In Praise of Don Knotts, TV's Livest Wire

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The wiry, nerdy Deputy Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show, has died at 81. Bob Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, has an appreciation of one of TV's most memorable characters.


Comic actor Don Knotts died last night at the age of 81. Depending on how old you are, you might remember his performances as the neurotic guy in Search for Tomorrow, the nervous guy on Steve Allen's Tonight Show, the neurotic and nervous guy in movies like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Don Knotts also played Mr. Furley on Three's Company. But his masterpiece, of course, was his portrayal of Barney Fife in over 150 episodes of The Andy Griffith Show.

Bob Thompson, who heads up the Center for the Study of Popular Television, has this appreciation.

BOB THOMPSON reporting:

Don Knotts wasn't as physically accomplished as Buster Keaton, he didn't have the proletariat bluster of Jackie Gleason or Homer Simpson, he wasn't as daring as Lenny Bruce, but in his five years as Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, Don Knotts created what is to me what of the greatest comic characters in the history of American cinema and television.

It was an old formula and we'd seen it many times before, a little man whose inflated self-importance belied a vulnerable fragility. Like Charlie Chaplin before him, Knotts was a master of pathos. He reinterpreted the formula with nuanced performances of great subtlety that were entirely without guile or meanness of spirit.

Barney's tragic flaw was that he was much less than he thought he was. He had what today we would call a very limited skill set. Here he is showing off his knowledge of American history.

(Soundbite from The Andy Griffith Show)

THOMPSON: This went on for a few more minutes of impeccable comic timing in which Barney did not remember a single syllable of the preamble without a cue. The town of Mayberry had yet to acknowledge the civil unrest and change that was sweeping the real American South in the early 1960s. It was a place stuck outside history. Don Knotts personified this in his portrayal of Barney Fife, himself immobilized by inertia and stasis.

Barney's dreams were much bigger than Mayberry, but he had neither the wits nor the energy to escape. He aspired to greatness but couldn't respond even if greatness were thrust upon him. He had a hard enough time getting up off his rocking chair.

(Soundbite of The Andy Griffith Show)

THOMPSON: But then, after five years and three consecutive Emmy Awards, Barney did something extraordinary. He got up, had a nap, went over to Thelma Lou's and then just kept on going, right out of Mayberry and right off the show. Barney got as far as Raleigh, where he became a police detective. Don went to Universal Studios to make a charming series of family-friendly movies.

Don Knotts was a uniquely gifted actor, and he, with the help of his superb writers, brought us some of the best comedy in American history. And though Don may be gone now, in perpetual reruns and on DVDs, Barney is still in his prime. With a single bullet in his pocket, a song for Juanita in his heart, and a desperate yearning for a little respect.

(Soundbite of The Andy Griffith Show)

ELLIOTT: Don Knotts died last night in Beverly Hills at the age of 81.

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