This Christmas, thank Santa Claus for believing in Don Knotts
The Jolly Old Elf encouraged Knotts to pursue his showbiz career. Knotts: "Don't tell me there's no Santa Claus!"
Before Don Knotts became Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, he spent some time at college in West Virginia before enlisting in the military.
At 19, he was nervous about becoming a soldier, but he ended up getting assigned to a special unit for a funny reason: He'd written "ventriloquist" as a skill on his enlistment form. Together with entertainers identified in other units, Knotts became a showman for soldiers at the frontlines, putting on sketches and singing songs.
With his dummy Danny, this was where Knotts started feeling out his talents as a comedian, but when the war ended, he wasn't sure whether he'd keep on entertaining. Instead, he got gung-ho about his college studies, at least at first….
But the stage beckoned him. He started hitchhiking the 80 miles it took to perform in Pittsburgh nightclubs. He got an agent, and then he got more gigs, and he started getting great reactions from crowds. Everything was going perfectly, and then he fell in love.
Kathryn Metz, known to friends as Kay, knew all about Don's shows about town. But like an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, Don wasn't the only guy who wanted to be her sweetheart. He had to win her over if he wanted to win her heart.
According to Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show, Kay said he did it with charisma. "He was very charismatic. I recognized that immediately. He was really funny and outgoing, and we could talk. He had a lot of depth of character, and that was interesting to me."
It took two years, but Don got the girl in the end. However, this was where he started questioning his other life choices.
Knotts wasn't sure he could support his girl as just an entertainer, so he started doing a series of odd jobs, not really finding any work that suited him. Instead, he went from job to job and felt frustrated by the lack of work.
Defeated, he took Kay back to his hometown Morgantown and took a holiday job to get back on his feet. This was where he had his fateful run-in with a department store Santa Claus who saw in Knotts a brighter future than even the holiday display where he sat every day.
The story goes that Knotts would chat with the Santa actor any time the store got quiet, and that actor was actually a self-described theater buff. As he got to know Don, he got to sense how special he was. He told Don that if he wanted to be an actor, he should shoot for the stars and move to New York.
"Go for it," Santa Claus told Don, probably with a big old wink from the jolly old elf.
Knotts took his advice, and for a while when audiences attended his nightclub performances, the future TV star would credit Santa for launching his career, saying onstage: "Don't tell me there's no Santa Claus!"