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A Tribute to Don Knotts: A Very Big Star

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When I heard Don Knotts passed away on Friday, my immediate reaction was that we lost another great one. Strangely enough, another comic was known as The Great One: Jackie Gleason, who was physically the opposite of Mr. Knotts, but they both brought excellent timing, comic presence, and self-deprecation to their most famous roles (Gleason as Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners and Knotts as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show). This is what makes both characters larger than life, thus standing the test of time and placing them in a secure place in television history.

As I watched Don Knotts play his part so convincingly on that show every week as a kid, I felt a bond with his stammering, bug-eyed, shaky handed deputy who was skinny and a bit on the short side. I liked when Barney got into difficult situations because, despite his only having one bullet in his shirt pocket, Knotts made him believable to the point of finding some kind of bravery in all his quivering madness. The truth is that Andy Taylor, the sheriff of Mayberry played by Andy Griffith, did allow Fife to keep that one bullet in his pocket. Taylor himself carried no gun at all, but he had enough confidence in his nervously bumbling deputy to allow him that safety blanket in the form of a .38 caliber bullet.

Don Knotts certainly paved the way for other comics who were slight of stature and not necessarily handsome. Most notably, I find many Knottsian (I just made up this word) nuances in characters played by comics like Woody Allen, Andy Dick, Pee Wee Herman, and Sean Hayes. The key thing is a nervousness that is channeled into the dialogue and movements, an almost unhappy pairing of self and body that superimposes one’s inner turmoil through exterior machinations, as if the actor’s body is a marionette controlled from an unseen but infinitely astute hand.

I recall thinking when Don Knotts joined Three’s Company in 1978 as Mr. Furley, that this was the best casting coup since Henry Winkler was given the role of Arthur Fonzarelli on Happy Days. Knotts and his seemingly uncontrollable ticks and physical mannerisms made him a perfect counterpart to John Ritter’s Jack Tripper (just as Art Carney’s physical comedy as Ed Norton on The Honeymooners made him and Gleason a great comic duo) . Mr. Ritter was also a very physical comedian, willing to flop on the floor and fall into bath tubs as many times as the scriptwriters saw fit.

Knotts and Ritter’s scenes together are intensely kinetic, with Jack usually trying to cover-up something he doesn’t want Furley to witness. Furley’s eyes would whirl in his head and his lips would quiver as he searched the apartment for whatever it was Tripper might be hiding. The twist in this sitcom was a bit unusual: Tripper was pretending to be gay in order to share an apartment with two lovely ladies. These days this seems as antiquated as Ricky and Lucy needing to sleep in separate beds on I Love Lucy, but back in the ’70s this was accepted as the premise and it set-up a variety of compromising situations out of which Tripper would try to bumble his way without Furley finding out he was really heterosexual.

The other amusing part of the Furley role was the character’s assumption that he was a “lady’s man.” Wearing an ascot and a leisure suit that could have only existed in the 70s, Knotts made Furley into a Dapper Dan who couldn’t find a way into really dating any women (though Furley certainly and sometimes valiantly made the effort). The twist of Tripper’s supposedly being gay (while actually enjoying a healthy and rather active heterosexual single life) becomes even funnier when we see Furley wanting the same kind of thing but being unable to find his way.

Overall, when I think of Don Knotts I think of him in the role of Barney Fife, in which he blazed a path that earned him five Emmy Awards. That kind of recognition from his peers certainly makes the case for his place amongst some of the greatest comic actors who appeared regularly on the small screen: Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacks, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Art Carney, Johnny Carson, and Jerry Seinfeld.

Rest in peace, Don Knotts. You were one of the biggest stars of them all.
Edited: [!–GH–]

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    What kind of world are we living in where we can kill off Don Knots.

    Thanks, Don, for a lifetime of laughs.

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Yeah, DJ, it’s hard to think of the world without Don Knotts and there’s no one out there able to take his place. ‘Tis a muddle, indeed.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    The great ones are leaving us and we don’t seem to be ‘growing’ them like we used to. And I say this as a 32-year old guy, not some curmudgeon from the Paleozoic era. I know what greatness is and the great ones are getting older and deader and a lot of folks coming up through the ranks behind them don’t have the markings of greatness.

    Don Knots was one of the great ones.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    DJ

    I first got the sensation you are describing when Guy Lombardo stopped his New Years broadcasts or when Ed Sullivan retired (whichever happened first). Since then, its been a spin through generations of lesser wannabes who just couldn’t make the cut.

    When Cronkite left CBS, I knew the news was all over and just entertainmnent and a circus – which it is, with anchors who know nothing about which they report on.

    Yeah, the world moves on, and you realize that your day in the sun is only so long…

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    I look at today’s ‘movie stars’ and the big musical ‘artists’ of today and see so few who could touch any of the legends of earlier eras. There is still good work being done today and I like it. I still find movies to watch, books to read, and music. I like a lot of it. I also know that a lot of it is not going to age well. It’s not going to hold up and neither are the people who produced it.

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    Don Knotts was tops. The Andy Griffith Show to this day is my all-time favorite TV comedy, and that was due in large part to Knotts’ wonderful performances as Barney Fife. His film The Incredible Mr. Limpet is a perennial fave of mine as well. Knotts showed that so-called nebbishes are people of worth too, very helpful advice for this lifelong dork. Man, I’ll miss him.

    It was so touching to see Andy Griffith on Today this morning. Knotts was his best friend and his grief was painfully visible. My prayers go out to him and to all mourning the loss of an amazingly talented funnyperson.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    I grew up on “The Apple Dumpling Gang” movies. I still laugh at the memory of those movies. I might have to find them on DVD (if they are on DVD). Every kid should see those!

  • http://jerryp186 Jerry

    THE GREATEST!!! I will always remember Don Knotts as honest,moral, and just plain FUNNY, FUNNY, FUNNY. Rest in peace my friend

  • PJK

    I heard of Don Knotts passing from a friend this morning and logged on to CNN and saw that Denis Weaver, also 81 has died. I’m glad I brought a box of tissue to work with me today. A big part of my childhood has departed from this earth in a few short days. RIP

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Great to read all the comments about Don. You know an actor is loved by the way others talk about him without any agenda or anything else. He was one of a kind, and it is sad that when a generation passes (Knotts, Darren McGavin, Dennis Weaver) there is something intangible lost. The good news is the tangible thing they’ve left behind for us (and future generations) to appreciate.

  • capt.joe goodman

    we love you and will miss you (Luther Haigs).
    lao aviation pilots.

  • godoggo

    I was always a Ropers man myself.

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    I don’t know, godoggo, the predictable repartee between the Ropers (while funny for a time) started to get on my nerves. I think Knotts as Furley really added a necessary spark to the show.

  • Nadine

    I feel very bad. Don’s death has, personally, struck me hard. I have always loved him as Fife and Furley. I own a Three’s Company website and am working on a tribute to Mr. Knotts. He was my dad’s favorite actor (he’s been watching him since TAGS first premiered) and one of my favorites.

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Thanks for the comments, Nadine. I think one of the things about Knotts that people didn’t realize was that he was not like Barney or Furley in real life. His acting is so spot-on honest and he captures the elements of these men while not losing their humanity (or essential dignity). Thus, we laugh with Don more than we laugh at Barney or Furley.