How similar were Don Knotts and his character Barney Fife?

The blurry line where actor stops and character starts.

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Don Knotts' character Barney Fife was the comedic center of The Andy Griffith Show. While Andy Taylor was the moral compass, and Gomer Pyle was the town clown, Barney's well-intentioned, nervous demeanor teed up some of the biggest laughs throughout the series' eight seasons. It was because viewers inherently trusted Barney Fife, Andy's cousin and deputy, that the laughs flowed naturally. But how much of Barney is Don Knotts, and how much of Don Knotts is Barney? The two are, at times, both similar and worlds apart in who they are and how they act. 

To understand where actor ends and character begins, one must trace the beginnings of the Barney Fife character back to Broadway. This where Don Knotts first met the real Andy, Andy Griffith, and the two had immediate chemistry. Knotts starred alongside Griffith in No Time For Sergeants for two years before moving to Hollywood to bring the story to the big screen. It was in this role that Knotts first began exhibiting some of the nervousness he'd later embody as good ol' Barn.

"I wasn't really nervous," Knotts told The Evening Sentinel in 1961. "I just had a good memory. And I remembered this after-dinner I'd seen back home, in Morgantown, West Virginia. He was nervous. So I aped him. And gradually built up the routines." 

The routines Knotts mentioned were originally comedy material developed during long waits backstage between scenes. Eventually the act would land him Gary Moore's successful daytime talk show, before leading to a stint on Stebe Allen's The Tonight Show.

Fans will be pleased to know that, although the nervous tics were, in fact, a put-on, Knotts was maybe even funnier in real life than he was onscreen. 

"That is the funniest man I've ever known," said Griffith, of Knotts, in The Evening Sentinel. "Some of the funniest bits we had on the show last season were Don's. Just sits there, and comes up with 'em. Or he does a bit of business. Anyone else tries it, nothing. When Don does it, you fall down dead laughing."

One other key difference between the two: Knotts differed from the beleagured Barney in his overall outlook. The tortured Fife was never able to maintain a contented mood for more than a few script pages, and was not a happy man. "But I am," said Knotts. "And I love it."

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19 Comments

Jedclampett 14 months ago
This is Big!
I mean Real Big!
Big Big!
leannie429 14 months ago
My problem is that I have an issue with Barney: he doesn’t have any filters. Not only that, he can walk all over others feelings but is just way too thin skinned himself. He seems to think he’s smarter than everyone but his goofy ideas usually blow up in his face and then he expects sympathy. Worst of all, he has no sense of humor & can’t stand to be teased—he’s no fun! Sheesh!
thegentry leannie429 14 months ago
How old are you? Do you realize this is just a TV show? The "character" is funny. End of story.
JeffPaul76 14 months ago
Good article MeTV, But who is Stebe Allen? I know or think you meant Steve Allen, original host of "The Tonight Show" which would become a lot better when it became "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson". Who lasted almost 30 years. and was the best host, bar none.
justjeff JeffPaul76 14 months ago
He was the competitor to Gabby Moore!
Runeshaper 14 months ago
Gotta love ❤️ both Don and Barney!
JHP 14 months ago


"The routines Knotts mentioned were originally comedy material developed during long waits backstage between scenes"

The writers and continuity person all had a snootful for sure also
Deleted 14 months ago
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JHP 14 months ago
well two might go into his foot:)
Andybandit 14 months ago
I also don't know how he was in real life. Just on shows and Movies.
Pacificsun 14 months ago
I don't ever remember seeing Don Knotts as himself on a Talk Show. Wish I had; he'd be an interesting actor to understand.
FrankensteinLover 14 months ago
Don Knotts was a Comic Genius, far pass playing Barney Fife. But man I love Barney he was hilarious.
LoveMETV22 14 months ago

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Love The Barney character. The series was not the same when he left after Season Five.
MrsPhilHarris LoveMETV22 14 months ago
I agree. It lost its charm, and Andy got cranky.
Maverick66 MrsPhilHarris 14 months ago
Andy not only got cranky, but he seemed to lose his common sense as well. He was no longer there to dispense his good ol' country wisdom.
Pacificsun LoveMETV22 14 months ago
I agree too. For the reason of the right chemistry just needs to be so. Not forced or substituted. You stick another actor/character into the position. (Andy's sidekick for example). And it changes the direction of the sitcom.

And yet, you can see it working in Matlock, when they get back together. Just just played off of each other!
LoveMETV22 Pacificsun 14 months ago
And for some series....The signs are there. Didn't Griffith @ one point make mention of his feelings about the series beyond a five-year period? However ( and it probably hasn't changed much, even to present day), The actors/talent and I'll use the Network for a comparison, (maybe a little from the producers), are on different sides of the fence from a revenue stand point anyway. Not that actors aren't interested in their own revenue- just the executive side wishes to wring every last 💲, but that's what networks do. Oh well, Guess that's just how it is in the world of entertainment.
Pacificsun LoveMETV22 14 months ago
😉 Good Morning!
Regarding contracts for the types of shows we're watching. The average was about 5 years, in terms of gaining the actor's commitment. Even though not all the shows lasted that long. Then they'd renegotiate. Not saying actors we're perfectly capable of handling their best interests. But my hunch is, the managers felt the need to earn their keep. You've seen it play out comedically in Frasier and how BeBe "handled" her stunning clients. And, for humor's sake, whacked him out of his job. Because she pumped such narcistic ideas into his head. It might've been done with Don Knotts, as in getting out at the top and into movies while the demand is hot. But then they also spoke of the relentless schedule being so tiresome. Except for those, like AG who really loved the concept of their show. And seemed able to handle both worlds.
MrsPhilHarris Maverick66 14 months ago
Exactly. What happened to Andy? Why would the writers make him miserable? He was scowling half the time. 🤨
Pacificsun Maverick66 14 months ago
Never in defense of people not being civil or decent to one another. But their schedule was grueling. Particularly when the Star is in nearly every scene. Unless interested, most people don't think about it. And if a person has gone into the profession for the sake of "acting." It's parsed out so much per scene, into segments, and repetition. It's unlike theater, and movies. In this case, being on-call, is endless, meaning your time is never your own. People depending on your reliability and efficiency to stay within budget. Yeah, they're handily compensated, but in the day, few benefits came with the jobs. People paid their own way for everything. Like anyone who is self-employed. My hunch is, they train themselves to be disciplined and restrained. And for all those wonderful classic TV actors who earn a fine reputation, as featured in the MeTV articles, they are beloved and respected within the trade. And set an excellent example (like the story about the Love Boat ensemble who really enjoyed working together. As well as MASH). They earned their keep.
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