Andy Griffith explained why it mattered that Don Knotts really was a worrier
Plus: Revisiting this very excitable Don Knotts interview will make your day.
Barney Fife crouches with his gun in a dark barn full of cobwebs. Just behind him, the escaped felon he's after quietly climbs down a stepladder. The excitable deputy does not detect him.
Through an open slot between loose barn boards, Sheriff Andy watches, and with a clear line of sight to stop the wanted man, he could've easily been the hero of this episode.
But Andy wanted Barney to have his day in "Barney Gets His Man," the final episode of the first season of The Andy Griffith Show, one which centers on Barney Fife.
So, instead of taking aim to cover his deputy's back, the sheriff picks up a rock and tosses it at a metal can in the barn. The loud crash startles Barney who immediately whips around, his gun going off wildly.
The felon freezes, reinforcements rush in, and the end result: The deputy can hold his chest higher than usual, knowing he did the real police work that he always wanted to do.
Back in 1960, Don Knotts was just getting used to playing Barney Fife, but he was gung-ho about the role.
For the prior four years, he'd been playing his famous "Nervous Man" character on The Steve Allen Show, and he was sick of being seen only as a trembling guy. In Barney Fife, he found the character that finally replaced the legacy of his Nervous Man.
"Every place I went, people asked me to shake for them," Knotts told The Miami Herald in 1960. "Now when I go somewhere folks don't remember me much for all that jittery business."
In the interview, Knotts explained how Barney Fife departed from his Nervous Man character.
"I'm not a timid deputy," Knotts explained. "The deputy is very ineffectual, though. You see, there's not much crime in the little town where I work, and this disturbs me because I studied crime detection. So as a last resort, I end up running in jaywalkers."
That same year, Andy Griffith told The Courier-Post that even though Knotts was never really "the Nervous Man," Knotts did see The Andy Griffith Show as a way to recover from a prolonged state of worrying. He used to worry terribly about messing up a scene on The Steve Allen Show, which was filmed live.
"Don really IS a worrier," Griffith said. "He was a wreck after four years of live TV, and he's tickled with this assignment because it's much easier."
Griffith agreed that taping the show relieved everybody's stress, and he credited Knotts for having honed his skills on live television.
"It's a lot easier to do this sort of thing on film," Griffith said. "I'd die if it were live and people didn't laugh. Outside of nightclubs, Broadway — especially musicals — is the hardest to do."
In his interview, Knotts laughed, pointing out his character is only allowed one bullet in his gun.
"If I misbehave, the bullet is taken away from me," Knotts said. "In one show, I get my finger caught in the pistol trigger guard and can't get it out."
Although Griffith told The Daily Item that year that "you won't see a lot of slam-bang action in the show," fans know that a lot of the show's limited action centered on Barney. Knotts was excited about these action scenes, like the one in "Barney Gets His Man."
"All sorts of things happen to me," Knotts gushed. "In one show, I hear a girl calling 'help police' so I jump into my radio car and speed to her rescue. I get there all right but have trouble getting out of the car because I park against a mailbox and the door won't open."
"Another time, I try to apprehend some real crooks and they capture me and tie me up," he continued. "I even get so confused that I frisk my own mother."
For Knotts, doing the character Barney Fife gave him a reason to relax a little — not needing to be a "nervous man" as a character OR to actually feel stressed by the pressures of performing live — and the result was one of TV's all-time favorite characters. It's proof that talents like Knotts deserve platforms to really display all they can do.
"I got kind of tired shaking," Knotts admitted. "I guess it was the same old thing about being typed, and I didn't want to be cast only in shaking roles."
Of course, by now we know that Knotts played all kinds of roles in movies and on TV, gifting viewers with an array of memorable, unique personas.
As if Griffith could foresee this future for his costar way back in 1960, he told The Daily Item that his biggest hope for his debut show was that his name would stick with audiences, and he saw Knotts as a key factor of the show becoming as memorable as it did.
His confidence is proof that Knotts never had anything to worry about at all, at least not when it came to impressing audiences.
"They just asked me [to do the show] and I said fine," Griffith said. "Maybe in a year or two, if they see the name often enough people will connect my name with my face – or at least with Don Knotts."