A Few Words for Don Knotts

I’ve come to appreciate the TV and film work of Don Knotts in specific ways over a long period of time. As a kid, Knotts was the guy in two films I saw repeatedly. The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964) was, I thought, a very cool movie when I was little. I was only two when it was released, so I’m guessing I saw it on TV at some point. But it stuck in my memeory because it went from live action to a cartoon, with Knotts as Henry Limpet the man and bespectacled fish version of himself. The fish looked remarkably like Knotts, too. I don’t remember the plot, though.

Plot was more memorable in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, which I think I saw annually around Halloween in grammar school for several years. It was the perfect combination of pseudo-scary and silly, and it got us out of class and into the auditorium, so I associate the film with good feeling and a great holiday. I remember a lot of physical humor, with Knotts shaking and stuttering amply, letting us tots feel extra mature and brave by comparison with this childlike man.

I came to The Andy Griffith Show much later. It plagued my youth, interrupting (or so I interpreted it) perfectly good Cubs games on WGN (the actual appearance was because of rain delays, but I mostly saw it as an inappropriate imposition—I couldn’t sit through it to get to the break in the rain, if it came, and I’d end up simply watching something else or turning off the TV). I’ve already blogged about this last September, but I’ll quote the Knotts/Barney Fife parts again here:

“I suppose my greatest pleasure in the series comes from the fact that my husband and I have developed a way of watching the show through pop psychology. We read Andy as an 'enabler' (or rescuer). Andy keeps the status quo going beautifully in Mayberry, from the easy-going charm of it all to Otis's alcoholism to Barney's pathological overcompensation for pipsqueaky ineptitute. Episode after episode has Andy saving Barney's ass with a loving smile, excusing everything from his bungling to his powermongering and even trying to make him look more competent than he ever is. And Andy rescues and enables even when Barney's actions threaten Andy's livelihood or his very life. Given that, without a doubt, Barney is a pretty realistic and still-timely portrayal of those scary-ass small-town officers who thrive on treating others like crap to make themselves feel adequate all across this great nation of ours (wow, sounds like Dubya, don't it?), it can be downright painful to watch Andy keep puffing him up when he should remain deflated awhile...or forever. But somehow it's addictive. The pleasure is knowing what will happen every episode, that everything will be 'all right' in this safe little white Southern town... If I think too much about it, it's appalling. But just before bed it can put a ridiculous smile on my face that I should certainly not be admitting to.”

Reviewing Mr. Knotts' page on IMDB let me see just how many guest appearances he made on television programs and films throughout his life. He's been steadily doing voiceovers and guest appearances steadily through 2005, which is more than most actors can say. So, my son got to hear his voiceover at age 80 as Mayor Turkey Lurkey in Chicken Little even as we watch Andy Griffith reruns together in the evenings. A boy born in Tennessee, my son has none of my Chicagoan prejudices against the show, and though he prefers cartoons and superheroes, he does "sort of" like it, for its "couple of funny parts" -- especially Barney. Perhaps we'll rent The Ghost and Mr. Chicken next Halloween to see how it holds up.

RIP and shake the heavens with self-effacing mirth, Mr. Knotts. Or reincarnate into the next higher lifeform: like Marty Feldman and others of your ilk, your willingness to play the fool with such serious dedication is certainly a form of generous humility that merits rewards beyond this lifetime.

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