Don Knotts perfected the comedic art of being scared

"People seem to enjoy the idea of seeing me get scared."

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Inside a dark and spooky house, Barney Fife bravely conducts a search with Sheriff Andy Taylor and tagalong Gomer Pyle. As the three becomes separated, Barney locks eyes with an oil painting covered in cobwebs.

The man in the painting has eyes that bug out menacingly. Taking a step back, Barney's eyes bulge with something else — fear.

Through this performance in The Andy Griffith Show fourth season episode "The Haunted House," the actor who played Barney Fife discovered something useful.

"I thought to myself, people seem to enjoy the idea of seeing me get scared," Don Knotts said in an interview recorded in the book Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show.

Leaning into this, Knotts delighted audiences by voluntarily sending chills up his spine again and again, causing us all to double over every time he trembled or jumped from a scare. (See this list of spooky Andy episodes for a harmless haunted hayride down memory lane.)

Knotts was always humble about his peculiar brand of genius, a quiet guy in interviews to the point where it may surprise you to learn that eventually some quite famous folks actually found him intimidating. During an Andy Griffith Show reunion on Donahue, host Phil Donahue quipped after Knotts gave a short but shy response to a fan in the audience, "I have seen talk show hosts grow thin interviewing this guy!"

Knotts told Donahue that he preferred to listen. And he was awfully good at listening to and giving the audience what they wanted. After "The Haunted House" episode, during the next season of The Andy Griffith Show, we watched Barney conduct a séance and rub a lamp, hilariously spooking himself when his wish seems granted.

But Knotts had been slowly realizing this scaredy-cat knack for generating laughs by honing the fretful personality of this clumsy quick-draw of a deputy. So we got peeks at what was to come two seasons before "The Haunted House," when Barney busted out a book of spells to take his character's superstitious nature to its absolute furthest extreme in "The Jinx."

It was, however, "The Haunted House" that inspired Knotts to pull Andy Griffith into the penning of his delightful first movie after departing the show, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Knotts said every attempt to write the movie without Andy just fell flat, but as soon as Andy took one look at the film, he knew what it needed to give Don his starring vehicle.

They were a wonderfully intuitive set of creative partners and a perfect acting duo. Griffith always knew how to poke and prod the best performance out of Knotts to bring out the singular personality of Barney Fife.

Being scared, after all, was just a short leap from his original Nervous Man character that Knotts used to get his start in acting. Knotts said he didn't really use the Nervous Man character when coming up with Fife, instead allowing the deputy to be his own man.

In his mind, he used the reference to Nervous Man only occasionally for Barney. When "he would have a reason to be frightened, I'd use a little of that," Knotts told EmmyTVLegends.org.

"I didn't like to work that into the character too much," Knotts said. "Yet, people used to say, 'Oh, Barney's a little nervous guy, but it wasn't the same guy at all. Totally different character."

So next time you see Barney even a little spooked onscreen, take a beat this October to respect the originality and toast with us to Knotts' dedication to being TV's funniest scared man.

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TomkatBooks 25 days ago
Don Knotts would have a lot to work with today in our Covid-panicked population.
Hogansucks1 26 days ago
His character Ralph Furley, on Three’s Company was a good replacement for Mr. Roper( Norman Fell). 😂
Filmnoirfan 27 days ago
No one appeared more easily frightened than Knotts in numerous roles. In some of those scenes you could almost believe that he did see a ghost
JHP 28 days ago
don knotts was a genius when it came to scared comedy - I will hand it to him on that

slack jaw - close set eyes - weak chin..
justjeff 29 days ago
Don Knotts' "Nervous Guy" was one of the regular characters on the Steve Allen Show (1956-61). He was often used in the "Man on the Street" interview sketches. Other regulars in the show's cast were Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Louis Nye, Gabe Dell, Bill Dana and Pat Harrington Jr.
Susilla justjeff 28 days ago
Was just about to write all that! All- time favorite show. Used to compete with "Ed Sullivan Show" and what a difficult decision it was. Probably kept changing channels during the commercials (of course, actually had to getupto change them)! Will never forget Don Knott's as the weatherman: "Nervous? Me?" 😀💖
SharonStevens 29 days ago
The sad thing was Don Knotts was typecasted! All thru his career he played nothing but a take off on Barney Fife! It's a shame he could never play a dramatic role!
😉 I agree, good observation.

Conversely I think it was too bad he ended up as "Mr. Furley" on Three's Company. Not that there's anything wrong with the sitcom. Just that he played such a stereotypical style protagonist. And beneath Mr. Knott's natural talent, of which the show exploited mainly his physical reactions. Though he was a good foe for John Ritter, who probably learned a lot from him!
He was somewhat. He is essentially Barney in The Ghost & Mr. Chicken.


Big3Fan MrsPhilHarris 28 days ago
And in his cameo with Phil Silvers in IaMMMMW.
MrsPhilHarris Big3Fan 28 days ago
Yes that is true! All nervous and fidgety. Love that movie!
Big3Fan MrsPhilHarris 27 days ago
It's one of my all time favorites. The cast is like a who's who of comedy. I'm surprised that your husband wasn't in it. After all you are Alice Faye aren't you?
MrsPhilHarris Big3Fan 27 days ago
That’s me! But I have thought I should change my name.

You are right it seemed like everyone was in it. Leo Gorcey, Buster Keaton, Eddie Anderson, etc.
Hogansucks1 Pacificsun 26 days ago
A fun cast to work with I’ll bet ! 😊
RetroMountaineer 29 days ago
The thing I love is that Andy would always be close by to offer some thoughtful advice or a give a gentle nudge to help Barney find his own true bravery in the end.
“Atta boy Luther!”
It was a show about kindness!
JHP Pacificsun 27 days ago
well then world should be more kinder...Huh?
FrankensteinLover 29 days ago
ABSOLUTELY love Bernie i mean Barney. Original and Hilarious.
JHP FrankensteinLover 27 days ago
until andy gets it the eye

and then he gets sympathy from Peggy and nothing else and then BARN tries to horn in
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