Wednesday 28 August 2019

To Leave or Knotts to Leave

A successful TV series brings a conundrum. An actor wants a hit, but then after a while, it’s “fans-be-damned,” they want to leave for something bigger.

Such was the situation facing Don Knotts.

Knotts had appeared in No Time For Sergeants at the Alvin Theatre in New York and did stand-up a few times on Garry Moore’s TV show when he was signed to be part of Steve Allen’s Sunday night supporting cast in 1957. That was his first real television fame. He parlayed that and the film version of Sergeants into his most famous role, thanks to TV reruns, on the Andy Griffith Show, starting in 1960. He won a bucket full of Emmys. But, as an actor, what do you do? Do you stay in a show the fans want to see and stagnate, or do you tell the fans “sorry” and move on? Knotts made a decision.

We’ll get there in just a moment. First, a King Features column from November 4, 1957. Knotts had appeared with Allen as a guest going back to 1956, but he and his fellow castmates garnered endless publicity the following year as a result of Allen’s “Man on the Street” sketches.
Allen Show Ties Don In Knots

With the addition of Don Knotts to his roster of auxiliary funny men, Steve Allen became the contemporary Ted Healy. Ted launched the notorious Three Stooges on the road of fame and fortune. Steve is performing the same service for his three stooges.
There's a basic difference, however. The term stooge has fallen out of favor and today supporting comics are called second bananas. But don't let the title fool you, they're still stooges.
Each of his helpers has achieved an identity of his own on the Allen show. Louis Nye is Gordon Hathaway, Tom Poston is a bundle of confusion, and Don Knotts the third second banana, is a nervous wreck. Each of the trio has developed catch phrases and mannerisms which they use on most of the shows.
Since his debut on the show in February, Don finds that, wherever he goes, people greet him with "Are you nervous?" to which his answer is an inevitable quick "Nooo."
Some Regular Basis!
Before setting down to do the Allen show on a regular basis (Some regular basis! Don's been on week-to-week notice since he started) "Don enjoyed a roundabout career in show business. He started out as a comic and switched to straight acting for five or six years. He appeared in both the play and the film of "No Time for Sergeants" and bad so much time on his hands during these that he worked up a nightclub routine and some special material. He auditioned for the Allen "Tonight" show, and whisk, he was back as a comic again.
"I enjoy what I'm doing," Don told me, "and the Allen bunch is great to work for, but I hope eventually to do other things. I realize I'm going to face the hazard of typecasting — I'll bet that, if and when I leave the Allen show, people will think of men only as a nervous comic — but it's possible to beat that. I learned. People tend to think of you only in the light of the last thing they saw you do. So, one time, when I auditioned for a Western, I sent in a picture of myself in a western, outfit. I was one of the first people selected."
Kept on Toes
I asked Don whether the intense competition, the Allen show was having with the Ed Sullivan show had much effect on his work. "It keeps us on our toes," he answered. "But competition doesn't frighten me. In fact, talking about competition, you ought to try working with Steve, Tom and Louie. That's fast company; You've got to be good to slay with them."
Of his many experiences on the show, one stands out in Don's mind. "When Lou Costello was on the show," Don said, "he asked me for two autographed pictures. And here I've been watching him since I was a kid!"
We’re now at 1964. Knotts is at a career crossroads. Here’s a King Features column from July 18th.
Actor Is Facing Hard Decision

