A 2006 tribute to Don Knotts ended in controversy

A statue built to commemorate Barney Fife resulted in a PR disaster.

Five months after he passed, Don Knotts was still in the news in Mount Airy, North Carolina. Unfortunately for fans, it wasn't because of any posthumous awards or long-lost-but-recently-unearthed performance. Instead, there were headlines regarding a tribute in the town that inspired Mayberry. The details were recorded for posterity in an article written by reporter Karen Freeman in the July 28, 2006 edition of the McComb, Mississippi Enterprise-Journal.

Like all of us, Mount Airy resident Tom Hellebrand was a massive fan of Deputy Barney Fife. However, Hellebrand's efforts to commemorate his favorite Andy Griffith Show character resulted in an absolute public relations mess.

Tom Hellebrand was the then-owner of a Mayberry-themed restaurant called Kountry Kitchen. After Knotts' passing, Hellebrand commissioned a statue of the late comedian's likeness to adorn the streets of Mount Airy. After all, there were already similar public works of art depicting Andy Griffith and a young Ron Howard. Knotts would join his co-stars in bronzed immortality, or so Hellebrand thought.

Before the statue was finished, though, Paramount/CBS rescinded the approval they offered for the sculpture's use of Knotts' likeness. Of course, the media conglomerate only held the rights to the character Barney Fife. So, while they owned the character, Paramount/CBS actually had no authority to grant permission to use Knotts' face.

That consent needed to come from Knotts' widow Francey, and she stood resolute in her disapproval of the statue.

In a joint statement to The Associated Press, Mrs. Knotts and Andy Griffith denied Mount Airy the right to build a public statue of Barney Fife.

"We consider the dissemination of his image to be a big responsibility that we take very seriously. No one cares more about Don's image than we do. It would be wonderful to have a statue in Morgantown, West Virginia of Don Knotts as Don Knotts. 

"But this particular image does not fit with our understanding of Don's experience growing up in Morgantown."

It was apparently Mrs. Knotts' intention to remind the public that Knotts was not his character. Instead, her message ended a long-time fan's association with the town that inspired Mayberry.

Tom Hellebrand gave up and sold his restaurant, deciding to move outside of Mount Airy.

"I'm just tired and emotionally drained from the last few months," Hellebrand told the Associated Press. "I put my heart and soul into that statue project and I'm just drained." 

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15 Comments

Runeshaper 1 month ago
That’s a tough situation. I mean, I’m sure Mrs. Knotts had her reasons. I just don’t see how or why a compromise couldn’t have been made 🤷‍♂️
Zip 1 month ago
This is pretty disappointming. from Paramount and Don's wife, and Andy. I mean, I can see cause for disapproval from her if the statue was done badly or put Don in a negative light, but c'mon.
Snickers Zip 1 month ago
I agree, seems kind of childish to me.
jmworacle 1 month ago
There are few iconic figures in comedy than Don Knotts. Why resistance to a statue is a mystery to me.
SparkleMotion 1 month ago
What the heck? I think Don Knotts would have liked that statue the man wanted to have made. Maybe I'm wrong. I think a Deputy Fife statue would be great! ... I have a photo of my Dad with the Andy and Opie statue. 💛
cperrynaples 1 month ago
Anybody remember the Lucy statue in Jamestown, NY!? They changed it because the face was distorted!
Zip cperrynaples 1 month ago
Yes, I was going to mention that. That controversy was understandable. That statue was horrible.
Lantern Zip 1 month ago
Scary Lucy!
Pacificsun cperrynaples 1 month ago
CPN - Keeper of all obscure trivia. Didn't they eventually put that statue up after Mrs. Knotts passed away? Was Karen still too young to approve it? Or how did they get it done?

I kind of remember the story in the day. My hunch is, the Mrs. was getting a decent pension from CBS Corp. and didn't want to rock the boat.
FrankensteinLover 1 month ago
Glad he got a Statue in Morgantown which is beautiful, but a barney fife Statue in Mount airy with other cast members would have been really awesome.
Irish FrankensteinLover 1 month ago
I agree. Don Knotts made that show what it was, and all Andy Griffith Show lovers know the show was never the same after Don left. A Barney Fife statue would have been the icing on the cake!
FrankensteinLover Irish 1 month ago
Yessss, I met a guy not to long ago that said it should have been called the Don Knotts Show because he made it what it was.
Isn't it interesting when the right actor meets the right role. But a lot more goes into it than serendipity. It was Andy Griffith's vision, and through-point. Giving Don Knotts the opportunities (circumstances) to use all of his talent. And their approval (confidence) to shine. In summary, some very good people fundamentally, served in the best interests of one another. And under Ag's watchful eye. That kind of situation was rare, once a production became too aware of itself. And I don't think TAGs ever fell into that trap.
I think that statue in Morgantown is rather ghoulish and cartoony. Doesn't do him a bit of justice.
Somebody else could have done him more Justice, im just happy to have somewhere to go and see his Statue. Morgantown is suppose to honor him this year as it will be Don Knotts 100th Birthday with a big festival.
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