Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Second Banana

It's been a sad stretch for fans of classic television programs. Actor Darren McGavin, star of the cult series The Night Stalker (and the classic film A Christmas Story), died over the weekend at age 83. Dennis Weaver, best known for his work Gunsmoke and McCloud, passed away on Sunday at his ranch in Colorado. And of course, TV icon Don Knotts died Friday night, after a battle with lung cancer. He was 81.

Despite an acting career that lasted nearly six decades, Knotts will always be known for his signature role, as bumbling deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. For my money, the Griffith show remains the most endearing (and durable) sitcoms from the early days of television, thanks in no small part to Deputy Fife and his creator, Don Knotts. Forty years later, classic episodes of TAGS remain fresh and funny, attracting a loyal audience on the TV Land cable network and other broadcast outlets.

What many fans and television critics have forgotten is that Barney Fife was something of an afterthought. The character does not appear in the pilot for The Andy Griffith Show, which aired as an episode of the Danny Thomas sitcom, Make Room for Daddy. As Griffith later recalled, "I was supposed to be the funny one." Thomas and his partner Sheldon Leonard (who owned the show, along with Griffith), envisioned a program built around their star's skills as a stand-up comedian and monolougist. The comedic possibilities of a bungling deputy were not considered.

The creation of Barney Fife is one of those show business ironies, a testament to friendship, timing and talent. Griffith and Knotts developed a lasting friendship in the mid-1950s, while appearing in the Broadway military comedy No Time for Sergeants. When the play debuted in 1955, Griffith was still a relative new-comer, known best for appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and his best-selling comedy record What it Was, Was Football. Knotts had a supporting role in Sergeants, but he was a more familiar presence on television, thanks to frequent appearances on Steve Allen's original Tonight Show, part of a legendary ensemble that included Tom Poston, Louis Nye, and Bill Dana.

But, by the end of the 50s, the careers of Griffith and Knotts were moving in opposite directions. Griffith was considered a hot property, thanks to his success on Broadway and in film, including a searing performance in 1957's A Face in the Crowd. Meanwhile, Knotts's career was in a tailspin. Steve Allen had ceded the Tonight Show to Jack Paar, and with TV production migrating to the west coast, Knotts found few acting opportunities in New York. Hearing that Griffith was about to launch his CBS sitcom about a small-town sheriff, he called his friend and said "Well, I guess you'll be needing a deputy." Griffith arranged a guest shot for Knotts, Barney Fife was born, and the rest, as they say, is television history. Griffith readily assumed the role of straight man, realizing that there was gold in that Knotts and his character. Together, Griffith and Knotts created what Time described as "moments of pure comedic beauty."

For his work, Knotts won five Emmy Awards, including three in a row from 1961-63. He left the series after the 1965 season, a depature that was equally inpromptu and decidedly reluctant. Before the '65 season, Griffith told Knotts that he was growing tired of the series and planned to move on to other projects. Figuring he would soon be out of a job, Knotts signed a movie contract with Universal, then learned that Griffith had changed his mind, and agreed to stay with the series for two more seasons. Fans of TAGS can only imagine what comedic gems Barney, Andy and their writers might have produced if they stayed the course . For most of us, TAGS "jumped the shark" with the departure of Barney Fife.

While Knotts made occasional guest appearances over the last two years of the Griffith show, the series was never quite the same after his departure. And while he worked steadily until his death, Knotts never found another character with the near-universal appeal and recognition of Barney Fife. But if he was typecast by his Mayberry role, Mr. Knotts had no regrets, and looked back on the series with a fondness that is shared by millions of fans around the world.

Andy Griffith said it best: "Don was special. There was nobody like him." And the world was a funnier place because of his gifts. He will be missed.

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