Comedic talent is not necessarily a genetic trait passed down from a father to his offspring, but in Karen Knotts’ case there’s no missing link in this regard.
She carried on the tradition of her late father, Don Knotts, during a show Friday that played to a packed house at the Earle Theatre as part of Mayberry Days in Mount Airy.
And while it was a one-woman show, Karen Knotts skillfully wove an array of props into her program, including funny hats and wigs — in addition to her imitations of various individuals, to tell Don Knotts’ story and about growing up as the daughter of Barney Fife.
“The question I’m most asked is, ‘what was he like as a father?’” Knotts, 61, told an audience that seemed starved for behind-the-scenes facts about the man who played one of the more-memorable characters of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
While Knotts built his career on portraying meek, nervous characters, he did try to be a stern parent at times, his daughter recalled during her program entitled “Tied Up in Knotts.” This included one occasion when he reprimanded her while wearing his deputy uniform and gun.
“Daddy, you don’t scare me,” Karen Knotts said she responded at the time. “Andy didn’t give you a bullet this month.”
Despite such moments, Don Knotts was just as warm and caring in real life as he was on the show.
“He was an awesome father — sorry, tabloids,” Karen Knotts added, drawing laughter from the audience as she did several times during Friday’s program filled with one-liners, puns and colorful recollections.
As she spoke, larger-than-life photographs from Don Knotts’ family life and show business career flashed on the movie screen behind her on the stage.
While growing up in West Virginia, Don Knotts listened to the radio, including a show featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, which motivated him to do the same thing.
Her father became an accomplished ventriloquist before joining the Army and being assigned to an entertainment unit, Knotts said. At some point, he grew tired of that act.
“He didn’t want to lug that heavy dummy all around the Philippines anymore,” Karen Knotts explained. “And the dummy was getting all the laughs.”
After leaving the Army, Knotts resumed his educational career at West Virginia University, where he met his future wife Kay, Karen’s mom, who was taking drama classes there.
Knotts’ first foray into the entertainment world involved trying to break into the business in New York City, where his Southern twang was called into question. “That can’t be,” Karen Knotts said her dad replied regarding his accent. “I’m from the northern side of West Virginia.”
Karen Knotts pointed out that her father was a great comic actor, but not a comedian in the traditional sense.
“Dad tried stand-up comedy, but it didn’t work for him,” she related.
“He couldn’t tell fat jokes because he was skinny, he couldn’t tell dirty jokes because he was clean.”
Knotts eventually got a job on radio in the late 1940s, as a character named Windy Wales.
After gaining national recognition because of his voice, Karen Knotts said, he ironically landed a role on television playing a mute, in the daytime drama “Search for Tomorrow.”
Working with Griffith
Knotts’ involvement with Andy Griffith began later in the 1950s when he became part of the cast of the Broadway play starring the Mount Airy native, “No Time for Sergeants.” Knotts also appeared in the movie version of the same name.
His first big break on TV came when Knotts joined “The Tonight Show,” then hosted by Steve Allen. Knotts portrayed a “nervous guy” character who did hilarious man-on-the-street segments.
Knotts also guest-starred on “The Red Skelton Show,” playing a bumbling Western character who had trouble handling his six-gun — a precursor to his later characterization as Barney Fife.
Soon came what would be his most-notable role, which occurred after Knotts watched the pilot episode for “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“Andy, could you use a deputy?” Karen Knotts recalled her father asking Griffith at the time.
This led to an audition with producer Sheldon Leonard. “And Barney Fife was born.”
Don Knotts would go on to win five Emmy Awards from 1961 to 1967 for his role as Barney.
His daughter said he often would practice his lines at home, over and over in some cases, including one memorable bit of dialogue, “Andy, this is big!” Her father would do the line time and time again, experimenting with inflections on different words, until he perfected it, Knotts said.
“He made us believe that Barney Fife was a real person,” she said of the effect on family members.
Karen Knotts, who sometimes visited the set where the black-and-white TV series was being filmed, said her dad also made an impression on fellow actors, including Jim Nabors, who appeared as Gomer Pyle.
“Golleee,” she said Nabors once asked Knotts, “how can you be so funny?”
“It helps a little bit when you look like I do,” the Barney Fife actor replied.
Karen Knotts also remembers how shocked she was to see the genteel Aunt Bee (Francis Bavier) smoking a cigarette during a break in between takes. Years before, Griffith had noted Bavier’s work in another production in which she played a tough character, leading to her joining the cast of his show.
Knotts told her audience Friday that many people believe her dad was responsible for “The Andy Griffith Show” being so successful. But she praised the wisdom of Griffith in recognizing the comedic chemistry that was possible by playing the straight man to Knotts’ character — and allowing him to flourish.
“A lot of the credit goes to Andy Griffith.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693.