Don Knotts starred in a flop comedy from Dragnet creator Jack Webb
'The Last Time I Saw Archie' was the last time we saw Webb on the big screen.
Image: The Everett Collection
Before he became widely known as Deputy Barney Fife, young Don Knotts found himself typecast as a military man. In the late 1950s, the West Virginia native was making a name for himself on television in sketch appearances on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show — not to mention his unlikely gig as a daytime soap actor on Search for Tomorrow. But on the big screen, it was a different story.
It is easy to spot a common thread in his early movie roles. One only needs to look at his characters' names: Cpl. John C. Brown, Sgt. Percy Warren, Capt. Harry Little. Knotts' goofball-in-uniform identity was a reflection of his real life. Knotts served from 1943 to '46. He was part of a performance group called Stars and Gripes, which performed in the Pacific.
At first, Knotts only performed with a wooden dummy named Danny. The dummy was eventually ditched. According to Knotts, he threw the dummy into the ocean. That service experience undoubtedly led to Knotts landing a role in the Broadway play No Time for Sergeants, a stage adaptation of a best-selling 1954 novel. Knotts portrayed the role Corporal Manual Dexterity in his Broadway debut. Yet, the most important thing to come out of that job was his immediate friendship with costar Andy Griffith.
Griffith and Knotts both appeared in the big-screen adaptation in 1958. Knotts' character was renamed Corporal John C. Brown. Two years later, Knotts teamed with Ernie Kovacs for Wake Me When It's Over, an Air Force comedy set in the Pacific.
That, at last, brings us to The Last Time I Saw Archie. This 1961 summer comedy featured an array of familiar sitcom faces, from Howard McNear (Mayberry's own Floyd the Barber) to Nancy Kulp (Jane Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies). It even featured the screen debut of Dodgers diamond legend and future Brady Bunch guest star Don Drysdale.
But it's the names at the top of the bill that will raise an eyebrow. Robert Mitchum, the esteemed film-noir veteran of The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962) who was not exactly known for silliness, starred. Oh, and Jack Webb directed and headlined the picture. Yes, the same Jack Webb who played the stonefaced Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet.
Robert Mitchum and Jack Webb in a zany comedy? No wonder they needed Don Knotts.
In an attempt to break away from his Sgt. Friday role, Webb poured his heart — and loads of money — into the film. Dragnet as recently been canceled. This would be a new start. The Last Time I Saw Archie would also be the most expensive production of Webb's career, racking up a budget of $2 million. Mitchum alone made $400,000 in advance, prompting him to later refer to Archie as "his favorite role." The flick ended up grossing a mere $1.2 million.
On top of that fiscal failure, Mitchum's titular character Archie was based — without permission — on a true story and man, Arch Hall Sr., an Army buddy of screenwriter William Bowers, who served with Hall in the United States Army Air Forces Civilian Pilot Training Program. Hall sued the producers, for "invasion of privacy."
Thus, The Last Time I Saw Archie was the last time audiences saw Jack Webb on the big screen. He would reboot Dragnet in the late Sixties, slipping back into Sgt. Friday's skin to lambast hippies for their naive thinking.
Meanwhile, Knotts, of course, collected Emmys for his brilliant work on The Andy Griffith Show and became a movie star in his own right.