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Before the statue was finished, though, Paramount/CBS rescinded the approval they offered for the sculpture's use of Knotts' likeness.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."