just stayed by his side and shared her giddy outbursts with him: "He was right; I would have just stood there and blasted out laughing".
49. His Old Friend Came Through
Even though the older men had let time get between them and fallen out of touch, Andy Griffith found himself at Don Knotts’s bedside in his final days. He never discounted the value his co-star brought to his show and his life, and made sure to pay his respects. Knotts died on February 24, 2006, but not without leaving one final shocker behind.
50. She Got It All
Ultimately, Knotts spent fewer years with Frances than he did with any of his other lovers. Although it’s not reported how intentional it was, his final wife of only four years inherited millions in property once he passed. She left her time with him richer than ever, but perhaps Knotts’s contributions are worth far more than any monetary amount.
51. He Wasn’t Forgotten
Many entertainers consider Don Knotts an inspiration, regardless of what he himself thought about his achievements. He didn’t do everything he thought he would, but he did far more than many in his same position. A statue in his honor stands in his hometown of Virginia, and you can still enjoy him on television and film on many stations and streaming services.