So much of what we manage to keep contained inside ourselves — that roiling mess of nervousness, doubt, and barely controlled dread — Don Knotts had the courage and creativity to present as his outer self-image. Few comic actors have mined pent-up neurotic chaos as thoroughly as Knotts, who died of lung cancer at age 81 on Feb. 24. And how lucky Knotts was that he found a perfect context for his panicky persona in that calm Eden of The Andy Griffith Show‘s little town of Mayberry, N.C. For five seasons (1960-65), Knotts was able to move his creation, deputy Barney Fife, beyond squawky goofiness into one of the richest and most emotionally complex characters the sitcom has ever produced.
Barney grew out of two of the comedian’s earlier showbiz experiences. First, on the ’50s Steve Allen Show variety series, Knotts was one of Allen’s recurring ”Man on the Street” sketch interviewees — as Mr. Morrison, he was rattled, quivering like a hummingbird, at being on ”live” TV. Yet every time Allen asked if he was nervous, Knotts would look into the camera, his eyes popping as their irises wiggled (no mean feat of physical comedy), and croak out a wonderfully unconvincing ”N-n-n-oooo!”
Knotts costarred with Griffith in No Time for Sergeants both on Broadway and in the 1958 film. When Griffith was offered his own sitcom, he brought Knotts along and graciously, cannily, allowed himself to play straight man to Knotts. Scrawny Barney, proud of his status as lawman, tried to bluster his way to an authority that Sheriff Andy earned simply by being quietly wise. Barney occasionally locked himself into the jail cell; he was allowed only one bullet, which he kept in his pocket, lest he misfire his gun (hey, it happened…more than once). Barney fancied himself a ladies’ man, batting his eyes at Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn) with a debonair flutter matched only by Bugs Bunny. Knotts won five Emmys and the love of a nation for Barney. Today, there are numerous websites devoted to Knotts, including BarneyFife.com, which discusses moral lessons to be drawn from the character — and for once, such claims don’t seem excessive.
Knotts made some silly movies with moments of slapstick brilliance, most notably The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. He more than earned his paycheck replacing Norman Fell’s landlord in Three’s Company. (I like to imagine Knotts and John Ritter in heaven now, pulling gags on each other.) And he had a marvelous cameo in 1998’s Pleasantville, as a darker Don — a mysterious TV repairman. Says the film’s director, Gary Ross: ”There’s a great expression that ‘comedy should have no muscle’ — it should feel effortless… It’s so difficult, what he did, and he made it look so easy.”
THE DON KNOTTS ESSENTIALS
THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW — THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (DVD)
Fife fully formed, including ”Barney’s Replacement” (ol’ Barn becomes a vacuum-cleaner salesman!) and a personal favorite of Knotts’: ”The Pickle Story.”
GOLDEN TV CLASSICS: THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW LIVE TV (VHS)
One of the few available glimpses of Knotts’ ”nervous guy” character.
THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966, DVD)
Knotts as a jittery journalist hoping to solve the mystery of a haunted house. Note for TV fans: Bewitched‘s Dick Sargent costars.