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DON KNOTTS (1924-2006) // He was Mayberry's top gun

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

Mr. Knotts died Friday (Feb. 24, 2006) of pulmonary and respiratory complications at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center, said Sherwin Bash, his friend and longtime manager.

Some publications also reported that Mr. Knotts had been suffering from lung cancer.

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

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. The 249 episodes have appeared frequently in reruns and have spawned a large, active network of fan clubs.

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," Griffith said Saturday. "Don was special. There's nobody like him.

"I loved him very much. We had a long and wonderful life together."

As the bug-eyed deputy to Griffith, Mr. Knotts carried in his shirt pocket the one bullet he was allowed after shooting himself in the foot.

The constant fumbling, a recurring sight gag, was typical of his self-deprecating humor.

For his role as Barney Fife, Mr. Knotts won five Emmy awards for Best Supporting Actor, taking the trophy in 1961, 1962, 1963, 1966 and 1967.

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

Deputy Fife, an inveterate bumbler, was not in the series pilot, and was at first intended simply to be part of a large ensemble that would surround Griffith, who played Sheriff Andy Taylor in Mayberry, a fictional North Carolina town.

But not long after the series debuted in October 1960, Mr. Knotts stole the show. Griffith, who was meant to be the series' comic focus, shifted to playing straight man.

In Mr. Knotts' hands, Fife was a fully realized stooge, a hick-town Don Quixote who imagined himself braver, more sophisticated and more competent than he actually was.

His lack of self-control led him into desperate jams that usually culminated with Fife at the end of his rope, bug-eyed and panting with anxiety.

Asked how he developed his most famous character, Mr. Knotts replied in a 2000 interview: "Mainly, I thought of Barney as a kid. You can always look into the faces of kids and see what they're thinking, if they're happy or sad. That's what I tried to do with Barney. It's very identifiable."

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

"I can't sing. It makes me sad that I can't sing or dance well enough to be in a musical, but I'm just not talented in that way," he lamented. "It's one of my weaknesses."

Mr. Knotts appeared on six other television shows. In 1979, Knotts replaced Norman Fell on 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.

Mr. Knotts' G-rated films were family fun, not box-office blockbusters. In most, he ends up the hero and gets the girl - a girl who can see through his nervousness to the 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 he is rejected by the Navy.

When it was announced in 1998 that Jim Carrey would star in a Limpet remake, Mr. Knotts responded: "I'm just flattered that someone of Carrey's caliber is remaking something I did. Now, if someone else did Barney Fife, THAT would be different."

In the 1967 film The Reluctant Astronaut, co-starring Leslie Nielsen, Mr. Knotts' father enrolls his wimpy son - operator of a Kiddieland rocket ride - in NASA's space program.

Mr. Knotts poses as a famous astronaut to the joy of his parents and hometown but is eventually exposed as a janitor so terrified of heights he refuses to ride an airplane.

In the 1969 film The Love God?, he was a geeky bird-watcher who is duped into becoming publisher of a naughty men's magazine and then becomes a national sex symbol. Eventually, he comes to his senses, leaves the big city and marries the sweet girl next door.

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 role in the back-to-the-past movie 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 even before he graduated from high school, performing as a ventriloquist at local clubs and churches. He majored in speech at West Virginia University, then took off for the big city.

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

Within six months, Mr. Knotts had taken a job on a radio Western called Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders, playing a wisecracking, know-it-all handyman. He stayed with it for five years, then came his series TV debut on The Steve Allen Show.

He married Kay Metz in 1948, the year he graduated from college. The couple had two children before divorcing in 1969. Mr. Knotts later married, then divorced Lara Lee Szuchna.

Mr. Knotts was married to Francey Yarborough, also an actor, at the time of his death.

"He saw poignancy in people's pride and pain and he turned it into something endearing and hilarious," Yarborough said in a statement Saturday.

The world laughed at Mr. Knotts, but also laughed with him.

He treasured his comedic roles and could point to only one role that wasn't funny, a brief stint on the drama Search for Tomorrow.

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

Information from the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press was used in this report.