hear somebody described as a "Barney
Fife," you know at once what's meant—an
overzealous, officious or bumbling cop
or security guard, an ineffectual minor
authority figure suffering from
This synonymy is both a tribute to actor
Don Knotts and a disservice to his
Knotts, who died last weekend at 81,
played Mayberry Deputy Barney Fife for
the first five seasons of "The Andy
Griffith Show," from 1960 to 1965. He
was certainly an enormous part of why
that show remains the greatest idyllic
comedy that American television—maybe
American pop culture, period—has
produced. But for all his formidable
brilliance and precision as a physical
clown, it wasn't just his bug-eyed
double takes and his full-bodied shticks
that made Barney so unforgettable. It
was also the frustrated greatness of
Barney's spirit, always hilarious, but
sometimes poignant as well. There was
nothing petty about Barney's follies
except for their scale—he was a
lion-hearted hero trapped in the scrawny
body of a hick deputy.
Even this isn't the whole of Knotts'
contribution to "The Andy Griffith
More central yet, I think, was his
rapport with Andy Griffith, who played
Barney's boss and best friend, Sheriff
Andy Taylor. The two men were close
friends in real life, and in the rhythm
of their interaction they created one of
the most quietly convincing portraits of
an intimate friendship ever committed to
The Man Who Would be Fife was born Jesse
Donald Knotts in Morgantown, West
Virginia, and graduated from West
Virginia University with a degree in
drama after Army service in WWII.
After a stint on the soap opera Search
for Tomorrow in the early ‘50s, Knotts
landed a supporting role in Ira Levin's
Broadway hit No Time for Sergeants in
1955, starring Andy Griffith.
After more TV appearances as the nervous
interview subject on The Steve Allen
Show, Knotts made his big-screen debut
in the 1958 film version of Sergeants.
Two years later, he and Griffith took up
residence in Mayberry.
Five years and as many Emmy awards
later, Knotts left the show to pursue a
movie career, and though he remained in
demand for the rest of his life, the
best part of his career was behind him.
He ended up in a string of comedies like
The Shakiest Gun in the West, The
Reluctant Astronaut and The Love God?
Most of these vehicles are square and
corny and bland, although two of them,
1966's The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and the
part-animated 1964 fantasy The
Incredible Mr. Limpet, are fun for kids.
From 1979 to 1984 he mugged it up as Mr.
Furley on TV's Three's Company, he had a
recurring role on Griffith's later TV
hit Matlock, and he had a gem of a
supporting part in the fine 1998
satirical film Pleasantville. He was
working recently enough to have provided
a voice in last year's animated Disney
movie Chicken Little.
Much of Knotts' work is available on
DVD, and with the possible exceptions of
Three's Company and Pleasantville it's
all family entertainment. If your kids
have never seen the best vintages of The
Andy Griffith Show, what are you waiting