Barney Fife and Other Characters I Have Known


Fish. Chicken. Deputy. Icon. TV's beloved Don Knotts gives his millions of fans the book they've been waiting for.

Don Knotts recounts with warmth and humor the events that shaped his life and a career that spans half a century: his colorful childhood in his family's West Virginia boarding house; his hectic stint as a comic on the road, and as a rising star in the burgeoning days of live TV; his big break on Broadway in No Time for Sergeants;...
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Fish. Chicken. Deputy. Icon. TV's beloved Don Knotts gives his millions of fans the book they've been waiting for.

Don Knotts recounts with warmth and humor the events that shaped his life and a career that spans half a century: his colorful childhood in his family's West Virginia boarding house; his hectic stint as a comic on the road, and as a rising star in the burgeoning days of live TV; his big break on Broadway in No Time for Sergeants; his five-season, multi-award-winning portrayal of Mayberry's bumbling and beloved Barney Fife. With candor he takes us behind the scenes on the set of Three's Company, and behind the sets of his hugely successful film comedies. And he shares bittersweet memories of The Mayberry Reunion, and affectionate recollections of his professional and personal relationships with such legends as Andy Griffith, Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Orson Welles, Lou Costello, and Arthur Godfrey.

Here is the inside story of the comedic genius behind Mr. Limpit, Mr. Chicken, Barney Fife, and the other characters we've come to know. And love.
* With a foreword by Andy Griffith
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780783888224
  • Publisher: Cengage Gale
  • Publication date: 12/1/1999
  • Series: G. K. Hall Core Ser.
  • Pages: 291

Interviews & Essays

Attaboy, Don

Several generations of Americans have grown up laughing at Don Knotts's antics. In Barney Fife and Other Characters I Have Known, Knotts looks back at a long and successful career, from his breakthrough appearances on the Steve Allen-hosted "The Tonight Show" in the 1950s to his memorable work on "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Three's Company" and in such films as "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken," and "Pleasantville."

I spoke with Knotts recently about his show biz adventures, the greats he's worked with over the years, and the anxiety that arises when one is assigned the imposing task of filling Norman Fell's shoes.

Brett Leveridge

An Interview with Don Knotts

Barnes & You began your show business career as a ventriloquist.

Don Knotts: The only reason I did that was, there was a company called Johnson-Smith and Co. They advertised a product called Ventrillo—"Just put it in your mouth and throw your voice." And I thought, "Wow!" So I sent for it—I think it was a dime—and when I got it back, it was just a birdcaller.

But they included a little booklet that told how to effect the illusion of throwing your voice. I read it, and I thought, "Oh, pretty good." So I got hold of a little dummy and just worked it out. That's the only reason I got into it. What do you consider your first big break? What's the one job that made the difference between your sticking with show business or perhaps giving it up somewhere along the way?

DK: It's hard to say; there were really a number of those points in my career. But I think that really the most important was when I got a job in radio theater, doing a western ["The Bobby Benson Show"] on WOR here in New York, which was part of the Mutual Network. That kept me going, and if it hadn't been for that, I don't think I'd have made it here. You played an old man on that program.

DK: Yes, an old-timer. In the book you talk about the fact that the network sent you and some of your fellow cast members out to do personal appearances. Did it throw the children who listened to that show when they discovered that Windy Wales was, in fact, not so old? After all, you were in your 20s, weren't you?

DK: Yes, I was! [laughs] I always wondered about that. It didn't seem to bother anybody, although I never asked anyone in our audiences what they thought about it. Kids are pretty forthcoming; I'm sure they'd have let you know.

DK: You're probably right. Who are your biggest influences?

DK>: My biggest influence, I think, was Jack Benny. I've heard a lot of performers in my age group say the same thing. He was such a perfectionist and had such perfect timing. He was a real idol. But I was influenced by so many performers. You got to know Groucho Marx in his later years.

DK: Well, one story I included in the book is that I went into the doctor's office one day, and Groucho was there. A female fan was all over him, but when she recognized who I was, she turned her attention toward me. She said, "Why, you're Don Knotts!" And Groucho said, "He's always known that." Groucho was pretty old by that time, and I said, "Are you working anywhere, Groucho?" And he said, "Who has time to work? From here I go to my cardiologist; from there I go to my urologist; from there I go...." [laughs] You also worked with Bob Hope?

DK: Yes, I did—several times. I loved working with Bob. I tell a story in the book—Bob used cue cards all the time; everything was done so fast. And the guy pulling my cards during rehearsal was kind of slow—he was inexperienced—so I was a little late on every cue. Hope got upset; he said, "You'd better go over this material tonight!" So I went to the head of the cue card people and said, "You'd better get somebody to pull my cards faster." The next day on the show, they had someone who was good—he was pulling them right on time—and Hope turned around and said, "Studied, didn't you? Did you ever feel trapped by your comedic success? Was there a frustrated dramatic actor inside Don Knotts yearning to be free?

DK: Not really. I never did aspire to that too much. You know, I played a dramatic role in a soap opera for several years—"Search for Tomorrow." I didn't get that big a boot out of it. So I'm not a frustrated thespian. You liked getting the laughs.

DK: That's right. How did you come to be a part of Steve Allen's troupe of actors and to take part in his "Man on the Street" routine?

DK: I had written a monologue about a nervous guy, and a fellow named Bill Dana was auditioning for "The Tonight Show"—Steve hosted "The Tonight Show" then—and I auditioned my nervous guy for Bill, and he put me on "The Tonight Show." So I wrote another monologue, came back, and did the show again. So they decided to use the nervous character in the "Man on the Street" segments.

I worked with Steve for about four years. It was kind of funny—they kept calling me back, but I didn't have a contract. They would just say, at the end of a show, "Um, we're going to use you again next week." They did that for a full season, until I finally got a contract. Have you ever been to Andy Griffith's hometown—Mount Airy, North Carolina? They host annual gatherings of fans of "The Andy Griffith Show."

DK: Yes, I know they do, but no, I've never been down there. In the years you worked on that show, did Andy ever offer any hints as to the extent that Mayberry was based on Mount Airy?

DK: No, he never really mentioned that. Down in Mount Airy, they're pretty convinced that their town is the model for Mayberry.

DK: I know they are! [laughs] I know. But I think there's certainly a lot of North Carolina in general in the Mayberry shows. And Andy certainly brought that about, but not specifically Mount Airy. Of course, it's where he grew up, so it has to have had some effect on his work.

DK: Oh, yes. Of course. "The Incredible Mr. Limpet" is a much-beloved film. In the book, you acknowledge that it was just a middling success in its time; why do you suppose it wasn't a bigger hit?

DK: I think it was because they didn't promote it. John C. Rose produced it, and he tried to get it into Radio City Music Hall here in New York. And he had a pretty good shot at it, as I understand, but at the last minute they decided against it. And I think that the reason they did, or at least what I heard, was my name wasn't a movie name at that time and they were afraid that I wouldn't draw. I was doing "The Andy Griffith Show"—I'd been doing it about two seasons—but as far as movies went, I didn't have a track record.

Well, when that happened, I don't think Warner Brothers, who made the picture, knew what to do with it. And they just sort of released it without much fanfare. And I don't think the reviews were all that great, especially in New York. So it just sort of limped along. It did okay, I guess. But as the years went on, it started picking up speed. There have been any number of films like that in the history of Hollywood. I don't think "It's a Wonderful Life" was a huge hit when it first came out. Nor was "The Wizard of Oz." I think television has saved the reputation of quite a few films over the years.

DK: Yes, I think you're right. Are there any plans afoot to re-release that film, perhaps on some key anniversary of its original release?

DK: I've not heard anything like that, but there were plans to remake it. Jim Carrey was going to do it. But I just saw Jim about three or four weeks ago, and he said that it fell through. I don't know why, and he didn't say. Were you at all concerned about replacing an established character on "Three's Company," a show that was still very popular?

DK: I was apprehensive, period, about competing with—or keeping up with—all those kids. I wasn't too worried about filling in for Norman [Fell], because it was a totally different character, totally rewritten and everything. But the whole idea of going in there scared me a little bit.

In the first place, I wasn't used to working that way. "The Andy Griffith Show" was shot like a movie, you know, with one camera. And although I'd worked a lot of variety shows, I hadn't done much sitcom work in front of an audience. And when you first do that, it can be a little scary. Did it grow on you? Or did you find that you preferred the other approach?

DK: Oh, I finally got used to it and even grew to like it because, you know, you got immediate audience response. But my first love was "The Andy Griffith Show" and its way of doing things, the reason being that you get to perfect things a little more. You get to work them out until you feel you have them right. But when you've got four or five cameras and an audience, you're not going to do that. You're going to go for the big laugh, and that's it. What was the reaction among longtime fans of "The Andy Griffith Show" to your doing another sitcom?

DK: I felt they were generally supportive. And there were a lot of new fans, including some of the kids who had never even seen "The Andy Griffith Show" at that point. Was there ever talk of spinning off a show that would center around your "Three's Company" character, Mr. Furley, as they did with the Ropers?

DK: No, and I think the reason is that that show didn't make it. And I don't think they wanted to try again. "Pleasantville" seemed to explore the darker side of the very sort of idealized small town that television so long presented to the viewing public—"The Andy Griffith Show"'s Mayberry, "Leave It to Beaver"'s Mayfield, and many others. Did it occur to you that you were, in effect, playing both sides of that fence by appearing in "Pleasantville"?

DK: Yes, that's true. I'll tell you something interesting about that movie: If you talk to ten different people, you get ten different ideas of what that movie was about. It's really interesting. But I think you've just about pegged it. If you were approached to select three pieces of your work for inclusion in a pop culture time capsule to be opened in ten thousand years, which three would you pick?

DK: Well, I would pick one of the Andy Griffith shows. I'd pick "Mr. Limpet." And "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken." Have you a favorite Andy Griffith episode?

DK: Oh, I have a few different ones; one is "Aunt Bea's Pickles," which I thought was a wonderful episode. And "Barney and the Choir," which was very funny. I think those are my two favorites. You mentioned two films to be included in the hypothetical time capsule; which is your favorite among your movies?

DK: I think "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken," for selfish reasons. I had more to do with putting that one together. I had nothing to do with Mr. Limpet in terms of the script, but I did with "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken." You were involved with that one from the ground floor, weren't you?

DK: Yes. I really lived with that picture for a couple of years. The book has a decided sunny slant to it. You dish very little dirt, an approach that stands in direct contrast to many other recent star memoirs. Was it a conscious choice on your part to avoid that sort of thing?

DK: I didn't think about it one way or the other, really. I guess what I was trying to do was tell a story, really, and if something came to mind that was considered "dirt," I just didn't really consider it. I just saw no need to dwell on such matters.

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