We admired Andy but related to Barney
We lost Barney Fife last week. When the news came that Don Knotts had died of pulmonary and respiratory failure in California at the age of 81, those of us who have always counted “The Andy Griffith Show” pretty high on our list of reasons to go on living were hit where it hurts. If Sheriff Andy Taylor is the backbone of the show, Deputy Barney Fife is its flesh. Except for those infrequent occasions when he underestimates either women or his son, Opie — a weakness which is always revealed and corrected by the end of the show — Andy is almost too saintly for us to relate to very much. He’s the fellow we aspire to be, a kind, generous, strong man who faces life with integrity, dignity, courage, and humor. And he can play the guitar and sing, too.
We can admire Andy, but we can relate more to Barney, and his vast array of insecurities and internal conflicts. Of course, Barney masks his lack of confidence with false bravado, and what a mask it is. No one can move from total, neurotic self-doubt and self-loathing to utter smugness and cockiness in less time than Barney Fife. One minute, Barney’s a mess, ready to quit the force and become a vacuum cleaner salesman, ready to get drunk on fruit punch and give up women altogether. Then along comes Andy, or Thelma Lou, or anyone, really, to puff him up a little, and suddenly he is ready to wipe out all crime in America and break a million hearts. Barney is basically a good man, but he has to struggle to locate his confidence, his courage, and his dignity, and it is this struggle that is the source not only of the show’s comedy, but its dramatic tension, its heart and soul.
Don Knotts has often been given credit for making the show as funny as it was, and the general consensus is the show was never the same after he left, five seasons into its eight-year run. He was, to borrow an overused expression but one that certainly applies to him, a comic genius. It is impossible to imagine anyone but Don Knotts playing Barney Fife. Every performance is pitch perfect, except for the pilot episode and the next one, during which Knotts and Frances Bavier, who played Aunt Bea, are both obviously trying to affect exaggerated southern accents, probably at the behest of the show’s producers, before settling into patterns and rhythms more natural to them. The episodes are extremely funny, and Knotts, of course, is hilarious. But it is obvious that Barney is not yet fully formed.
Griffith has said on several occasions that it became clear fairly quickly that he would need to be the straight man, and Knotts the funny one. Even in the first season, it is easy to see the transition being made, as Knotts’ supporting role grew very quickly into something much larger, once Griffith and the show’s producers realized the gold mine they had in Barney Fife. Knotts went on to win five Emmys, and “The Andy Griffith Show” remains a beloved and highly rated show more than 40 years later.
It is impossible to say how much the show means to the people who care about it. It is not just part of our culture. It’s part of us, in a very real and particular way. We know all of the episodes nearly line by line. Something happens at work, and it reminds us of something that happened to Barney. We hear the whistle that opens the show, and that alone takes us to a warm, comfortable, unchangeable place deep inside us.
I remember a few years ago when this guy I hadn’t seen before joined our gym in Waynesville. I was pretty suspicious of his looks for some reason — Barney would have called him an “interloper,” coming into our familiar environment and upsetting things like that — and for several days we just kind of nodded and grunted when we crossed paths. We were, like Barney, trying to mask our basic insecurity and fear of the unknown with a veneer of toughness and essential indifference. Then, one day, a friend of mine approached me at one of the benches and asked me if I had seen last night’s episode, the one where Barney is explaining the Emancipation Proclamation to Opie. Of course, I recited Barney’s entire explanation verbatim, right on the spot.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the new guy, a really tough-looking hombre with wiry muscles and a buzz cut, starting to grin and finally busting into a belly laugh.
“That’s good,” he said. “Did you see the one the night before where he got thrown out of his apartment by Mrs. Mendlebright?”
I looked at the guy a second, and said, in my best approximation of a drunken Barney, “I don’t like it, Andy, and you want to know why? A stranger moves into town, he has no visible means of support, and he wants to marry Mrs. Mendlebright.”
From that day, to this, 10 years later, every time I see that guy in the gym, we exchange random lines or scenes from “The Andy Griffith Show,” almost always something Barney did or said. For those of us who grew up with Mayberry, we have our own community.
We may have lost Don Knotts, may he rest in peace. But we will never lose Barney Fife.
(Chris Cox is a teacher and writer who lives in Waynesville)