Today is the birthday of Jesse Donald Knotts (1924-2006).
Our big revelation is contained in the photo above. A West Virginia farm boy, Don Knotts began his performing career as a ventriloquist! With his wooden partner Danny “Hooch” Matador he entertained fellow students at the University of West Virginia and troops in the South Pacific during World War II (where he finally ditched Hooch, declaring him “MIA”).
Another revelation: his first major break was on a soap opera! He was on Search for Tomorrow from 1953 to 1955. Nothing has ever made me want to watch a soap opera more than that knowledge.
From here, three major well-known career peaks:
* He was part of Steve Allen’s legendary comedy ensemble (with others such as Louie Nye, Tom Poston and Bill Dana) starting in 1956. This is where he first developed his “nervous” character for Allen’s “Man on the Street” interviews.
* Knotts crafted what remains one of television’s greatest comedy performances as Deputy Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show as a series regular from 1960 to 1965, with occasional returns to the role thereafter. Fife, while broadly comical, is an amazing three dimensional creation, ranging from slapstick to moments of genuinely moving straight drama. He picks up a paradigm pioneered by Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason and takes it further for later greats like Tony Randall and Shelly Long to explore. The arc was always one of Fife getting carried away, acting out, and causing all sorts of trouble in his enthusiasm, sometimes coming from a good place, sometimes from a bad one. And in the end, always the final beats of regret and self-recrimination. These are beautiful little vignettes. For me, tv at its best.
* His series of late classic comedy films for Universal studios: The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), The Reluctant Astronaut (1966), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968),The Love God (1969) and How to Frame a Fig (1971). It seems to me these films get better with age, and become increasingly interesting as time goes on.
His later career (for me anyway) not so much. After Universal he went over to Disney. The films he made with Tim Conway, aimed at the children’s market, are unwatchably dumb and there’s little Knotts can do to redeem them.
And likewise his stint on Three’s Company from 1979 to 1984 replacing Audra Lindley and Norman Fell as the lead characters’ landlord Mr. Furley, whose little turns in the crudely written scripts left him little scope to show what he was capable of. Knotts was always in demand though and he continued to work right up until his death in 2006.
To find out more about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold, as well as Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc