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The shaky legacy of Don Knotts

The late comedian is seldom mentioned along with the all-time greats, but the five-time Emmy winner will be honored Sunday with a panel discussion and film screening.

September 11, 2009|Christopher Smith

From the waist up, Don Knotts was perhaps the perfect assembly of male imperfections.

His high forehead, perched above a worried, wrinkly brow, set off his trademark googly eyes, ever-ready to pop out in alarm at whatever misfortune came his way. Below the eyes, his recessed chin tapered into a longish neck that highlighted a bulgy Adam's apple that Knotts worked up and down in synchronized tandem with petrified double-takes or facial tremors. Out of his mouth came a quavery, yet squalling tenor voice, shrilly sounding in disbelief at the latest unfair turn of events that threatened his well being.

In other words, he was unmistakable.

Still the staying power of Knotts, compared with other indelible American comics, seems a bit on the wane. A tribute Sunday in Santa Monica featuring a guest panel and screening of two of his films from the late '60s is aimed at reaffirming the reputation of the gifted physical comic who died in 2006.

"I think Don is really underrated," says Larry Karaszewski, co-screenwriter of "Ed Wood" and "The People vs. Larry Flynt," who is chairing the panel discussion about the late comedian. "In the '60s, there's a gap from Jerry Lewis to Woody Allen, and I think Don fills it."

At 5 feet 6 1/2 inches and maybe 140 pounds after a big meal, Knotts was the national definition of "nerd" before the word even existed. But his physical failings are what provided him with a foundation for his comedic impact.

In the early years of television, on "The Steve Allen Show," he found a reference point for his ungainly appearance: fear. In skits of the time, he was the unprepared weatherman or fidgety man-in-the-street interviewee, invariably petrified at appearing on camera.

But it was "The Andy Griffith Show," starting in 1960, that supplied Knotts with the final ingredient he needed -- a character. His run for five years as a series regular playing Barney Fife, the clueless deputy sheriff, provided an episodic context for Knotts' tics. An unauthoritative authority figure -- whose boss Andy allowed him to carry a gun, but only if he kept his lone bullet tucked away safely in his shirt pocket -- Barney's professional bluster and bravado were usually undone by personal ineptitude.

In assessing Barney's essence, fellow TV comic Tim Conway concluded: "He's the confident acting guy who has no business being confident."

What saved Barney Fife, and elevated Knotts to lovability, was the setting of Mayberry, scripted as a bucolic backwater where all the characters were accepted but never judged for their shortcomings. Enveloped by the town's down home and unworldly neighborliness, Barney Fife could be an inept yet lovable bumbler without being painted as the ultimate pariah of American life then and now: a loser.

Knotts' bravura performances are easily accessed, with TV Land and KDOC Channel 56 airing episodes through the week (tip: focus on the black and white episodes from 1960-65 before Knotts leaves the show.). For an immediate fix, search TVLand.com for an episode from the third season called "The Cow Thief" that shows off a multitude of Knotts' Barneyisms.

Knotts won five Emmys and parlayed his success into a series of starring roles in family films. His fame in the late '60s was at such a height that these movies were marketed with posters including just his face, wearing some disaster-struck expression, and a deprecatory adjective in the title, like "The Shakiest Gun in the West" or "The Reluctant Astronaut." Audiences could count on going to "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" knowing Knotts wouldn't be playing the ghost.

That 1966 movie is one of two being screened Sunday. The plot contrivances are designed to get Knotts into a haunted house and keep him there for awhile; Karaszewski sees it as a showcase for Knott's expressions and moves.

" 'Ghost' is Don at his most physical, a lot of classic over-reacting to scary stuff," says Karaszewski, who likes it as a comedy, but also as an effective, if tame, horror movie. "For instance, the four or five times he backs into something he whips around and starts karate chopping in front of him, like he's going to take down the tree or whatever it is."

As in most of his roles, Knotts isn't a chicken when it comes to his initial willingness to face danger. After all, he volunteers to go into the haunted house or, in "The Reluctant Astronaut," fly into space. It's just that his characters never quite think through the implications of their fleeting bursts of bravery, and Knotts' sudden, terrified awareness of his own limitations is where the fun comes from.

Sunday's other screener is "The Love God?," a flop in 1969 but a movie Karaszewski says plays well today. Here circumstances transform Knotts into a controversial if a bit oblivious '60s sexual icon: "Think of a cross between Hugh Hefner and Austin Powers," says Karaszewski.

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