Don Knotts’ perpetual on-screen agitation was for laughs, his daughter says. Beneath the bug-eyed, nervous persona lay a sophisticate.
“He was really debonair – a worldly guy,” Karen Knotts, 59, said of the late character actor best known for playing Deputy Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show.” “He was a great dresser and a great dancer. He had this ironic wit: He could always crack you up with a slow-rolling line out of nowhere.”
Knotts, who died in 2006 at age 81, also was politically aware, devoted to talk radio and “a great dad,” said Karen, an actress, standup comedian and part-time librarian.
Karen pays tribute to her dad in the one-woman show “Tied Up in Knotts,” which she will perform Friday-Sunday at the Harris Center in Folsom.
It’s a homecoming of sorts: Karen’s mother, Kay Amundson, is a longtime Sacramento resident. Amundson, the first of Knotts’ three wives, was married to him from 1948 to 1965. The couple also had a son, Tom, now a Silicon Valley engineer.
A mix of music, storytelling, photos and video clips, “Tied Up” tracks Knotts’ rise to fame and Karen’s own experiences as an actress – and later, a librarian – with a famous last name.
Speaking by phone from her Los Angeles home, Karen comes across as exceptionally friendly, fielding questions about the Dewey Decimal System with the same enthusiasm she does questions about her show.
The show sprang from a desire to enter into the permanent record those stories Don Knotts had told his children about his hardscrabble youth and early days in show business.
“I thought ‘I need to start writing some of those stories down, so I will always have them, and can share them with people,’ ” Karen said.
The stories start in Morgantown, W.Va., where Don Knotts’ widowed mother ran a boardinghouse. “A lot of them were very dramatic, about trying not to be thrown into the poor house” during the Depression, Karen said.
But those years also helped open his eyes to a larger world. The rooming house, close to West Virginia University, held students and traveling performers.
“One magician taught my dad a bunch of magic tricks, and (Knotts) started performing in front of friends and family,” Karen said.
Knotts would move on to Broadway, where he appeared with Griffith in the 1955 comedy “No Time for Sergeants,” later turned into a film. Knotts and Griffith reunited in 1960 on Griffith’s CBS show. Knotts’ jumpy deputy would become as beloved to viewers as Griffith’s laconic sheriff, Andy Taylor.
When Karen visited the set, she would hang out with Ron Howard, who played Andy’s son, Opie, and was her age.
“He was not like any other kid I could remotely imagine,” Karen said. Howard had his own schoolhouse, and a love for gadgets that were newfangled at the time. “He had a transistor radio so small I could put it in my hand. .... He didn’t live the life of a child, he lived the life of an actor.”
Karen caught the showbiz bug early, but her father made her wait to pursue a career.
“I wanted to be on the (Griffith) show, but my father wouldn’t let me,” Karen said. “He didn’t want to encourage me to be a child actress. He thought it was a hard life. ... Later in life, he helped get me on some shows.”
Karen appeared on her father’s short-lived 1970-71 TV variety show, toured with him in plays in her 20s and played Opie’s secretary in the 1986 TV movie “Return to Mayberry.”
But she said a famous name is not as helpful as one might think.
“Everybody is related to somebody in Los Angeles ... (and) there is a culture here of needing to prove yourself.”
Most of her acting jobs came via audition, not connection. Her résumé includes guest spots on “One Day at a Time” and “Eight Is Enough” along with a host of B-movie titles.
“Everything she has achieved now has been because of her own effort,” said Amundson, who moved to Northern California when she remarried and lives in Land Park.
“I am very proud of her because she has worked so hard ever since she was a young girl to be an actress and to be in show business. She took all sorts of classes, and did activities, and put on her own plays.”
Amundson said Knotts was a caring, fun father.
“When we all get together, (Karen and Tom) will start talking about some of the things he did, and it just has us all in stitches,” Amundson said.
Amundson supports her daughter’s artistic endeavors; she called The Bee a few months ago to ensure the staff knew Karen’s show was coming to Folsom. But like her ex-husband, Amundson also was wary of her child entering the hard-knock showbiz life.
“I like that she is a librarian,” Amundson said, her practicality echoing that of mothers worldwide.
Karen went back to school in her 30s to earn a master’s in library science, and works at a community college. “Tied Up” incorporates stories of life among the stacks.
“Being a librarian keeps me grounded. And I get ideas for characters – librarians themselves are characters.”
Other librarians fill in for her on show days. The show has helped keep her father’s memory fresh, Karen said.
“It’s almost a spiritual experience. When I am doing the show, I feel like I am with him.”
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.