Attaboy, Luther!: Don Knotts in THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (Universal 1966)

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!

Book Review: ANDY & DON: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show (Simon and Schuster)

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THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW is one of the most beloved sitcoms in television history, still being run on cable networks fifty-five years after its debut. The show about life in small town Mayberry revolves around the friendship between mellow Sheriff Andy Taylor and his hyperactive deputy, Barney Fife. ANDY & DON not only tells us about them, but about the real life friendship between the two stars, Andy Griffith and Don Knotts.

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The book shows us the very similar backgrounds of the two comic legends. Both came from poor rural towns (Knotts in West Virginia, Griffith in North Carolina), and had their share of grief and difficulty growing up. The pair met when both were cast in the Broadway hit No Time for Sergeants, and hit it off right away. When Griffith was slated to star in a new sitcom as a country sheriff, Knotts called and asked if he could use a deputy. The rest is television history, as THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW became a consistent top ten smash, winning several Emmys for Knotts as klutzy, inept Barney Fife. Even after Knotts left to do movies, the two remained friends until their dying day.

Author Daniel de Vise’ was brother-in-law to Knotts by his third marriage (both stars were thrice wed). He seems a little biased, painting Knotts more sympathetically despite his flaws, while Griffith comes off as kind of a jerk, more Lonesome Rhodes than Andy Taylor. But the book is meticulously researched, as the author interviewed people like Ron Howard, Jim Nabors (Gomer!), Tim Conway, Ken Berry, and various members of the Griffith and Knotts clans, as well as their managers, so the claims may be true. It’s an enjoyable read for fans, and gives us a warts-and-all look at both stars. Through all their triumphs and tragedies, their friendship remained intact, a testament to the warmth you feel whenever Griffith and Knotts share the screen. If you like behind the scenes tales of Hollywood, ANDY & DON is a book you shouldn’t miss.

I Wish I Were A Fish: Don Knotts in THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET (Warner Brothers 1964)

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Don Knotts’ popularity as Deputy Barney Fife on TV’s THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW led to his first starring feature role in THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET. Knotts plays milquetoast Henry Limpet, a hen-pecked hubby and military 4-F who longs to be a fish and magically gets his wish. This Disneyesque fantasy-comedy benefits greatly from Knotts’ vocal talents and the animation of “Looney Tunes” vet Robert McKimson. In fact, the whole film would’ve been better off as a complete cartoon, because the live-action segments directed by Arthur Lubin distract from the aquatic antics of Limpet as an animated fish.

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Lubin was a former Universal contract director noted for five Abbott & Costello films (including their first, BUCK PRIVATES), the Francis the Talking Mule series, and TV’s MR. ED. You’d expect lots of slapstick with a resume like that, but no such luck. Instead, Knotts is put through some domestic paces with shrewish wife Carole Cook and obnoxious best bud Jack Weston. No wonder he was happier as a fish!

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THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET comes to life when the animation takes over. Robert McKimson was a stalwart of the Warner Bros. cartoon factory, creating among others Foghorn Leghorn, The Tasmanian Devil, Speedy Gonzalez, and Hippity Hopper (the boxing kangaroo). The fish Limpet meets a new friend, Crusty the hermit crab (voiced by the ubiquitous Paul Frees) and a lady fish named Ladyfish (Elizabeth MacRae, no stranger to Mayberry herself. She was Gomer’s girlfriend LouAnn Poovie on GOMER PYLE USMC). Limpet develops a sonic roar dubbed “thrum”, and uses it to help the U.S. Navy combat Nazi subs. Soon Limpet is given a Lieutenant’s commission, much to the chagrin of Captain Harlock (Andrew Duggan) and Admiral Spewter (Larry Keating).

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The live action/animation scenes are well done, and there are some forgettable songs thrown in by Sammy Fain and Harold Adamson. On the whole it’s an enjoyable if inconsequential film for kiddies and family viewing. Don Knotts went on to do a series of 60’s family comedies, like THE GHOST & MR. CHICKEN, THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT, and THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST. He eventually went to Disney for films such as THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG and HERBIE GOES TO MONTE CARLO. Returning to TV as wanna-be playboy Ralph Furley in the 70’s “jiggle” sitcom THREE’S COMPANY,  Knotts is best known to modern audiences as the cable repairman in PLEASANTVILLE. But his movie career never did take off the way he wanted it. Don Knotts will always be Barney Fife to his fans from now til eternity, and that’s not such a bad way to be remembered. THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET will bring a few smiles to you though , and is worth a look for the animation artistry of Robert McKimson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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