Saturday, November 5, 2016

Don Knotts, Barney Fife Legend

Barney Fife: The Legend

Don Knotts
Don Knotts as Barney Fife.
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.
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.
Don Knotts
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 story is true, as Knotts performed in a traveling troupe called "Stars and Gripes."
Don Knotts
Don Knotts with his dummy.
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." Knotts was going through basic training in Fort Bliss when he got a telegram from Washington ordering him to Fort Meade to join an Army show. He got this because he had mentioned on his induction papers that he was a ventriloquist. "They pulled me out of a hat, I guess," he recollected decades later.

Don went overseas with the show, entertaining both on islands such as the Philippines and aboard Navy ships to audiences of several thousand. At first, it was supposed to be a "Review," but due to technical limitations, it eventually became just a series of solo performances where each man would do their individual bit, whatever it was that they did. Don had a dummy named "Danny" that formed his main act and that was his "bit." However, an Irish comic, Mickey Shaughnessy, needed a partner in his act and began using Knotts as a "second banana." This actually was Knotts' first work as a comic instead of a ventriloquist.

Don continued doing his ventriloquism act along with his secondary bits with Shaughnessy but gradually began to prefer the second banana role. The ventriloquism act became more and more tiresome to Don, but he couldn't figure a way out of having to do it because that was what he had been assigned to do. The standard story goes (TV Guide interview) that finally, Knotts was on a ship in the South Pacific and was so frustrated with the ventriloquism act that he threw the dummy overboard. Knotts claimed that he could hear the dummy calling after him as they sailed away. This is a somewhat poetic tale and is what you will see in most biographies of Don Knotts.

Many years later, though, Don Knotts said that eventually he just left Danny "on a beach" and later reported him "missing in action." Since both stories originated with Knotts himself, take your pick as to which you believe, but he is on video telling the latter story about leaving the dummy on a beach. Whatever the details, "losing" the dummy freed Don up to do his comic bits as his main act.
Don Knotts
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 the 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.
Don Knotts
Don Knotts and Andy Griffith (at far left) at a story meeting for "The Andy Griffith Show."
Knotts and Griffith got on well. Don later recalled that he watched the Danny Thomas Show on the night that Griffith first appeared on television in the Sheriff Taylor role. Knotts liked the premise but figured that Sheriff Taylor could use a deputy as a comic foil. So, he picked up the phone and called producer Sheldon Leonard to offer his services. Leonard thought about it for a while, there was some back-and-forth, and then he finally offered Knotts the job. Don Knotts became Deputy Barney Fife to Griffith's Sheriff Andy Taylor in the new small-town sitcom, "The Andy Griffith Show." It was a fateful pairing. 
Don Knotts
Leonard made clear to Knotts that 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."
Don Knotts
The plan was for Griffith to be the comedian while everyone else played it straight. Griffith would make sarcastic asides and do funny faces about what the other characters did and the like, essentially making fun of small-town life (Griffith himself 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 show's producers - meaning Sheldon Leonard and Griffith, who owned 50% of the show - immediately offered Knotts a one-year contract (later extended to five years).
Don Knotts
Everybody loved Knotts' portrayal of Deputy Barney Fife. He expanded his "nervous guy" act from the 1950s, playing easily off of Griffith's solid central character, into an enduring character. Elinor Donahue from "Father Knows Best" had been hired to play Sheriff Taylor's love interest, but she later recalled that they kept taking all the funny lines away from her character and giving them to Knotts' bumbling deputy. She couldn't complain, she said, because "It was funnier when he did them." The first season earned Knotts the first of five Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actor in a Television Comedy. Donahue, suddenly a fifth wheel, left the show after that first season.
Don Knotts
Don Knotts starred in the classic comedy "The Incredible Mr. Limpet" as a man turned into a fish.
During the show, Don Knotts occasionally took some other roles while on hiatus. Perhaps his most enduring role during this period outside of the television show was as the lead in Warner Bros.'s partially animated classic "The Incredible Mr. Limpet" (1964). The role really stretched Knotts, requiring him to both give voice to 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 scenes (though that is kind of an iffy claim, considering that Gene Kelly had danced with animated characters in at least one of his films several years earlier).
Don Knotts
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.
Don Knotts
Original poster for "The Incredible Mr. Limpet."
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.
Don Knotts
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.
Don Knotts
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 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.
Don Knotts
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."
Don Knotts
Knotts' five films under his Universal Studios contract were moderate successes. They included:
  • The Ghost and Mr. Chicken
  • The Reluctant Astronaut
  • The Shakiest Gun in the West
  • The Love God?
  • How to Frame a Figg
They were all good films. "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" featured a lot of people from "The Andy Griffith Show" both in front of and behind the camera. It is probably his best post-Fife film role. Otherwise, Knotts had difficulty converting his nervous-guy act into leading man status. He liked his films despite their underwhelming reception, as he considered them good family entertainment with the kinds of homespun values that made him proud.
Don Knotts
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
  • The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again
  • The Prize Fighter
  • The Private Eyes
Knotts also hosted his own variety show in 1970, "The Don Knotts Show," but it did not last long.
Don Knotts
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.
Don Knotts
Don Knotts as Mr. Furley in "Three's Company."
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.
Don Knotts
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 another big star, but he was unavailable so Knotts got the part. 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.
Don Knotts
Don Knotts in "Pleasantville."
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
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.
Don Knotts
A statue honoring Don Knotts and referencing his role as Barney Fife.
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.

Don Knotts
Don Knotts with "Andy Griffith Show" costar Jim Nabors.


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