Saturday, February 25, 2006


Don Knotts (1924-2006) and Darren McGavin (1922-2006)

The great Don Knotts has passed away at the age of 81. While his most memorable work was on television as the inimitable Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show (which won him five Emmys) and as Mr. Furley, the replacement landlord on the monumentally silly Three's Company, I thought it was worth taking a quick look at some of his film work.

He appeared in a whole series of film which were basically variations on the same theme as an ultra-nervous man who becomes a fish (The Incredible Mr. Limpet), an aspiring reporter in a haunted house (The Ghost and Mr. Chicken), a janitor who finds himself in outer space (The Reluctant Astronaut), a dentist in the Old West drawn into conflict (The Shakiest Gun in the West) and a city bookkeeper set up to take the fall for corruption (How to Frame a Figg).

Of these films, I only remember for certain seeing Mr. Limpet and Figg, but they were both when I was young, though I do remember Figg making an impression on me at the time.

In reality, my first real impression of Knotts were in the movies he made in the mid 1970s before I ever remember meeting Barney Fife. Many were under the banner of Disney and several teamed him with Tim Conway.

The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975): The first teaming with Conway, I saw this at least twice in the theater and loved it as bumbling crooks turned good by some kids in the Old West.

No Deposit, No Return (1976): He was a bumbling crook again, this time opposite Darren McGavin as safecrackers who "accidentally" kidnap some kids.

Gus (1976): This time Knotts wasn't the real jackass in the movie in the story of a mule who becomes a placekicker for a football team. I remember laughing a lot when I saw it as a kid in the theater, but I'd be afraid to see it now.

Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977): Even as a huge fan of The Love Bug and Herbie Rides Again, I thought the Volkswagen was running out of gas in this outing as a child.

Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978): Back to the Old West again, but this one didn't leave much of a lingering impression on me.

The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979): Even as a kid, I preferred the original, but I was growing older and more selective by then. Hell, by this time I'd paid my dad to see Animal House so my comic tastes were changing.

The Prize Fighter (1979): Teamed with Conway again, I got a kick out of this at the time, especially the old lady under the coffee table. (You had to be there.)

The Private Eyes (1981): Buddying with Conway again, but even then it seemed to me a pale takeoff of similar Abbott and Costello classics.

He would occasionally appear in feature films after that, most notably as the foul-mouthed TV repairman who sends Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon to an alternate universe in Pleasantville. His last feature credit on IMDb is as the voice of Turkey Lurkey in last year's animated Chicken Little.

RIP Don Knotts — you were unique.

Then, several hours after learning of Knotts' death, it was announced that actor Darren McGavin had died as well. McGavin worked with Knotts in Hot Lead and Cold Feet and No Deposit, No Return, but to me he'll always be Kolchak in the original Night Stalker on TV. A brief look at some of McGavin's movie roles.

He started making movies in the 1940s, but it was in 1955 that he showed up in a trio of notable films: David Lean's Summertime, Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm and The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell.

Though all of the movies in the series ranged from silly but watchable, I always enjoyed Airport 77 the most and remember as a kid being upset when McGavin's character bought it.

In 1984, he had an uncredited bit as a crooked businessman in The Natural.

Still, despite his prolific television work, I think it's safe to assume that McGavin's lasting legacy will be as the dad in A Christmas Story. His gruff cynicism, his obsession with winning a contest even if the prize is a lamp in the shape of a leg and many other moments are a large part of what makes this 1983 film grow each year in reputation.

RIP Darren McGavin

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DOn was a great actor and comedian and will surely be missed.
Today, we should all reach for our shirt pocket and try to grab that one bullet, as Barney Fife used to do with bumbling, nervous perfection. What a great, underrated comic actor. And reading that Andy Griffith was one of his last visitors — the sheriff coming to see off his ol' deputy — makes it all the more bittersweet.
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