Andy Griffith And Don Knotts.
By Matt Roush, ReMIND Magazine
There’s nothing I love more than great comic chemistry, that magical spark between two performers who bring out the best in each other. TV has so many great examples of brilliant partnerships, but when asked to name who I considered to be the top TV comedy duo of all time, my mind went to a fictional place that still feels so real — Mayberry, North Carolina — and the buddy lawmen of The Andy Griffith Show: Sheriff Andy Taylor (Griffith), that paragon of rural calm, and his hilariously excitable Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts).
“You could say there’s three reasons why there’s so little crime in Mayberry,” Barney once declared with typically boastful and delusional bravado. “There’s Andy, and there’s me, and [as he pats his typically unloaded gun] baby makes three.” Never mind that Barney’s inability to shoot straight meant he carried only a single bullet, which he kept in his front shirt pocket.
“Baby” aside, it really only took two to make The Andy Griffith Show an instant 1960s classic, with the cocky and half-cocked Barney relying on the wry serenity of his best friend “Ange” to tame his neuroses.
In one of the best examples of their unique collaboration from the first season, “Andy Saves Barney’s Morale,” Barney wildly oversteps when put in charge as acting sheriff, and in just eight hours locks up nearly everyone in town — including Aunt Bee! Barney’s puffed up with pride until, inevitably, he realizes he’s become a laughingstock. Knotts runs the gamut of emotion from power-trip glee to humiliated dejection until Andy, wiser than all, reminds everyone how fond they truly are of Barney — no one more than Andy himself.
Which is the genius of the Andy-and-Barney comedy duo, a depiction of genuine friendship and, in Griffith’s case especially, a generosity of spirit to play straight man to such a scene-stealing dynamo, with Knotts winning a record five Emmys as best supporting actor. (As is often the case, by underplaying, however warmly, Griffith was never even nominated.)
They’d worked together earlier, in the Broadway and film versions of the 1950s hit No Time for Sergeants, which propelled Griffith to stardom as a broadly played country rube who’s drafted into the Air Force. Knotts later honed his nervous-man persona on TV as an ensemble member of The Steve Allen Show.
It didn’t take Griffith long to realize that the show’s success would lie in him toning down his own aw-shucks shtick and giving Knotts free combustible rein as Barney.
In Daniel de Visé’s book Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show, Griffith says, “To be a straight man is a wonderful position. … I’m between the camera and you on most shots and I’m closer to Don’s eyes than you can ever be. There’s no more joy than that, I can tell you right now.”
For Knotts, quoted in the same book, “I could see sometimes in Andy’s eyes that he was trying to keep from laughing, which would help me try to be even funnier. And Andy was like the ultimate straight man. He was the best you could imagine.”
One reason we treasure their teamwork so much is that it was never allowed to wear out its welcome. Knotts, who unlike Griffith had no financial stake in the show and sought greener pastures in movies (including The Incredible Mr. Limpet and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken), left after five seasons, though he would return as a guest in later seasons and for the 1986 TV-movie reunion, when Barney again is acting sheriff.
Little wonder he couldn’t keep away. For many of us, there’s no place like Mayberry, which was never in better hands than when Andy and Barney kept the peace.
Matt Roush is “TV Guide Magazine’s” senior critic and is a nationally respected television journalist.