HOLLYWOOD — Don Knotts, who plays deputy Barney Fife on the Andy Griffith series, must make a big decision in the next month, and right now he is pondering, trying to figure out the correct move.
Don's problem is this — his contract ends next year and so does Andy Griffith's. What should he do after this coming season, which could be the final year for the winning combination of Griffith and Knotts?
If Andy decides to quit, should Don continue with the series? Or should he go after a series of his own, changing the locale and environment, but not the basic character of the small, know-it-all hero, deputy Barney Fife? Or, should Knotts leave TV and sign a motion picture contract? All these moves are distinct possibilities. As Don says, "almost every step you take seems a good one."
Since plans for such ventures are made many months ahead, Don must reach a decision shortly. "We've been on vacation so I haven't had a chance to talk to Andy about it," said Don. "I don't know how he feels about giving up after next season."
Series Could Go On
The Andy Griffith series could go on two or three more years running rampant over its competition, but the point has come when Andy might want to stop, having done his share. The point has also come where some storylines are off shoots of very funny shows, and, naturally, they can't quite top the initial ones. "So this makes you think, maybe you should move on to a new environment," says Knotts.
All this is going to disturb many Monday night fans who like the status quo of Sheriff Andy watching his little deputy, giving orders, acting like a vice-president only to foul up miserably.
Watching deputy Barney Fife is like looking in a mirror. He loves the pearls of truth that come out of his mouth and is willing to repeat them over and over. He loves to play boss, particularly as a little man, and he can't restrain from thinking he's a big law enforcement officer, only to remember at the last minute that he has the coinage of a mouse, Barney has a little of everyone in him and that's why Don Knotts is a three-time Emmy winner.
The supporting actor award is now known as the Don Knotts Award, thanks to the character the writers, Andy Griffith, producer Aaron Ruben and Don created. This year Knotts' name wasn't even mentioned, and was probably the first name to be tossed out. He had to be ineligible because he won too often. Don says the Barney Fife character was rounded out the first year on the air, and not much has been added to him since, because there isn't much more to take on first year on the air, and not much has been added to him since, because there isn't much more to take on.
"People don't change either," says Don. "You see, Andy and I have a pet hate — situation comedy. So we try to imitate real people and forget the plot as much as possible.
"What we try to do is make use of those conversational habits people have. Like Barney telling a joke, hearing laughter and then telling the joke over again. You've seen people do that. It's terrible, but some can't help it after hearing the laughter — it's a compulsion, and it's funny."
Has Don met many Barneys? "I ran into one in my home town, a perfect deputy Barney — ordering people around, acting efficient, loving his job. They had a parade for me and the deputy helped put everything together. After the parade dispersed the deputy drove the sheriff and myself back, and along the way the deputy hits the siren. In the back seat the sheriff looks over at me and says plaintively, 'I wish he wouldn't do that'."
'Child in Man's Body'
Evidently all sheriff departments have Barneys or write in to say they do, and all the law enforcement people like the character because he is so familiar. "Barney is a child in a man's body," says Don. "If you watch kids, you'll see them react immediately. They don't hide anything. The same thing happens with Barney. He expresses himself right there. If anything he overdoes it. "I think everyone wants to do that, but as grownups we can't. That's why it's fun to play the part. Then I'm free to let go."
Don doesn't react that easily off stage. He laughs a lot, he's friendly, but he keeps his thoughts to himself. He can get up before a live audience in a club and slay them, or he can relax and feel free filming the series, but he says he can't work before an audience and a camera at the same time. "I can't take that," he says.
Don first attracted attention on the Steve Allen Show, and says he went through a lot of strain at the time, because he was trying so hard to make good. The pressure was on him. "And I don't do as well under pressure," he says. "Others react differently. I'm much better when I'm relaxed and I know we can shoot over."
This past season Don spread himself out with nine or 10 guest appearances, and found the same old pressure returning when he appeared in front of an audience and camera. "It keeps coming back," he says, "and I just don't come off as well."
Like his crazy character, Barney, Don evidently is human too, not superman, and this chink or loophole only makes him even more likable.
Knotts was gone at the end of the 1964-65 season. He was jumping into films, lightweight farcical ones like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and The Shakiest Gun in the West and, later, G-rated feature film comedy from Walt Disney Productions.

Whatever his earlier feelings about television work, he returned to it in 1979 on Three’s Company. About all I’ll say about it is it was no Andy Griffith Show. The Griffith show had dignity and warmth.

Knotts was known for many years for his shaky characters. In the end his health was shaky. He was 81 when he died in 2006. He was liked by TV viewers and respected by critics and colleagues, as best as I can tell. Was he right to walk away from Andy Griffith? Perhaps. But quitting a show beloved by millions never hurt his career or reputation.


  1. BY March 1964, Don Knotts could already be seen in "THE INCREDIBLE MISTER LIMPET"(which I have on VHS), his first post-GRIFFITH feature, and WB's final animated feature, a Disneylike film at the same time both (Walt with Mary Poppins) did live/animation releases for that year,1964----and WB and Don Knotts beat Walt to the screen (initially released in the Florida Wichi Wachi Mermaid show..)

  2. Don and his producers at Universal were careful enough to hire Jim Frizell and Everett Greenbaum, two of the best writers from the Andy Griffith Show, to do the screenplays for Knotts' early movies. So while he was going into new territory, he was doing it with writers who were familiar with how to work best with his persona.

  3. What might be Don Knotts' earliest work was in radio. He was featured as the cowboy Windy Wales on "Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders", which was on for two different periods, from 1932 to 1936 and from 1949 to 1955. Knotts was in the 1949 to 1955 show. He called Bobby, "Little Boss" because Bobby was a kid who ran the B-Bar-B ranch. Windy Wales was a braggart who told a lot of tall tales of his cowboy exploits, but when it came time to show what he could REALLY do, Wales often sputtered out. Knotts had a certain nervousness to his delivery even then, and Barney Fife's braggadocio seems to have originated with Windy Wales.

  4. Knotts had a great line once on "The Hollywood Squares." Host Peter Marshall asked him, "You're having trouble sleeping at night. Are you a man or a woman?" Knotts replied, "That's what's keeping me awake!"

  5. CBS was nervous about Knotts' departure from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and wanted his absence from the series downplayed as much as poaaible. That's why there's no "Barney Moves Away" episode. Just a passing reference in the first episode of season six to Barney's having moved to Mount Pilot. CBS, for the same reason, wouldn't let THE LUCY SHOW give a proper send-off to Vivian Vance. Season four kicks off with Lucy already having moved to California. There's just a brief exchange between Lucy and Mr. Mooney about Viv's remarriage.

    Knotts was apparently grateful for the steady work on THREE'S COMPANY, noting that he made more money off that series than he had ever made off THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW.