October 1st, 2008
What happened after Deputy Fife hung up his gun holster, Mr. Furley left the landlord business, Mr. Chicken overcame his fears, and the Apple Dumpling Gang rode off into the sunset? That’s when Don Knotts, the comic genius and WVU alum, returned to his first love, live theater.
This lesser-known aspect of Knotts’ acting career is chronicled in the latest gift of memorabilia from his widow, Francey Yarborough-Knotts, to the WVU Libraries’ West Virginia and Regional History Collection.
“Don Knotts had a very long and broad career in live theater,” said John Cuthbert, Curator of the WVRHC. “This donation is quite extensive and provides a comprehensive look into Don’s career, including his early career.”
Among the gems are a thick stack of playbills, many with covers bearing Knotts’ wide grin, that mark his work in dozens of stage productions over a span of decades.
Don Knotts, a Morgantown native and WVU alum, starred in dozens of plays during and following his stellar television and movie career.
Few people probably know that the Morgantown native starred in performances of classics such as On Golden Pond, Harvey, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, You Can’t Take It with You, and The Odd Couple. In The Odd Couple, he took on the role of Felix Unger to Art Carney’s Oscar Madison.
“People knew the well-known characters on TV, but Don had a whole other life in the theater,” Yarborough-Knotts said. “That is what he seemed to thrive on and that was who he was.”
Even during his later years, Knotts still loved hearing the roaring laughter of a live audience. At the same time he was doing voiceovers in movies such as Chicken Little, he regularly performed in plays and in shows with his old friend Tim Conway.
And while he was always writing new material, he liked to draw on bits that he created back in Morgantown. A favorite involved calling a make-believe football game.
“Don was such a working actor when I knew him,” Yarborough-Knotts said. “He was always putting on these shows. He was always creating them and going out on the road and doing them. And that was the way he was since he was 13 years old.”
Along with playbills, she also donated boxes of articles and promotional materials, pictures of Knotts on stage, personal letters and writings, pages of hand-written stories and jokes, multiple Matlock scripts, his Screen Actors Guild card, and a scrapbook of photographs and newspaper clippings compiled by TV Land.
The piece de resistance is a watch that Andy Griffith presented to Knotts upon his departure from The Andy Griffith Show. Yarborough-Knotts said it was one of the few items Knotts treasured enough to store in a safety-deposit box.
The watch was especially meaningful because of the humorous personal message Griffith and the show’s producers had engraved on the back. Along with the number 5 are the words: “See, we thought we’d put 5 on it because you’ve been here for 5 years.”
“They were being funny, and that sounds just like Andy,” Yarborough-Knotts said.
John Cuthbert, Curator of the WVRHC, displays an inscribed gold watch Andy Griffith presented to Don Knotts when he left The Andy Griffith Show.
Griffith and Knotts met and became friends during the Broadway run of No Time for Sergeants. They reunited for the silver screen version and then The Andy Griffith Show. Griffith later invited Knotts to join him for several episodes of Matlock.
Yarborough-Knotts’ donation of memorabilia is the third such gift to the WVU Libraries. She previously donated several items in early 2007. The first gifts came in January 2006, just one month before Knotts’ death. He donated his personal copies of scripts for The Reluctant Astronaut (1966), The Love God (1968), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1967), How to Frame a Figg (1970) and Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1976).
Currently, an exhibit of scripts and other memorabilia is on display in the WVRHC. Plans call for a new exhibit highlighting some of the latest additions to be up early this fall. A major exhibit is in the works for 2009 in the Davis Family Gallery in the Wise Library.
“We’re very proud to be able to represent his life here in the West Virginia Collection and to provide the opportunity for people to learn about his life and amazing career,” Cuthbert said.
He ranks Knotts among the most famous WVU alumni and Morgantown natives.
“In terms of his contribution to American culture, Don Knotts was absolutely an icon in the field of television,” Cuthbert said. “He won Emmys every year for his role as Barney Fife, which is arguably one of the best know characters in television history.”