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So long... Barney
By M.V. Moorhead

March 4, 2006

If you 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 little-man syndrome.

This synonymy is both a tribute to actor Don Knotts and a disservice to his achievement.

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 Show," however.
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 film.

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 for?






















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