One of our cultural icons passed away early this week. A man who invented a comedic acting style yet to be duplicated. The ultimate nervous nellie. His face and body language genius in space. So jittery and jumpy one minute, yet so poised and cocksure the next, he makes Larry David look fantastically wooden. I'm talking Officer Barney Fife, AKA Don Knotts, AKA The Incredible Mr. Limpet, once hailing from the land of Mayberry in the TV world of The Andy Griffith Show. Forget the fish lips of Mick Jagger, Don Knotts's were the original. His rubbery face could suggest a thousand different moods in the course of this half-hour episodic juggernaut.
His vehicle is/was a unique television series, one that never really ages. Some have suggested that it's more popular today than it was during its original eight-year run in the '60s. Well, that makes sense. There are more Baby Boomers with more kids and with more TVs who can now catch more reruns. But that doesn't diminish the quality storytelling and wonderful ensemble work from Andy, Aunt Bee, Opie (Ron Howard), Gomer, Goober, Floyd The Barber, and Otis The Town Drunk.
Each episode focused on moral or life lessons and never bowed to the politics of the day. That in itself makes it evergreen. And the writing and acting was always heartfelt even when it seemed hokey. It remains the comfort food of television shows, like meatloaf, and suggests a simpler time when life was far less complicated. And in these sensory overloaded times, meatloaf ain't such a bad meal.
As I read his obit, I heard his voice say, "Andy, can I use my bullet?" (He kept his one bullet in his shirt pocket and his citation book under his cap.) Or his classic lover boy serenade for his squeeze Juanita. And something I recently discovered... Officer Barney Fife was actually Sheriff Andy Taylor's cousin. (Mayberry, indeed!)
Years later, Don would reappear in Three's Company. But for me this insipid character was a waste of his acting genius and never rivaled Officer Fife's twitching comedic panache. A few years after that, I had the good fortune of working with him as one of his TV agents. I found myself booking him on pathetic daytime game shows as a celebrity guest. It embarrassed me to have to call him and sell him in this world. But he did it and he always did it with a smile and a "thank you." He was a real dude, a trooper.
It's easy to eulogize a man after the fact, but I predict that years from now his Fifeness will continue to inspire. You really owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in the land of Fife. You will never be the same. After all, there's a little bit of Fife in all of us.
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was an agent at the William Morris Agency!