When the conversation turns to great screen comedians, Don Knotts doesn’t get a lot of respect among the cognescenti. Talk to his loyal fandom, including celebrities like Jim Carrey and John Waters, and you’ll hear a different tune. They all agree – Knotts was a talented and funny comic actor, the quintessential Everyman buffeted about by the cruelties of fate who eventually triumphs against the odds. Following his Emmy-winning five-year run as Deputy Barney Fife on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW , Knotts signed a movie contract with Universal, and his first feature for the studio was the perfect vehicle for his peculiar talents: a scare comedy titled THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN.
Knotts plays Luther Heggs, a meek typesetter for his local newspaper in the small town of Rachel, Kansas. He’s also somewhat of the town laughing-stock, bullied by the paper’s ace reporter Ollie, his rival for the affections of sweet young Alma. Luther dreams of becoming a reporter himself (after all, he has “a certificate from the Kansas City Correspondence School of Journalism”), and one day Luther, goaded on by his coworker Kelsey, writes a filler piece on Rachel’s infamous Simmons mansion, where a ghastly murder/suicide occurred twenty years ago, and the locals believe is haunted by the deceased.
Luther’s little column causes quite a stir, and the editor (also goaded by Kelsey) gets the idea to have someone spend the night in “The Murder House” and write a story – namely Luther! The cowardly Luther is reluctant at first, but after being embarrassed by Ollie in front of Alma, decides to go through with it. This sets the stage for the bug-eyed, rubber-faced Knotts to engage in his patented ‘fraidy cat’ buffoonery, as he encounters unexplained noises, secret passageways, eerie music from an organ that plays itself, and a portrait stabbed with garden shears dripping blood!
The story makes Luther the talk of the town, and the Chamber of Commerce throws a town picnic in his honor (a sign reads “Rachel, Kansas – Home Plate for Wheat and Democracy”!). But Nicholas Simmons, heir to the Simmons mansion, claims it’s a complete fabrication, and sues him for libel. The raucous trial culminates at the “Murder House”, where Luther’s story is debunked, but with a little help from his friends, Luther is vindicated and the mystery of the Simmons murders is finally solved.
For all intents and purposes, Luther Heggs is Barney Fife under an assumed name, even wearing Barney’s old salt-and-pepper Sunday-go-to-meeting suit! Rachel might as well be Mayberry transplanted to the Midwest, and that Mayberry flavor is no coincidence. Screenwriters Jim Fritzell and Everrett Greenbaum worked on some of the GRIFFITH SHOW’s classic episodes, as did director Alan Rafkin, and Mayberry citizens Hal Smith (Otis), Hope Summers (Clara), and Burt Mustin (Old Jud Fletcher) appear in small roles. Another Mayberry figure had a hand in the film – Andy Griffith himself, who was called in by Knotts to help punch up the script! The plot recalls a GRIFFITH episode entitled “The Haunted House”, those “karate skills” were on display in another, and that speech Don gives at the picnic is a riff on his old ‘Nervous Man’ persona. Yet THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN isn’t just a rehash of Don’s greatest hits; it’s a showcase for his incredible comic timing, and became a box office hit.
Producer Edward Montagne (who’d created another successful 60’s sitcom, MCHALE’S NAVY, featuring Don’s future comedy partner Tim Conway) filled his cast with dependable Familiar Faces from the worlds of film and TV. Pretty former Playmate Joan Staley (BROADSIDE, ROUSTABOUT) plays Alma, mean Skip Homeier is mean Ollie, and George Chandler, Ellen Corby, Robert Cornthwaite , Herbie Faye, Sandra Gould, Florence Lake, sourpuss Charles Lane , Cliff Norton, Phillip Ober, Eddie Quillan, Liam Redmond, Dick Sargent (as Luther’s editor/boss), Reta Shaw (funny as leader of Rachel’s ‘Psychic Occult Society’), Lurene Tuttle, Nydia Westman, and Dick “Please Don’t Squeeze The Charmin” Wilson all engage in the frenetic madness (and that’s screenwriter Greenbaum’s voice doing the “Attaboy, Luther” shouts offscreen).
You can call THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, or Don’s other films, just silly family comedies geared to the kiddie matinée crowd if you want. But for me, and millions of other Don Knotts fans, he was an inventive comic actor who made some hysterically funny films. He may not have reached the lofty heights of a Chaplin or Keaton, but he definitely followed in their tradition. Scoff if you wish, but he still manages to make me (and many others) laugh out loud, and that’s what matters most!