Sunday, February 26, 2006

See You Later, Barney

The past year has not been kind to television's greats. Last year alone saw the passing of Paul Henning, Eddie Albert, James Doohan, and Bob Denver. This past Friday another one of televisions greats passed on. Don Knotts died at age 81 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Beverly Hills from lung cancer. He was surrounded by his family as well as close friend Andy Griffith and his wife.

Knotts will be forever remembered for playing one of the greatest characters ever on a television series--nervous, bumbling Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. Barney could be overzealous, self important, and hot headed. He could also be inept. Because of a tendency to accidentally discharge his revolver, Andy required Barney to keep his one bullet in his shirt pocket. The role would have so much impact in American pop culture that Barney Fife would become a slang term for any overzealous, but inept police officer.

The Andy Griffith Show not only brought Don Knotts fame, but recognition from his peers as well. He won the Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role by an Actor three years in a row. After he had left the show he would win two more Emmys for guest apperances as Fife on the show. Knotts also played lascivious landlord Ralph Furley on Three's Company for five years. Both characters have been seen in reruns ever since their first appearance.

Don Knotts was born Jesse Donald Knotts in Morgantown, West Virginia. While still in high school he performed for schools and churches. During World War II he served as an entertainer. Once the war was over he earned a degree in theatre at West Virginia University. Upon graduation he left for New York City where he got the role of handyman Windy Wales on Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders. He remained on the show for five years.

Curiously, his first job in television was not on a comedy or variety show, but on a soap opera. From 1953 to 1955 he played Wilbur Peterson on Search for Tomorrow. As might be expected, his big break would emerge from his talent as a comedian. He became part of the cast of The Steve Allen Show in 1956. It was in that show's "Man on the Street" interview segment that Knotts established the character of a fidgety, nervous man that would become his trademark.

It was also be at this time that Knotts would win a role that would change his life forever. He was cast as an Air Force psychiatrist in the Broadway play No Time For Seargeants. Knotts would also appear in the film version of the play. In both the play and the movie the lead actor was Andy Griffith. When Griffith received his own series and realised that they needed someone to play Sheriff Taylor's deputy, he naturally thought of Don Knotts. No Time For Seargeants then led to Knotts' most famous role.

Kmotts played Barney Fife for five years, leaving only because he thought Griffith wanted to end the series. He then made a career out of various family friendly comedies, such as The Reluctant Astronaut., The Love God, The Shakiest Gun in the West, and The Apple Dumpling Gang. He continued to appear on television in guest appearance and even on his own short lived variety series The Don Knotts Show. In most of his movies he played nervous, highstrung characters similar in many respects to Barney Fife.

His second most famous role came about after the orginal landlords on Three's Company, The Ropers, were spun off into their own series. Like Barney, Ralph Furley was nervous and highstrung. That having been said, he was a bit more lecherous than Barney and, unlike Deputy Fife, was not the sort to always do things by the book. He was a fairly original spin on the twitchy persona Knotts played for much of his life.

Knotts continued to make movies even after he joined the cast of Three's Company. He made sequels to The Apple Dumpling Gang, the comedy Private Eyes, and appeared as the mysterious TV repairman in Pleasantville. His TV appearances included a recurring role on Andy Griffith's series Matlock and guest apperances on Newhart and Burke's Law. Both he and Griffith appeared in the The Andy Griffith Show reunion movie Return to Mayberry. His last work was as the voice of Mayor Turkey Lurkey in last year's Chicken Little.

I am truly saddened by the passing of Don Knotts. He was truly a comic genius. My favourite character on The Andy Griffith Show was always Barney Fife, and with good reason. He was easily the funniest character on the show. Barney was nervous, highstrung, self important, and overzealous, with a tendency to try to go too much by the book. He was a perfect comic foil for the usually calm, collected Andy Taylor. I honestly don't think anyone else could have played the part as well. Lest anyone think that Deputy Fife was the only character Knotts could play, it must be pointed out that he played Ralph Furley on Three's Company as well. Like Barney he was nervous and highstrung. And like Barney he thought he was a ladies man. But the similarities end there. Unlike Deputy Fife, Mr. Furley did not care much for doing things by the book. While similar, the two characters are fairly different.

While I have fond memories of Don Knotts as Barney Fife from my childhood, I also remember his movies. I must admit that as an adult I find many of them to be subpar, but I remember as a child enjoying The Reluctant Astronaut and The Shakiest Gun in the West. Even when his movies weren't the best, Don Knotts could play very appealing characters.

Knotts was truly one of television's greats. If The Andy Griffith Show still airs in reruns to this day, it is largely because of the comic genius of Don Knotts. There are not many actors who have created two of TV's most memorable characters (Bob Denver was one of them), and I doubt that there will be too many more. Quite simply, we'll never see the like of Don Knotts again.

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