Barney leaves lasting memories

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 2, 2006

Say it ain’t so, Barn; say it ain’t so.

Don Knotts, who as the loveable Barney Fife still keeps his TV audience doubling over with laughter some 46 years after making his debut on the Andy Griffith Show, is dead at age 81.

Even though I’m a fan of Griffith since he’s a North Carolina native, it was Knotts who stole the show as the bumbling Barney Fife.

I grew-up watching that show. It was funny, family-style entertainment.

Even though Knotts went on to star in another sitcom (Three’s Company), it was his portrayal of the inept deputy alongside the cool-headed Sheriff Taylor that I will forever remember.

A few of us older folks here at the office were reminiscing earlier this week about the Andy Griffith Show and our favorite episodes. Most of mine centered about Barney Fife.

My favorite is one entitled &uot;Barney and the Choir.&uot; It aired for the first time on Feb. 19, 1962. In this episode, Barney is practicing with the Mayberry Choir. He thinks he has a beautiful voice, but he’s alone in that thinking. No one has the heart to tell Barney he’s a terrible singer, so Andy hatches the &uot;supersensitive microphone&uot; plan. Barney’s voice is reduced to less than a whisper while someone else is actually singing his part back stage. To see Barney sticking his chest out, filled with pride, thinking that’s actually his voice is something I’ll take laughing to my grave.

However, did you know that the role of Barney Fife came awfully close to never materializing?

Deputy Fife was no where to be found when the show first aired on Oct. 3, 1960. He was there one week later in a show entitled &uot;The Manhunt.&uot; There, Andy and Barney are the brunt of jokes by state troopers who come to Mayberry to capture an escaped convict. Andy is able to prove that he is not the country bumpkin the troopers think he is when he captures the convict himself by allowing him to steal his leaky fishing boat.

Barney was a hit, so much to the point that Andy, originally cast as the comic, moved to the straight man routine, allowing Deputy Fife to flex his comedic muscle. The rest, as they say, is history as Knott went on to win five Emmy Awards for his portrayal of the bumbling deputy.

Remember the &uot;Loaded Goat&uot; episode from the 1963 season? Barney, in an effort to save the town from a goat that ate a case full of dynamite, leads the animal out of town by playing a harmonica. That was funny stuff.

Or how ’bout &uot;The Shoplifters&uot; show in 1964. Barney, in an effort to catch a shoplifter at Weaver’s Department Store, goes undercover dressed as a store mannequin. Only the comic genius of Don Knotts could have pulled off that one.

Knotts, who had earlier made a name for himself on the Steve Allen Show, took his patented &uot;nervous man&uot; routine to new heights during &uot;The Haunted House&uot; episode that aired in 1963. There, Deputy Fife and Gomer are frightened out of their wits after witnessing strange occurrences while inside the old Rimshaw House looking for Opie’s lost baseball. Of course the &uot;ghosts&uot; actually turn out to be moonshiners who have rigged the house to scare people off. Andy figures it out, but not before Barney leaves us laughing so hard that tears run down our face.

But that’s the way it was on the Andy Griffith Show – Sheriff Taylor always having to come to his deputy’s rescue. That storyline – along with many others involving Aunt Bee, Opie, Goober, Gomer, Otis the town drunk, Floyd, Earnest T. Bass and the Darling Family – worked week after week, season after season. The show was America’s most-watched comedy in its very first season and never fell out of the top 10 ratings during its eight-year run.

And in the middle of it all was Barney Fife, a marvelous job of acting by Knotts whose character displayed a lack of self-control that led him into jams, always ending with the loveable, bug-eyed deputy panting with an overdose of anxiety.

Knotts was also able to switch gears and show a serious side of Barney Fife. In a 1962 episode entitled &uot;Lawman Barney,&uot; a couple of truck farmers defy Barney when he asks them to pack up their roadside produce stand and head elsewhere. Andy makes matters worse by telling them that Barney, better known as Crazy Gun Fife, is a coldhearted killer. The truck farmers fall for it at first, but return after learning the truth at the gas station. Barney is forced to face them on his own. He musters the courage and learns that the uniform he wears represents more than just one man.

Although Knotts sought fame on the big screen – his Hollywood movie career included &uot;The Incredible Mr. Limpet&uot; (1964), &uot;The Ghost and Mr. Chicken&uot; (1966) &uot;The Reluctant Astronaut&uot; (1967), &uot;The Apple Dumpling Gang&uot; (1975), &uot;No Deposit, No Return&uot; (1976) and &uot;Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo&uot; (1977) – I will forever remember him as Barney Fife.

Thanks for the memories.