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.