Don Knotts perfected the comedic art of being scared
"People seem to enjoy the idea of seeing me get scared."
Inside a dark and spooky house, Barney Fife bravely conducts a search with Sheriff Andy Taylor and tagalong Gomer Pyle. As the three becomes separated, Barney locks eyes with an oil painting covered in cobwebs.
The man in the painting has eyes that bug out menacingly. Taking a step back, Barney's eyes bulge with something else — fear.
Through this performance in The Andy Griffith Show fourth season episode "The Haunted House," the actor who played Barney Fife discovered something useful.
"I thought to myself, people seem to enjoy the idea of seeing me get scared," Don Knotts said in an interview recorded in the book Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show.
Leaning into this, Knotts delighted audiences by voluntarily sending chills up his spine again and again, causing us all to double over every time he trembled or jumped from a scare. (See this list of spooky Andy episodes for a harmless haunted hayride down memory lane.)
Knotts was always humble about his peculiar brand of genius, a quiet guy in interviews to the point where it may surprise you to learn that eventually some quite famous folks actually found him intimidating. During an Andy Griffith Show reunion on Donahue, host Phil Donahue quipped after Knotts gave a short but shy response to a fan in the audience, "I have seen talk show hosts grow thin interviewing this guy!"
Knotts told Donahue that he preferred to listen. And he was awfully good at listening to and giving the audience what they wanted. After "The Haunted House" episode, during the next season of The Andy Griffith Show, we watched Barney conduct a séance and rub a lamp, hilariously spooking himself when his wish seems granted.
But Knotts had been slowly realizing this scaredy-cat knack for generating laughs by honing the fretful personality of this clumsy quick-draw of a deputy. So we got peeks at what was to come two seasons before "The Haunted House," when Barney busted out a book of spells to take his character's superstitious nature to its absolute furthest extreme in "The Jinx."
It was, however, "The Haunted House" that inspired Knotts to pull Andy Griffith into the penning of his delightful first movie after departing the show, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Knotts said every attempt to write the movie without Andy just fell flat, but as soon as Andy took one look at the film, he knew what it needed to give Don his starring vehicle.
They were a wonderfully intuitive set of creative partners and a perfect acting duo. Griffith always knew how to poke and prod the best performance out of Knotts to bring out the singular personality of Barney Fife.
Being scared, after all, was just a short leap from his original Nervous Man character that Knotts used to get his start in acting. Knotts said he didn't really use the Nervous Man character when coming up with Fife, instead allowing the deputy to be his own man.
In his mind, he used the reference to Nervous Man only occasionally for Barney. When "he would have a reason to be frightened, I'd use a little of that," Knotts told EmmyTVLegends.org.
"I didn't like to work that into the character too much," Knotts said. "Yet, people used to say, 'Oh, Barney's a little nervous guy, but it wasn't the same guy at all. Totally different character."
So next time you see Barney even a little spooked onscreen take a beat to respect the originality and toast with us to Knotts' dedication to being TV's funniest scared man.