This Thanksgiving, let's toast to Don Knotts' last movie character: a cartoon turkey
His comedy in the Sixties inspired the Chicken Little character Mayor Turkey Lurkey. Naturally, Don Knotts voiced the character, too.
At the end of Don Knotts' career, he was still on top of his game.
Even with his health tragically deteriorating, he was making big bucks and garnering rave reviews with cartoon voicework, and no role at this point in his career was bigger than his final movie role ever: Mayor Turkey Lurkey.
Mayor Turkey Lurkey was a character in the 2005 Disney movie Chicken Little. In the role, Knotts portrayed a bumbling official who could barely remember his own talking points.
Always wearing a worried face, Mayor Turkey Lurkey was basically the last person you wanted in charge in an emergency situation, which certainly would sound familiar to anyone who ever lived in Mayberry while Barney Fife was deputy.
If you happened to see this animated movie, you likely chuckled at Knotts as the perfect fit in this role, but it’s possible you didn’t realize the role was created just for him and directly inspired by his most popular Sixties characters.
In an interview with The Province in 2005, the supervising animator in charge of developing the character of Mayor Turkey Lurkey, Dick Zondag, revealed how much his love of Don Knotts factored into how he molded the big-screen turkey.
"When I get assigned these characters the first thing I’ll do is sit down with the director and have a very long chat about it," Zondag said. "Find out exactly what he’s looking for character-wise. And I’ll prod him with questions, and he’ll try to answer them to the best he can."
During his meeting with Chicken Little director Mark Dindal, the director told Zondag that he wanted Mayor Turkey Lurkey to be "like Don Knotts."
"I’m a huge Don Knotts fan, actually," Zondag said, and when he got this direction, he knew that "it’s not just that he wants Don Knotts – he wants Don Knotts from The Ghost and Mr. Chicken or the Barney Fife Don Knotts."
Once it was decided to base the character on Don Knotts, the next step, naturally, was to hire the legendary comedic actor to voice the character. And that’s exactly what happened.
From that point on, for Zondag, the pressure was on, because he needed the character to read onscreen the way Don Knotts read as Andy Taylor’s irreplaceable deputy.
To get Mayor Turkey Lurkey just right, the animator did what a lot of us fans do as a favorite pastime: rewatched Don Knotts movies and TV episodes over and over again.
"I go and take whatever film clips I can and study them like crazy," Zondag said. "With that in mind, then I’ll go and build things that I think are like what that character will do. And some of them are exaggerated and over-the-top, because at the end of the day, it’s still a cartoon."
If you look at the cartoon, you’ll likely see a little bit of Don Knotts in Mayor Turkey Lurkey’s round, expressive eyes.
An example of Turkey Lurkey acting like Barney Fife might include his immediate surrender to invading aliens who in the movie threaten to take over the city. Nervously, the mayor first offers the key to the city, then the keys to his own car, then, fumbling completely, a Tic Tac.
We think it’s fitting this Thanksgiving to toast to the last Don Knotts character to grace the big screen: So here’s to Mayor Turkey Lurkey.
The same year that Knotts got that last movie role, his home state West Virginia started a local Don Knotts fan club and honored him with a star on their version of the Walk of Fame.
They planned a film festival and parade, but it got cancelled when Knotts was too sick to make it. It was very out of character for him to cancel an appearance.
By Thanksgiving in 2005, he finally got a diagnosis of lung cancer, but he hid it from the press, still wanting to keep working, such was his determination as an actor.
He did a few more voicework roles in direct-to-video movies and a couple more TV appearances before he let the work wind down.
But in one of his last conversations with Andy Griffith, he still had his mind on acting.
It’s recorded in the book Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show, the old friends met one last time and discussed Knotts’ huge success with recent projects like Chicken Little, as well as the work Andy hoped to do next, and, plotting to reunite onscreen as they always did, the work they hoped to one day do together again.
Although Knotts passed away before that could happen, it’s comforting to know that right to the end, when the sky was falling, he was the guy still scheming how to do more scenes with his old pal Andy.