Karen Knotts was finally ready to nip it in the bud.
After years of being told she should write a book about her father Don Knotts, the comedienne has finally sat down to pen “Tied Up in Knotts: My Dad and Me” about what it was really like growing up with the star.
Don, who kept generations of TV audiences laughing as bumbling, bug-eyed Deputy Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show,” passed away in 2006 at age 81. 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 Emmys.
Previously, Knotts starred in a play by the same title where she shared tales about her upbringing. She spoke to Fox News about what it was really like growing up with Don, how he felt about his iconic character, as well as how he managed to keep her laughing to the end.
Fox News: What inspired you to write this book now?
Karen Knotts: People have always told me I should write a book about dad. But I was really busy pursuing my acting career and comedy. So I had no interest in it. But as the years went on, several of my father’s friends started to pass.
I started to realize that I should take the time to write this book and reach out to those who knew him that were still around, those I’ve never even known about. I went to his hometown and put the word out on the radio that I was looking for stories from people who grew up with my father. I got a good little crowd of people who were so eager to talk about him. And I got to hear all these great stories. That truly motivated me.
Fox News: When did you realize that your father was different from other dads?
Knotts: I’ve always known. He started on live television in the ‘50s. And everyone I knew watched “The Andy Griffith Show.” The kids at school knew who my father was. But nobody made a big deal out of it. Occasionally people would come to the door and ask for an autograph. But I grew up knowing he was different and famous.
Fox News: What was Don Knotts like as a dad?
Knotts: He was not Barney Fife. That was a great, funny character. But my father was witty and funny all on his own. He was a good father. He wasn’t a tough father at all, but he had high standards for us.
Like anyone else, he had his moods. He had depression that I had to talk him through sometimes because he had a really difficult childhood. He came from an alcoholic older brother and a paranoid schizophrenic father. He was living in extreme poverty during the Depression. So I became like a mini shrink… I would try to motivate him not to feel so depressed, to feel more positive about things.
Fox News: How did therapy play a role in his life?
Knotts: He started getting therapy when he was in New York. That was in the ‘50s. Live television was excruciatingly difficult for him because he was a perfectionist when it came to his comedy. He couldn’t even watch his shows so he never got the satisfaction of seeing these great performances that he was doing.
But my mother got him to go to a psychiatrist in New York. And this was in the ‘50s when people didn’t believe in it that much. And when they moved out to California, they found a much better psychiatrist that he stuck with his whole life. It got him on the right track. It took a while for him to break through all of his trauma from childhood. But he did it.
Fox News: What’s one memory of your dad that makes you smile?
Knotts: He would always make these little side comments that were hysterically funny. And it was a very subtle thing. He would just lean into you as if he was going to tell you this big secret in great confidence. And then he would lay this whopper on you. It would be a line that would just make you fall out laughing.
I remember I had this boyfriend and I told him my dad’s birthday was coming up. And he treated us out. He had this identical twin. So it was the three of us that took my dad out for this beautiful dinner with all sorts of gifts. When we dropped dad off at his condo, he said, “Thanks a lot! We’ll do this again next week.” It was just something so simple yet so witty at that moment.
Fox News: You wanted to pursue show business, but your father wasn’t thrilled about it. Why?
Knotts: Well, it made sense. He knew a lot of people that were trying to make it in the business and just failed. They had no way out. They led pretty difficult lives. And he didn’t want to see that happen to me. It was an actual fear for him… He just didn’t want me to go through that struggle in Hollywood. But I remember he had a variety show when I was 16 and he would put me on the show. We would do a sketch together. He would sing to me and it was just wonderful. So he eventually came around, but it certainly didn’t happen right away.
Fox News: What was the biggest lesson you learned from him as a performer?
Knotts: I went on the road with him quite a few times. He would perform all across the country all the time. Whenever he wasn’t working in TV, he was doing theater, usually in the Midwest. And he would put me in these small parts. He was always teaching me. The thing that I learned from him is that you always have to look for ways to get that big laugh. He would say, “Say this line a certain way” or “Take a pause here with this certain word.” Of course, when he did it, it was so natural and real. But he was very technical when it came to delivering his lines. He took his craft very seriously and it was important for him that audiences got a laugh out of it.
Fox News: Before fame, he served in the army. How did that experience help him find his love of entertaining?
Knotts: Oh, he had that love since he was five years old. What the army did was solidify it for him… He got into the army show as a ventriloquist and put on these sketches that were just so funny. And these comedians who were passing through would notice how funny he was. But eventually, he got tired of that.
So he asked the sergeant, “Hey, can I just do the comedy sketch and not do the dummy?” But they told him no. And he mysteriously lost the dummy. But what were they going to do, send him back home because he lost that dummy? They were stuck with him. So in the end, he ended up being the star, not the dummy.
Fox News: What’s a misconception you feel still exists about your father’s relationship with Andy Griffith and what’s the reality?
Knotts: Some people still think they were rivals. They weren’t rivals at all. There was no rivalry. Andy was my dad’s biggest fan. He was a mentor to him his whole life and they loved each other dearly. Some people had problems with Andy Griffith because he liked to do things his way. But he and my dad had an unbelievably close relationship. They understood each other and their need for perfection when it came to performing. Andy would always tell people, “Don is the funny one.”
But eventually, my dad got an offer to do something different. Andy was very gracious about it. And then many years later when Andy was doing “Matlock,” he offered my dad a role. And this was a time when my dad was starting to believe he wasn’t going to do television anymore. My dad was diagnosed with macular degeneration, which was affecting his sight. So he just thought that was it for him. He was turning down plenty of offers. But Andy was there for him. He supported him. He was a constant presence in my dad’s life. They just loved each other.
Fox News: How did your father feel about Barney Fife?
Knotts: Of course, he was always grateful for the role. He understood that was his claim to fame… Of course, he had an interest to do other things too, but he was proud of that role. And he was brilliant at comedy. That’s how he coped with being typecast – doing things he knew that allowed him to shine in comedy.
And playing Barney was tremendous work. He had no time off really because they did so many shows in those days. And when he wasn’t filming, he was learning his lines on the weekends. And it was a physically demanding character. They would always shoot dad’s scenes in the morning when he had the most energy. But after 10-12-hour days, you just can’t continue. But he had that commitment to it. He, of course, welcomed opportunities to play different roles. But he was proud of Barney.
Fox News: Was it hard for him to be away from home a lot?
Knotts: He was gone a lot, but he was always checking in on us. And no matter how long it took, he would always come home… And he always made time for us when he wasn’t working. I never felt neglected at all. Neither did my brother. And we did get to go on the set too, which was great.
Fox News: What was it like meeting Ron Howard?
Knotts: That was probably my favorite memory from the set. He was just so different from any other kid I knew. We’re the same age and I thought he was just so mature. He always had this little tiny transistor radio. He would show it to me and he was so involved in the technical aspects of it. I guess it was kind of a foreshadowing of his interest to direct. But he was very friendly and it meant a lot to me.
Fox News: It was reported that when your father was on his deathbed, you ran out of the room to laugh. What happened?
Knotts: He wasn’t there trying to make anybody laugh – he was naturally funny! And at times, he would be funny when he didn’t mean to be. So that’s what happened. We were sitting with him because we knew it was very close to the end of his illness. It was just such a somber mood. Then all of a sudden he just started doing something so funny that just gave us the giggles. And he would do that – just suddenly do or say something at a quiet moment to make you laugh. That came to him naturally.
I just couldn’t hold it in. I had to run out of that room. I didn’t want him to think I was laughing at him because he could be sensitive. But I just thought, “Oh my God, I need to step out now.” I later told [director] Howard Storm about it. And he said, “You should have stayed there and laughed! That’s what comedians live for.” But I didn’t want to hurt my dad’s feelings at that moment. It was a tough call!
Fox News: What do you hope readers will get from your father’s life?
Knotts: I’m often told by people “I wish I could have met your dad.” So when they read this book, I hope they feel as if they spent a week with him. He was funny, likable and just a wonderful dad right up to the end. And I hope the book captures just how great he was.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.