Of all the tributes I’ve read to Don Knotts maybe the nicest was by the New York Times‘ television critic Virginia Heffernan, who displayed nothing but human appreciation for a beloved American performer, who died last Friday at 81:
“He was absolutely flappable. No one had a better tremor or double-take, and with his unmistakable homeliness…he didn’t bother to play the wise fool; he wisely stuck to just the fool….
“He was a generous performer who likes to share the stage, and he thrived in duets, teams, variety shows, ensembles.,,,
“As Barney, he satirized swagger and self-importance….Mr. Knotts, over and over, was willing to play the desperate, pathetic low-man-on-every-pole. He did it so well…that his talent for abasement became a source, paradoxically, of great authority.”
She ends by noting that once he even got to play the hero, “saving the day” in one Andy Griffith show when, “playing an achingly melancholy song on his harmonica, he leads a dangerous goat, which has swallowed dynamite, out of town.”
It’s rare an American performer who dies so universally liked. It wasn’t quite that way that one time I saw him, alas. But the year was 1969, and early fall evening I was waiting in line with a few friends to get into a movie house in Westwood, near UCLA, which was showing the inarticulate hippie road flic, Easy Rider. On the other side of the sidewalk on which we stood was a Chevron gas station. As we stood there someone in line said something like, “Hey, there’s Barney Fife.” It was Knotts, standing in a cardigan sweater near his car as an attendant filled it with gas. He was shooting the breeze with a few people, hands in his pockets, pleasant as could be. Nonetheless some of the punks in our line started shouting mean jibes at him, trying to bully him from afar. He paid them no attention. He’d probably known their kind all his life.