Don Knotts: the actor remembered …
He was not like John Wayne, or James Arness coming through a saloon door, but when Don Knotts walked onstage, there was the charisma and appeal of a Stan Laurel or Charlie Chaplin.
He was as unlikely a piece of star material as ever strayed in front of a camera. But the drive which every star must have was always there.
As a fellow who can be funny just by standing in an empty room, Don Knotts ” all 120 quivering pounds of him ” had made the grade. He died at age 81, on Feb. 25, 2006. But he will remain the timid, nervous fellow who was always ineffectual. And he will always be best remembered as Andy Griffith’s jittery deputy sheriff on the “Andy Griffith Show,” one of the biggest TV hits of the 1960s.
“Barney Fife was my favorite role,” Don said. “I really enjoyed doing him. And working with Andy Griffith was a ball. He’s an excellent actor and one of my closest friends.”
Don’s most hilarious scene stemmed from his twitching, bungling, attempts to impress Andy with his ability to be an efficient “law enforcer.”
When he tried a fast draw, he couldn’t get the gun out of the holster. When he tried the “third degree” on a prisoner by shining a goosenecked lamp on him, the lamp slowly limped downward.
Was he nervous? Yes ” the character he played so brilliantly was not entirely put on. Unsure of himself? Yes ” good actors are usually insecure, and Don was essentially an actor rather than a comedian.
“Comedy is pretty grim,” Don explained. “I love to act, period. I used to do heavy stuff. I find now that it is difficult to gain acceptance outside of comedy.”
How did he originate that slight, somewhat abashed, timid, nervous characterization?”
It came about through a monologue I wrote for TV years ago which portrayed this character,” Don said. “I remember a nervous after-dinner speaker I had once observed in my hometown. It was perpetuated by my appearances as the nervous man on the street’ on the Steve Allen Show.'”
“The Andy Griffith Show,” five Emmy awards, and starring his own weekly television series followed. He also starred in a string of profitable, low budget movies: “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” “The Reluctant Astronaut,” “The Shakiest Gun in the West,” “The Love of God,” “How to Frame a Figg,” “The Apple Dumpling Gang,” and “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.”
Knotts kept busy on all three mediums ” stage, screen, and television ” including a theater run in Chicago in “The Odd Couple” (with Art Carney) and guesting on virtually every top-rated TV variety and talk show.
Born on a farm in West Virginia, Don was only a baby when his family moved to Morgantown, W. Va. In his early teens, he went to New York City with a dummy named Danny and a ventriloquist act ” and failed. Back in Morgantown, he enrolled in West Virginia University.
When the Second World War broke out, Don, although he was only 100 pounds, was drafted into the military.
“There were wagers in my hometown that we must be losing the war,” he quipped.
After the war, (“I didn’t come back too big of a hero,” he admitted) he finished at Virginia University, then tried New York City again. This time, he succeeded in radio.
The big break came on Broadway in “No Time for Sergeants” and he portrayed the same “nervous soldier” in the movie version.
“Andy Griffith starred in the stage version. Right after, Andy and I, in 1959, went to Los Angeles, where I met Steve Allen,” said Don.
It was during his stint with Allen that Knotts once again got the call when Griffith signed for his television series. Knotts went on to win five Emmys playing Barney Fife.
Knotts, of course, already had the foundation for the part, and the writers had their character.
“I was with the show for five years and I might have stayed longer except Andy said he was going to leave after five sessions, and in the fifth year he was still talking about leaving. I felt I should start making some plans,” Knotts said. “As things turned out, Andy stayed with it another two years. I have to admit, of all the memories I have about this business, the five years on that show were especially outstanding. We really had fun doing that show. It could not have been better.
Acting was an extension of an early Knotts habit.
“I was an avid movie-goer as a kid,” he said, adding that he knew early that he wanted to be an actor and comedian. A mail-order doll served as a dummy, and as a youngster, he had ventriloquist ambitions using jokes from Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, and Fred Allen.
The “Hot Lead, Cold Feet” role as the Denver Kid hails back to his Barney Fife days on the old Griffith Show, where as a deputy he threw his weight around only to have his knees buckle at the snap of a twig.
Despite the gold mine his fearful image had created for him, Knotts said, “I’ve been trying to get away from that nervous character everybody knows.’ But when Knotts traveled doing plays, he said, “I try to do something more dramatic on the stage and the minute I walk on, people start laughing. Frankly, I find that tiresome but I’m not going to give back the money.”
Knotts married Kay Metz in 1948, the year he graduated from college. The couple had two children before divorcing in 1969. Don later married, then divorced, Lara Lee Szuchna.
When Knotts retired, he had no long range plans, but another get-together with Griffith was possible.
“We’ve been talking about it for some time,” Knotts said. “Andy has a few ideas he’s working on. I wouldn’t be surprised if something happens.”
It never came about, but something did happen.
In 1998, Knotts was fighting blindness ” locked with a serious eye disease that threatened to rob him of his sight. He suffered from senile macular degeneration, one of the leading causes of legal blindness in the United States.
He faced it with incredible courage.
“When I heard the diagnosis, instinctively, my first thought was Will I be able to work? Is this the end of my career?'” Don asked the doctor.
The doctor replied, “Yes, you can still work, but it will take a lot more energy because it’s going to be harder for you to read and study the lines.”
“I was determined not to let it affect my career,” Don said. But getting through it emotionally ” that part was tough.
Don visited the Braille Institute in Los Angeles, where legally blind people are taught skills to help them stay self-sufficient, and was impressed to see the way they were coping.
Don came away inspired.
“If they can adopt and do it … so can I.”
Don proved he could do it. In 1998, he had a key role in the back-to-the-past movie, “Pleasantville.”
It was his last performance.