First Posted: 9/25/2009
At the risk of sounding blasphemous toward Mount Airys favorite son, I dont think The Andy Griffith Show would have achieved anywhere near the success it has without a frail actor from West Virginia.
I make this claim as an expert who has watched that classic series since it first aired in the early 1960s, which has included seeing every episode probably about 50 times.
In my estimation, the TV program that ran from 1960-68 was really two shows in one: The version WITH Don Knotts and the version WITHOUT that fine comic actor who played the bumbling, but lovable Deputy Barney Fife.
One key element separating those divisions in addition to Knotts presence, of course is the fact that the episodes with Barney as a regular character were filmed in black and white, while segments after he left were shot in color.
This technical transition was not a direct result of Knotts leaving, but simply reflected the switch television was going through at the time in which programs began being broadcast in living color with the start of the 1966 season. But for all intents and purposes, the difference was one of night and day as far as The Andy Griffith Show is concerned. The color might have been living, but the show was dying.
I will admit that when I see a color episode of the program flash onto the screen, I usually will change the channel as fast as my fingers can find the remote. That is, unless, it is one of the few later shows in which Knotts made guest appearances after leaving The Andy Griffith Show to star in a series of movies for Universal Studios. In losing Knotts, the program also lost most of its charm.
Even Andy himself seems to reflect this in his appearances without Knotts. A key factor that made his role as Andy Taylor work was the unique chemistry Griffith had with Barney Fife, which just wasnt there at the end. In fact, Griffith often seemed downright irritable toward the completion of the shows run, whereas before his character was jolly and genial.
One has to search far and wide through television history to fine a greater comic character creation than that of Barney Fife. While we laugh at Barney in those old shows, we also laugh with him, and no matter what messes are caused along the way, he always comes out looking good at the end.
His presence not only brought out the best in Andy, but other memorable characters such as Floyd the barber, Otis the town drunk, Goober and Gomer and Ernest T. Bass.
The real tragedy is that the movie career Don Knotts left the Griffith show to pursue never really got off the ground, even though one of the films he starred in was The Reluctant Astronaut.
That production, along with others Knotts made at the time including The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, never will make any critics top-10 list of the greatest movies of all time. And Knotts career never again would hit the heights it did while he was portraying Barney Fife.
Meanwhile, The Andy Griffith Show also suffered after Knotts departure, running for only a couple more seasons afterward. Perhaps the show had achieved all the success it could no matter who remained in the cast; but it would have been interesting to see what happened had Knotts continued his role as Barney.
For years, I always hoped Don Knotts would find his way back to Mayberry by attending Mayberry Days in Mount Airy, but that sadly never transpired before his death in 2006. The good news is that his daughter, Karen Knotts, is a special guest at this years celebration, and Barneys memory has been kept alive in an admirable manner by the annual appearance of impersonator David Browning.
Fortunately, despite Don Knotts death, both he and the character of Barney Fife will forever live in a Mayberry world that is black and white, yet beautiful.
Tom Joyce is a staff reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at [email protected] or 719-1924.