Don Knotts lived the story at the heart of ''Opie's Hobo Friend''
As a boy, Knotts befriended passers-through at his mother's boarding house.
Every now and again, The Andy Griffith Show needed to get serious about how Sheriff Andy planned to raise Opie right.
Perhaps the most cutting moment involving Opie's future well-being came in the high-stakes episode "Opie’s Hobo Friend."
In the second season episode, Buddy Ebsen plays the hobo Dave Browne. Opie finds Dave's free spirit so enticing that Andy begins to worry about his potentially wayward son. The sheriff finally confronts the hobo for influencing the young boy's thinking too heavily.
"Who's to say that the boy would be happier your way or mine? Why not let him decide?" Dave asks.
"You can't let a young 'un decide for himself," Andy tells Dave. "He'll grab at the first flashy thing with shiny ribbons on it, then when he finds out there's a hook in it, it's too late."
Barney's role throughout the episode is to balance out the heaviness of the show's central drama with his characteristic overreactions. The deputy, of course, assumes the very worst of Dave Browne, letting his imagination run wild to fill in his backstory and even alleging he could be part of Al Capone's gang.
You should know next time you watch this episode, though, that Don Knotts had a tender experience not unlike Opie's with his own hobo friends growing up in West Virginia.
The story goes that Knotts' mom ran a boarding house during the Depression, and it was fairly common for them to have hobos stay for a night or two when they were passing through town.
Not having a father figure around, young Don Knotts would befriend these random passers-through. In the book Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show, written by Daniel de Visé, it's said that "an itinerant guitarist showed Don how to play the ukulele" and "a carnival barker revealed how he fleeced his customers."
You could see how like Buddy Ebsen mystifying Opie with magic tricks in "Opie's Hobo Friend," a young Don easily found these characters enchanting.
However, later on in his life, his famous TV character Barney Fife was not so amused by similar mindsets in Mayberry, and in "Opie's Hobo Friend," the jumpy deputy's the one to catch Opie skipping school as a result of advice from Dave like, "There's absolutely nothing a man can't do ... tomorrow."
In 1965, when Knotts decided to leave The Andy Griffith Show, Griffith lamented the loss of his co-star. Griffith said that Knotts made it easy to incorporate these dramatic episodes with Opie.
"Now when we do a heavy show with Opie, a drama, we use Don to break up that tone," Griffith told The Parsons Sun. "He flies about, and any messages go down easy."
After Don left, it became harder to work in serious heartfelt episodes like "Opie's Hobo Friend," because it wasn't so obvious how to keep the show light and balanced without Barney Fife.
The idea for "Opie's Hobo Friend" didn’t come directly from Don's life, though.
After the first season of The Andy Griffith Show wrapped, Sheldon Leonard assembled all the writers to toss around ideas for the second season. "Opie's Hobo Friend" was born from one of these brainstorming sessions.
"We'd just bounce ideas off each other," said Aaron Ruben in de Visé’s book. "How about one where Aunt Bee enters homemade pickles in the county fair? How about one where Opie meets a hobo who has a great influence on him?"
Someone tossed out the idea, and the next thing we knew, Buddy Ebsen walked into Mayberry, and "Opie's Hobo Friend" had gifted us with one of the TV's sweetest examples of what it means to have a father really looking out for the best interests of his son.