Tuesday, February 28, 2006
57. Nipped: Don Knotts, 1924-2006
When I was a kid, a day home sick meant watching reruns. This was a pre-cable world, but I lived near Philadelphia, so had the pleasures of strong signals and the grand panoply provided by UHF--eight channels, counting the Big Three and "educational television." The provided the flashcards for the necessary boomer drill-work: We'd grown up watching these shows on their network runs, then caught the repeats repeatedly in syndication. I can remember my cousins and I playing a game in which someone described the opening scene of a Gilligan's Island or Honeymooners episode, and the others had to explain the rest of the plot. Like David Byrne sang, "I grew up in a house with the television always on."
Of course, The Andy Griffith Show was in that house. And also of course the purists insisted the only seasons that mattered were the ones with Barney Fife. The Deputy was one of a small handful of impressions class clowns knew they needed to master. That face, those mannerisms--and that voice--were as recognizable as Mickey Mouse or Chaplin--and I think have had the same impact on TV and movie culture. In Barney I can hear echoes of all those fussy, self-important floorwalkers and cops-on-the-corner, all the way back through Franklin Pangborn to Edgar Kennedy, set-upon, supercilious--and eternally thwarted. (And onward: I know I'm not the only one who saw the surreal ghost of Barney in Mick Jagger's face, hair slicked back, in the video for "Undercover (of the Night).")
When we were first married, my wife and I were working and traveling all the time, often just tired enough when we were home to let the TV do a lot of the thinking for both of us. And The Andy Griffith Show was on at dinnertime. We still allow those episodes to run through our heads, putting their mark on our days when we least expect them. If, for instance, a situation needs to be quickly remedied, I continue to voice Barney's advice to Andy concerning Opie's performance at school: "You gotta nip it in the bud, Ange. Nip it." Ah, the wisdom of the man.
But of course, like all of us, I hope--despite Messrs. Chicken and Limpet, despite his reluctance as an astronaut and his dubious distinction of shakiest gun in the West--like all of us my favorite Don Knotts image is Barney--but not in shock or outrage, eyes goggling, mouth gaping. No, I prefer Barney triumphantly dreamy, basking in the afterglow of an evening on the porch with Thelma Lou, his hair askew, his face covered with lipstick kisses. As a little kid, I was comforted: Barney seemed to live the least threatening adult life I could imagine, even with his insecurities (with which I could identify). Thanks, Don; thanks, Barn. In your honor, I shall hook my thumbs into my pantswaist, rock back and forth on the balls of my feet, and hold forth. Then retire to the porch with my best gal. Good night, sweet Deputy.
Posted by Paul J. Marasa at 8:13 AM
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