Comedy's Perfect Fife
Monday, February 27, 2006
Don Knotts played a variation on the same character for more than 50 years -- on radio, in movies and TV shows. He was the "nervous man" on the old "Steve Allen Show," the sublime Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show," the swaggering-yet-pathetic Mr. Furley on "Three's Company."
All were riffs on a comic persona that Knotts defined and refined and embodied. He was the little man confronting the fates with an absurd combination of bug-eyed dread and barely earned swagger. Knotts generated humor--and plenty of sympathy--in the ways he coped with his characters' ridiculous delusions and dashed dreams.
Knotts, who died late Friday at 81, had a perfect set of physical gifts for his character: a pair of perpetually startled eyes, a skull head, a concave chest, a bag of bones for a body. His voice was a squeaking wheel, his Adam's apple a piston. Leading roles in Shakespearean drama were clearly out of the question; a man so endowed could not have played anyone but a Fife, a Furley or a Limpet.
Like Vivian Vance, Tim Conway or Dick Cheney, Knotts was at his best as a supporting player, not a star. His shtick worked as a side dish but rarely as the entree. The string of self-deprecating films he starred in after his early triumph on "The Andy Griffith Show" were no more than passable, and often forgettable: "The Incredible Mr. Limpet" (1964); "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" (1966); "The Shakiest Gun in the West" (1968); "The Reluctant Astronaut" (1967); and "The Love God?" (1969). A one-hour comedy-variety program, "The Don Knotts Show," lasted one season in 1970.
Among Knotts's longtime fans is John Waters, the Baltimore filmmaker, who said yesterday that he began following Knotts in the late 1950s, attracted to his "nervous man" character on Steve Allen's show. "There was never a second 'Don Knotts,' " said Waters last night. "If he wasn't playing the part, who else could you get?" Knotts, said Waters, "never took a bad step. There was always something interesting about him." Even in his throwaway movies, "you could never hate him." And Waters knows whom he'd choose to star in Knotts's life story: Mick Jagger ("same lips, same cheekbones").
Nowhere was Knotts more memorable than in his characterization of Deputy Barney Fife. No less an authority than Andy Griffith has acknowledged the obvious -- that "The Andy Griffith Show" would not have been one of television's landmarks without Knotts, who won five Emmys on it (two after he'd left the show as a regular cast member).
The series about the denizens of a small Southern town and its sheriff came on the air at a time when "Southern sheriff" conjured a lot of bad things. Mayberry, N.C., of course, was perhaps the only place in the South without a single black resident. No matter. "The Andy Griffith Show" was a fantasy about the idea of community, rather than a documentary about a community. It wasn't "relevant" in any contemporary sense; it was, however, resonant in its universal values.
The Andy-Barney dynamic was the show's principal source of laughs. Barney was forever hopped up and on the alert for crime in a town that had almost none, his one bullet tucked safely in his chest pocket. Andy, the wiser head, largely functioned to save Barney from himself, never condescended to his friend and always avoided hurting his feelings.
Better still were Barney's delusions about himself. He fancied himself a kind of small-town Renaissance man, knowledgeable about most worldly subjects and accomplished in many. (The do-it-yourself Barney Fife imitation: Draw up your belt a little, puff out your chest and inhale while saying something fake-modest). When gently challenged by Andy, Barney could be expected to up his bluff:
Barney: Boy, I tell you, if I ever came home with anything less than A's, I just didn't dare come home.
Andy: I don't remember you getting all A's.
Barney: I did that once. Remember? The teacher made such a fuss about it that all the kids hated me.
Andy: I don't remember.
Barney: Well, it's a fact. I didn't want 'em thinking I was some kind of a snob or an egghead or something, so I buckled down and got bad marks.
Andy: That must have taken real effort.
Barney: You think you're kidding. Listen, an IQ can be a mixed blessing sometimes. Some people want it and can't get it. I got it and had to get rid of it. Life's funny that way, you know?
There's a little Barney Fife in everyone. Some just know how to bluff better.