Don Knotts’ recent passing at 81 has prompted second looks at his life and career, as such things always do. It’s tricky, though, to find the right tone for eulogizing Knotts, who never seemed to want to be taken too seriously, even as a comedian. He didn’t aspire to be a classic slapstick actor—in the vein of Lou Costello, say, or even Jerry Lewis. More palatable than Tim Conway, far less grating and broad in caricature than Jim Nabors, he had a busy career and made outings in every comedic subgenre—children’s fare, sci-fi, westerns, sitcoms—and the movies he appeared in tended to become Don Knotts movies by virtue of his presence.
Knotts is best known as Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show. The show itself is something of a legend. Its whistled opening musical theme is one the most distinctive pieces of music in television, and just about everyone over a certain age has it burned into their basal ganglia at about the same primal level occupied by the McDonald’s “You deserve a break today.” The shot of Andy strolling down a country dirt road to the Mayberry fishing hole with little Ronnie Howard has risen, over a half-century of reruns—in broadcast syndication and on cable channels like TVLand—to the status of icon. It’s the sort of thing you’d shoot up into space in a Viking probe to show extraterrestrials what TV was all about.
It’s funny Andy Griffith would be so emblematic of TV’s golden age because it owes a stylistic debt to dramatic radio, just beginning to wane in popularity as the show debuted in 1960. The series comes off a bit like the bastard child of ‘40s radio drama Lum & Abner and a zero-impact re-envisioning of Gunsmoke. In the first half of a typical Andy Griffith episode Barney and Griffith’s Sheriff Taylor hang about the Mayberry police station with too little work to do, Lum & Abner style. There they trade idle observations or flesh out subplots—Barney wants to join the church choir and Andy doesn’t know how to tell him he can’t sing; Barney wants another deputy and Andy can’t tell him town clown Gomer (Nabors) isn’t up to the job. In the second half, an escaped criminal or prison transfer gone wrong obliges the peaceful Taylor to transform into a reluctant Marshal Dillon, taking up arms in defense of law and order.
Thus Andy Griffith synthesized the alleged placidity of the mid-century American small town with the chaos of the frontier West. Knotts’ rendering of the bumbling Fife accentuated this blending. That the townsfolk of Mayberry accepted his likable ineptitude and even developed an affection for him testified to the openness of Mayberry, that mythical American everytown. But the Fife character magnified the show’s old-West moments of peril too. His faux braggadocio—his signature pretense to greater competence than he had, his nerdy enthusiasm for policing—showed that his was not a job to be taken lightly, even if he couldn’t do it very well.
He was also blessed with lucid moments. Fife’s march was crisp, as were his hand motions and recitations when he deputized Gomer or berated the various petty criminals who came through Mayberry’s jail cells. Most importantly, in those rare instances when it was incumbent on him to save the day, he would rise to the occasion, although typically with a higher-than-usual dose of good luck, it being a curious tendency of television gods to bless the virtuous unwise.
As his long stint in Andy Griffith was winding down, Knotts landed roles in various Disney-alike children’s titles for Universal Studios, like The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1965), and The Reluctant Astronaut. By and large his characters in these movies were variations on the Fife theme. Reluctant Astronaut, for instance, begins with Roy Fleming (Knotts) seeming heroic, as he sits grimly behind the stick of a rocket lifting off and barks out technical dialogue with grave urgency. But he turns out to be only putting on a zero-budget sideshow rocket simulation for a kiddie carnival. In real life, Roy is a 35-year-old sad sack who still lives with mom and dad, can’t find a girlfriend, and suffers from a cripplingly severe phobia of heights.
Still, he manages to turn his shortcomings into assets. Desperate for an incompetent astronaut to send into space and thereby maintain the U.S. edge against the Russians (who are planning to orbit their own cosmological nitwit to demonstrate the superiority of their onboard automation), the American space jockeys send Roy into space with a minimum of training. The rocket malfunctions and after many Jerry Lewisian hijinks, he falls back on his kiddie-ride shtick, barking out pseudo-jargon and thereby, incredibly, bringing the rocket safely back to Earth. This is essential Knotts. His characters would typically fail, but never so as to precipitate catastrophe; he would bumble, but he carried within him a certain virtuosity, which would come out when the story needed it.
If the America of Andy Griffith‘s time was relatively carefree, The Reluctant Astronaut came at the cusp of a stormier period. The early ‘60s saw a great economic expansion, infatuation with a movie-star-beautiful First Couple and bourgeois bacchania after the annexation of the leisure island of Hawaii (this reflected in Annette Funicello and Tommy Kirk’s butt-wiggling beach party movies). By 1967, Kennedy was dead and America had set to fondling the tarbaby of Vietnam in earnest, and Reluctant Astronaut reflected much of this growing pessimism.
This is mainly directed through the film’s frequent references to the Cold War. Whenever a skeptic accuses Roy of pretending to know more than he does concerning matters astronautical, he claims that national security prohibits him from revealing his expertise. The movie leaves you with the strong impression of a public already struggling with a government whose secretiveness stymied every attempt to interpret the geopolitical landscape. Time and again, characters in The Reluctant Astronaut begin to speculate on the space race, but abandon their speculation for lack of insight, and merely shrug and express the hope that their leaders will act for the best.
A common denominator in many of the early Don Knotts movies is that they take the archetypal American small town for their point of departure. When Knotts left Universal to do several movies for Disney, though, his small-town act largely fell by the wayside, as the studio at that time was showing a surprisingly fervent anti-development bent.
Knotts appeared in 1977’s Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, a frivolous car-chase travelogue, but the previous entry in the franchise, Herbie Rides Again (1974), revolves around an eccentric old lady who faces eviction by an evil real estate tycoon who wants to build a fictionalized version of the then-newly completed World Trade Center. In No Deposit, No Return (1976), Knotts costarred with Darren McGavin (who would eventually die the day after Knotts) as a pair of safe-cracking burglars driven to a life of crime after urban developers force them to close the city gas station they had started up together.
Like Roy, Bert the wheelman is in some ways a Barney Fife reissue—particularly in his incompetence, since he and Duke (McGavin), as children’s movie villains-turned-heroes, must have an unbroken record of unsuccessful heists in order to exculpate the movie. But by then Knotts’ characters (including his other most famous role, Three’s Company‘s Mr. Furley) were far from Barney Fife. The rural ideal of Andy Griffith—always more myth than reality—was long lost in the urban explosion and suburban sprawl of post-Vietnam war America. Knotts’ fictional persona in the 1970s, the Knotts I grew up with, always seemed adrift without a sleepy police station to hang his hat.