Watching Don Knotts and Andy Griffith on The Andy Griffith Show, one gets a sense of the cameraderie and chemistry between the two actors.
Their friendship may have begun professionally in the 1955 Broadway production of No Time for Sergeants, but it endured and deepened through the decades up until the time of Knotts’ death.
As much as Knotts loved his old friend, he was embarrassed to have Griffith see him on an oxygen tank and feeling so poorly. Griffith found a way to visit Knotts while maintaining the Barney Fife actor’s dignity. Sheriff Taylor would have been proud.
Knotts had lung cancer
At 80 years of age, Knotts developed pulmonary fibrosis. Still he continued to work, lending voice talent in the 2005 Disney movie Chicken Little as Mayor Turkey Lurkey. In his final television part that same year, he revisited his role as Three’s Company landlord Ralph Furley in an episode of That ’70s Show.
Knotts soon learned he had lung cancer. He started chemotherapy and for a while appeared well.
“Don told almost no one of his illness, lest news should leak to the tabloids,” Andy and Don author Daniel de Visé wrote in his 2015 biography of the two famous friends. “Don still wanted to work, and a sick actor could not get work. He didn’t tell his children he was dying. He didn’t tell Andy.”
Still, Knotts’ condition did not escape Griffith’s notice when the two men and their wives enjoyed dinner together at a restaurant shortly before Christmas 2005. The Matlock star said nothing to Knotts about the obvious labored breathing he saw, but later called Knotts’ wife and said, “Something is wrong.”
Don Knotts was too embarrassed to be seen by Griffith
As Christmas 2005 neared, Griffith called Knotts to get together for the holiday.
“Don replied, ‘It’s not a good time; I don’t think I can fit it in,’” de Visé, who is also Knotts’ brother-in-law, quoted him as saying. “He didn’t want Andy to see him sucking oxygen from a mask.”
Don’s wife Francey called Griffith and let him know her husband was ill, but respecting his wishes, did not tell him of his cancer diagnosis. She “told him that Don was having lung trouble, and that he was reluctant to tell anyone or be seen with his breathing aids.”
Griffith’s Andy Taylor-esque solution to reassuring his friend
Griffith would no longer hear his friend’s excuses. He knew Knotts needed encouragement and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
In a move that Sheriff Andy Taylor would have heartily approved of, Griffith reassured Knotts that he had his own medical aids that he didn’t like to be seen with.
“‘Look, I have my little scooter that I sometimes drive around the house. I don’t like people to see me on my scooter,’” Griffith said. “‘I’ll have my scooter, and you’ll have your oxygen.’ Andy laughed. Don laughed. ‘We’re going to get through this,’ Andy said. After Don put down the phone, he seemed immeasurably relieved.”
Knotts died two months later on February 24, 2006.
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