Barney Fife: The Legend
Don Knotts is the most famous Deputy Sheriff in history. Of course, he wasn't really a Deputy, he just played one on television - but he did more to raise the profile of local law enforcement than perhaps anyone else in history.
Let's learn a little bit about comedy legend Don Knotts.
Jesse Donald Knotts was born on 21 July 1924 to William Jesse Knotts and Elsie Luzetta Knotts. His father was a farmer who had a nervous breakdown around the time of Don's birth and later threatened him at times with a knife. He also, interestingly enough, was a sixth cousin of another Hollywood actor: Ron Howard.
After graduating from Morgantown High School, Don enlisted in the Army and served from 1943-46. There is some disagreement about how he served during the war: some sources identify Don as a skilled marksman in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Others claim that he in fact was an entertainer during the war. The latter is true, as Knotts performed in a travelling troupe called "Stars and Gripes."
Don got his start as a ventriloquist before the war, using a dummy he called " Danny "Hooch" Matador." He continued the act during the war. An older comedian, Red Ford, paid him an extreme compliment (for one comic to another), telling him, "You're a funny little son of a bitch." However, the act became tiresome. The story goes (TV Guide interview) that, at some point during the war, Knotts was on a ship in the Pacific and threw the dummy overboard. Knotts claimed that he could hear the dummy calling after him as they sailed away.
|Don Knotts with Andy Griffith in the Broadway in "No Time For Sergeants."|
After the war, Don kicked around for a while before getting his big break in 1953 on soap opera "Search For Tomorrow."
After that role ended, he got picked up by the Steve Allen show. Foreshadowing the rest of his career, he played a nervous guy during "Man in the Street" interviews. This role lasted until 1960. During this time, from 1955 to 1957, Knotts appeared on Broadway with Andy Griffith in the Broadway production of "No Time For Sergeants." The two reprised their roles in the 1958 film version.
Knotts and Griffith got on well. In 1960, Knotts was offered the role of a deputy to Griffith's Sheriff Andy Taylor in the new small-town sitcom, "The Andy Griffith Show," which was a spin-off from "The Danny Thomas Show."
It was a one-shot deal with no guarantees; the role might last one episode, or forever. Knotts appeared in the first episode without a contract. Ron Howard reprised his role of Opie, Sheriff Andy Taylor's young son, from "The Danny Thomas Show."
The plan was for Griffith to be the comedian while everyone else played it straight. Griffith would make sarcastic asides and do funny faces and the like, essentially making fun of small-town life (Griffith was from such a small town and knew what to lampoon). However, from that first episode, it was obvious that Knotts should do the funny faces while Griffith played it straight. The producers - meaning Griffith, who owned 50% of the show - immediately offered Knotts a one-year contract (later extended to five years).
Everybody loved Knotts' portrayal of Deputy Barney Fife. He expanded his "nervous guy" act from the 1950s, which played off of Griffith's solid central character, into an enduring character. The first season earned Knotts the first of five Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actor in a Television Comedy.
During the show, Don Knotts occasionally took some other roles while on hiatus. Perhaps his most enduring role was as the lead in Warner Bros.' partially animated classic "The Incredible Mr. Limpet." The role really stretched Knotts, requiring him to both voice an animated character and play a live romantic role. It was Knott's first time doing a voiceover for animation and, according to the studio, the first time animation had been combined with live action (though that is kind of an iffy claim, considering that Gene Kelly had danced with animated characters in at least one of his films).
Knotts even warbled "I Wish I Were A Fish," singing for perhaps the only time in his career ("I am not a singer," he candidly confessed). It was an amazing performance that really solidified Knotts' status as more than just a sidekick on a sitcom.
While not successful at first, "The Incredible Mr. Limpet" became a huge success upon re-release and, ultimately, one of the true classics of animation. In fact, if all he ever did in Hollywood was play roles like that, Don Knotts still would be a legend. Personally, I consider it his best performance, a true landmark in film history.
