Another one of my idols has left this earth...right on the heels of Al Lewis, no less. Don Knotts, to me, was the everyman he portrayed on the Andy Griffith Show and later in the films he did for Universal. The simple, humble bumbler was a schtick Knotts culled over the years, probably as far back as his days in the entertainment field in the military. He got notoriety on the Tonight Show (with Steve Allen) in his nervous Man on the Street bits with Tom Posten. (A great example of this schtick, is his speech in the Ghost and Mr. Chicken that was totally convincing and totally heart warming at the same time.) His big break in was 1958 when he was cast in the small role of the psychiatrist in the Broadway play "No Time For Sergeants," which starred Andy Griffith, who would play a large part in Don's future career. Don also appeared in the film adaption of the play with Griffith.
In 1959 Andy got his break with the Andy Griffith Show and called Don to join him. Don was nominated and won Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actor five times from 1961 to 1967 for his legendary Barney Fife character. In the middle of this success he signed to do a picture for Warners called the Incredible Mr. Limpet.
Limpet was a simple humble man that , through incredible circumstances, becomes a fish that helps out the US Army in ways only he can. Another example of the everyman reaching and becoming greater than even he could imagine.
After making a splash with the "Incredible Mr Limpet" (1964) for Warners, Knotts signed a 5 picture deal with Universal to portray his average Joe character. For Universal, Don starred in "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" (1965), "The Reluctant Astronaut" (1967), "The Shakiest Gun in the West" (1968), "The Love God?" (1969) and "How To Frame A Figg" (1971). Anybody that loves movies has got to love the Ghost and Mr. Chicken.
This is without a doubt Don's finest example of humility and false bravado set against a spooky murder mystery. He wears the exact same suit and hat as in the Andy Griffith show and even lives in the same type of small community town (Rachel Kansas) that we all wish for. One of the best examples of the small man up against the larger wealthier business tycoons, (a small town up against the corporations?) is the exchange with Phil Ober as Nicholas Simmons:
Simmons: "Just who do you think you are Heggs? A pip squeak like you trying to take on a business man like me...just who do you think you are?"
Heggs: "Drop dead, that's who.."
..and he runs from the room.
This is a good example of the average man trying to verbalize his anger for the bulldozing corporations that were, even then, leaching off of the small towns in America. His stumbling to the meaning of his come back only endears Luther to us. We too have come backs that fall flat in situations like these...they don't come out as we envisioned them...because that is reality.
When I heard that Knotts had passed, I was driving my car and heading home and I thought of the other actors that had influenced me as a kid...The Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, Fred Gwynne, Al Lewis, Dick Van Dyke, etc. The themes of these comedy actors are all the same...be yourself. You shouldn't try to change who you are. Who you are is more powerful than any imaginary hero.
Early in his career, Don was told he wasn't going to make it as an actor, so he took the first job available to him...plucking chickens. How ironic.