Don Knotts‘ turn as Barney Fife is one of the most beloved and celebrated comedy characters ever. Knotts could balance the silly with the sincere with seeming ease, but it wasn’t as simple as he made it look. In fact, his daughter said he struggled with self-doubt and confidence so much that it made performing “excruciating” for him at times.
Karen Knotts said that her dad didn’t get the same joy out of performing live that he gave his audiences. She told Fox News recently that Don Knotts was a perfectionist, which made watching himself almost impossible. While we were laughing, he was brooding.
“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.”
Don Knotts grew up poor in West Virginia. His dad was a paranoid schizophrenic and his older brother was an alcoholic. Knotts found refuge in comedy, but those difficult early days plagued him for most of his life, his daughter said.
“(My dad) had depression that I had to talk him through sometimes because he had a really difficult childhood,” she told Fox News. “… 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.”
Karen Knotts recently published a memoir about her dad called Tied Up in Knotts: My Dad and Me. Don Knotts died of pneumonia in 2006. He was 81.
Don Knotts Played Idiots Well, But He Wasn’t One
Don Knotts played the buffoon with aplomb, but it was an act. He was much more a maestro than a moron, Karen Knotts said. He was much more measured and precise than the characters he played on TV and in film.
The Andy Griffith Show star would often take his daughter on the road with him. And he used those gigs as a sort of comedy college, she said. Karen Knotts eventually followed her dad into show business, and she remembered those early lessons.
“The thing that I learned from him is that you always have to look for ways to get that big laugh,” she told Fox News. “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.”