Classic TV star returns to the screen in upcoming film ''Pleasantville''

Let’s just assume for a second that both The Andy Griffith Show and Three’s Company never existed. Even in that sad, lonely, Barney Fife-less, Ralph Furley-free universe, Don Knotts would still be a comedy god if just for the following exchange from the old Hollywood Squares show:

Quizmaster Peter Marshall: ”You’ve been having trouble going to sleep. Are you probably a man or a woman?”

Knotts: ”That’s what’s been keeping me awake!”

Go ahead — parse it, dissect it, slide it under a microscope. We defy you to make that joke any funnier. And so does the line’s delivery man, whose grinning face is turning as red as the filling in one of Aunt Bee’s cherry pies after he’s reminded of his response. ”Did I really say that?” asks Knotts, eyes tearing up from laughter. ”Jeez, I don’t remember. It sure sounds like something I’d say.”

It’s comforting to report that at 74, Don Knotts is still something of a walking sight gag — albeit a grayer, less antic one, with bifocals hanging from his neck. Yet in his new film, Pleasantville, in which he plays a folksy, godlike TV repairman who helps a pair of teenagers zap into a white-bread 1950s sitcom world, he’s more than that; he’s the living embodiment of TV’s black-and-white innocence, like an old pair of rabbit ears perched atop an aging man-child’s body.

”We wanted someone who was an icon from the golden age of TV,” says Pleasantville director Gary Ross. ”So I sat down with the casting director and we both just talked about how much we worshiped Barney Fife — he was like a deranged pixie.” Same goes for the man who created him. Upon meeting Knotts in the flesh in a hotel suite overlooking Central Park, one look at his beanpole-thin frame, his Silly Putty facial expressions seemingly lifted from a Tex Avery cartoon, and, of course, those trademark ah-ooooo-gah bug eyes makes you lose it. Even when Don Knotts doesn’t mean to be funny, he just is.

So it’s not particularly surprising that after more than 50 years in show business — which he kicked off as a gawky 13-year-old ventriloquist in his native Morgantown, W. Va. — Knotts is now undergoing a full-scale cultural renaissance. In addition to his small but pivotal role in Pleasantville, next year Jim Carrey will begin shooting a glitzy remake of Knotts’ 1964 The Incredible Mr. Limpet (in which he played a nebbishy bookworm who turns into an animated fish). And as gravy, Walt Disney Home Video just released a four-tape Don Knotts collection, which includes such kid-tested, mother-approved flicks as The Apple Dumpling Gang and Gus. Suddenly the world is beginning to feel like a Knottsapalooza.

”Jim and I watched the original Limpet together,” says the new Limpet‘s director, Steve Oedekerk (Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls). ”Jim is a huge fan of Don’s…. We just want to avoid insulting the original.” While Oedekerk says he’s trying to find a role for Knotts in the update, just the thought of Carrey giving tribute seems payment enough for Knotts. ”I don’t feel too possessive about it,” shrugs Knotts. ”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.”

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