Don Knotts was a comedy and comic genius. Statement of fact as far as I’m concerned. Anyone who is old enough to have seen the original broadcasts of The Andy Griffith Show understands what I’m saying. Even you young pups who’ve only seen Don Knotts on cable reruns should get the picture.
As a kid watching the Griffith show I, like most of the audience, couldn’t wait to see what mess Don Knotts was going to find himself in week to week. And I couldn’t wait to see him make those ‘over the top’ facial expressions either. But don’t be fooled. Don Knotts comedy craft went far deeper than the ability to make a funny face. Don Knotts and especially the Barney Fife character enabled the audience to laugh at themselves because of the underlying humanity in his portrayal. You could laugh at Barney Fife, but you loved him as well. He was a good guy. He was well-intentioned. He never gave up. In spite of the indignities he suffered week after week, he still had a wonderful sense of self-importance that was at once comedic and endearing. Folks these are not character development nuances easily achieved. No doubt a portion of the credit goes to the writers on the Griffith show. But then, who wouldn’t have wanted a shot at writing Barney’s scenes? That must have been fun…just waiting to see how Don Knotts brought the written page to life.
Knotts came to have a special place in my heart in those awkward teen years. I was skinnier than Don Knotts (it WAS a long time ago) and pretty funny looking myself. To tease me, some of my fine classmates thought it would be funny to call me “Barney Fife” as an INSULT! What idiots! As played by Don Knotts, Barney Fife was an early comedic role model. A hero, if you will. The first time someone threw this ‘insult’ my way, I knew I had a kindred spirit in this old world. And more importantly, I knew I had a kindred spirit who was FUNNY!! What others intended as an insult, I took on as a badge of honor.
As I grew older and saw reruns of those Griffith programs or revisited “No Time For Sergeants” I gained an even greater appreciation for Knotts’ skill as a comedy actor. Since I knew absolutely no one in the entertainment profession, I used Don Knotts as inspiration and as my example of a ‘character guy’ who could have a successful career as an actor. I’ve certainly never achieved even a fraction of the success of Don Knotts, but his public career has meant a great deal to me over the years.
I encourage you NOT to be influenced by Knotts’ work on “Three’s Company”. I certainly don’t begrudge Don Knotts taking that gig by any means. But let’s face it…he was playing Don Knotts playing Mr. Furley. I’m sure he was glad for the steady gig at that stage of his life and career, but he deserved a better ‘epitaph’ than that. Even his later work on Matlock dipped into self-mockery. Perhaps by that time he had reached the ‘give ‘em what they want’ stage. I don’t know. I do know that his work in those projects were pale imitations of his stellar work in his earlier films and in the Griffith show in particular.
I encourage anyone reading this to take the opportunity to rent or buy “No Time For Sergeants” or an “Andy Griffith Show” DVD and check out the wonderful comedic timing of the great Don Knotts. If you don’t laugh at a Don Knotts performance you might need a ‘sense of humor’ checkup.
God Bless you, Don Knotts. You made me laugh out loud.