LOS ANGELES -- Don Knotts, who kept generations of TV audiences laughing as bumbling Deputy Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show" and would-be swinger landlord Ralph Furley on "Three's Company," has died. He was 81.
Knotts died Friday night of pulmonary and respiratory complications at a Los Angeles hospital, said Paul Ward, a spokesman for the cable network TV Land, which airs his two signature shows.
Griffith, who remained close friends with 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," Griffith added. "We had a long and wonderful life together."
Unspecified health problems had forced Knotts to cancel an appearance in his native Morgantown in August.
The West Virginia-born actor's half-century career included seven TV series and more than 25 films, but it was the Griffith show that brought him TV immortality and five Emmys.
The show ran from 1960-1968, 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.
As the bug-eyed deputy to Griffith, 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.
Knotts, whose shy, soft-spoken manner was unlike his high-strung characters, once said he was most proud of the Fife character and doesn't mind being remembered that way.
Knotts appeared on several other television shows. In 1979, he joined the cast of "Three's Company," also starring 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. He was one of a group of memorable comics backing Allen that included Louis Nye, Tom Poston and Bill "Jose Jimenez" Dana.
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," 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, 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."
He treasured his comedic roles and could point to only one role that wasn't funny, a brief stint on the daytime drama "Search for Tomorrow."
"That's the only serious thing I've done. I don't miss that," Knotts said.