But throughout the early 1960s, Knotts' bread and butter remained "The Andy Griffith Show." The Barney Fife character was a typical martinet, a small-town hick with delusions of grandeur but a complete inability to handle stress. Griffith never took the show too seriously, and often commented that he would spend only five years on it before going back to films and other projects.
Taking Griffith seriously, Knotts nailed down a five-film contract with Universal Studios to begin in 1965, when the five years would be up. Undoubtedly, his strong performance in the the previous year's "Mr. Limpet" created that opportunity. Griffith ultimately changed his mind, though, and decided to continue with his show, which throughout its run was at No. 1 (one of only three series to end its run at No. 1 in the ratings, along with "I Love Lucy" and "Seinfeld"). Knotts admitted in his autobiography that he had not yet signed his film contract when Griffith changed his mind, and could have continued with the series. However, he wanted to strike while the iron was hot and felt the film opportunity was just too good to pass up. Knotts signed the contract and left the show.
It was not the end of Knotts' appearances on "The Andy Griffith Show," however. In fact, Knotts appeared on the show in a guest-starring role five more times, which earned him his fourth and fifth Emmys. He even appeared once on the spin-off "Mayberry RFD" and again on "The New Andy Griffith Show."
Knotts' five films under his Universal Studios contract were moderate successes. They included:
- The Reluctant Astronaut
- The Shakiest Gun in the West
- The Love God?
|This costume became Knotts' trademark.|
By now, Knotts was established as a top Hollywood star, but his roles changed. Instead of the headliner, he became part of comic ensembles or as the co-lead in buddy pictures. Some of the latter were with Tim Conway, with whom Knotts established an easy comic rapport:
- The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again
- The Prize Fighter
The rest of the '70s was filled with occasional film roles and frequent guest appearances on other people's shows. He could inject instant comic relief into any show. In 1979, the producers of top-rated "Three's Company" needed a replacement for the landlord character, played by Norman Fell, who was going off to star in his own spin-off. Given his reputation for sliding easily into other shows and quickly drawing laughs, Knotts got the job. He played Ralph Furley, a flamboyant and foppish would-be womanizer who is constantly bamboozled by his three tenants, played by John Ritter, Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt. Knotts was an instant hit - as usual - and created an iconic character that eclipsed his predecessor's character. It was one of the best character replacements in television history.
Once again, Knott's role lasted for five years, until the show went off the air in 1984. After that, he again took guest-starring and occasional film roles. When old pal Andy Griffith got another hit show, "Matlock" in 1986, Knotts became a semi-regular as nosy neighbor Les Calhoun. That show lasted for nine seasons, but Knotts appeared in 17 episodes over, you guessed it, five seasons, 1988-92.
After that, Don Knotts appeared often on television, working steadily, but he was more of an occasional guest star by this point. His last major live role was as the TV repairman in the hit film "Pleasantville." The role originally was intended for Dick Van Dyke, but Van Dyke was unavailable. Knotts was unable to record his lines for the film during looping, so an impersonator - of whom there are many in the business - spoke all of his lines in the film. Because he was such a legendary figure with an easily mimicked voice and his impersonator was so polished, nobody noticed.
Knotts' final major film role was voicing the animated character of Mayor Turkey Lurkey in "Chicken Little" for Disney Studios. It was a fairly successful film during a down period for the studio.
Don Knotts was married three times and had a son, Thomas Knotts, and a daughter, Karen Knotts. He passed away at age 81 on February 24, 2006 at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Andy Griffith was there, as the two were life-long friends. A statute of Don Knotts done by sculptor Jamie Lester now stands in his hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia.
There are some who claim that Knotts did not consider himself anything like his fidgety characters, and that he in fact considered himself a potential matinee idol adored by women. There isn't much evidence for this, as Knotts simply did what the studios wanted, but that is the rumor. Ultimately, it never really worked out that way for Don, as he was not perceived by audiences as a lady-killer. However, in one respect, Don has had the last laugh on those critics: his eternal resting place is just down the block from Marilyn Monroe.