RIP - Don Knotts

How many other people must have groaned with sadness when they read the obituary pages over the last few days.

Don KnottsThe names of the departed probably didn't resonate with many people under 40, but there was a time when Don Knotts, Darren MacGavin and Dennis Weaver were as popular as that raconteur uncle you couldn't wait to see during the holidays.

Of the three, Don Knotts probably cast the longest shadow by creating one of television's most indelible characters -- Barney Fife, the bug-eyed, bungling deputy sheriff from "The Andy Griffith Show."

"Andy Griffith" did something only two other shows in the half-century history of television ever accomplished - it finished its last season at number one in the ratings (can you guess the other two? Answer at the end of the post). Would it have done this without Knotts?  Not likely. Barney Fife wasn't just a television character - he became part of the lexicon.

Considering that the show ran from 1960 to 1968,  a timeframe when the country was rendered almost unrecognizable by upheaval, the feat is even more remarkable.  But for all its virtues, starting with the inimitable whistle of a theme that began each show, "Andy Griffith"  suffered a terrible flaw. It was set in the Deep South town of Mayberry, at the height of the civil rights era, yet people of color were rarely  seen. 

It wasn't until "All in the Family" came along in 1971 that television began reflecting the chaotic, contentious reality of American life beyond the confines of news coverage. Wasn't it just as odd, for example, for Rob and Laurie Petrie of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" to sleep in separate beds, or for "Gomer Pyle, USMC" to go its entire six-year run during the 1960s without the word "Vietnam" making it into a script?

Knotts also appeared in several films, most memorably as a dweebish introvert converted into a fish who battles German U-boats in the semi-animated "The Amazing Mr. Limpett" (is it my imagination or was that movie shown an awful lot during the pre-cable era?). He returned to television a decade after "Andy Griffith" to replace Norman Fell on "Three's Company," but by then I'd lost interest in the show.

What a pleasant surprise it was to see Knotts appear briefly in the movie "Pleasantville" several years ago, the last time most of us would see him.

(The only other shows to finish at #1? "I Love Lucy" and "Seinfeld")

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