I had seen this book, published last November, kicking around the shelves for a few months before I gave it a chance. I had never been much of an Andy Griffith Show fan. Syndicated reruns of it ran through my childhood, usually packaged with what I considered the superior show, The Dick Van Dyke Show. I much preferred the snappy pace and rapid-fire witticisms of Van Dyke over the pokey, measured plodding of Griffith. I remember the reruns always airing at noon, so it was a summer vacation show for me. My older sister liked it, so I had to get through it in order to get to Dick Van Dyke at 12:30. But from a more adult perspective, I realize that what I saw as the show’s weaknesses were actually its virtues.
The dual biography Andy & Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show by Daniel de Vise recounts the history of the long-time friendship between two slightly damaged men from rural Appalachian backgrounds. De Vise writes in a relaxed, informal voice, and makes lots of references and comparisons to things in modern pop culture, intending to strike a chord with Gen X readers or younger, few of whom were born during the show’s original run.
Andy Griffith and Don Knotts met in 1955 during the 796-performance Broadway run of the service comedy No Time For Sergeants, which starred Griffith and featured Knotts in a small supporting role. They hit it off right away. At the core of their relationship is the bond of having been two bumpkins from nowhere, scaling the ladder on raw talent, and proving to the big-city sophisticates that show business was not their exclusive domain.
“When we talked about our relatives, they all seemed to be the same. Our sense of humor clicked,” said Don.
“One thing we’ve talked about a lot is the way a comedian is born,” Andy recalled. “Don says a comedian is born out of either unhappiness and embarrassment…and you start to learn to protect yourself. When you’re laughed at, you turn it to your advantage.”
“Men very rarely are as intimate as they were together,” observed Don’s first wife, Kay Knotts. Don called Andy “Ange,” and Andy called Don “Jess” (a poke at his never-used real first name.)
They both had embarrassment and unhappiness to spare in their formative years. Andy Griffith was born in 1926 and grew up in Mount Airy, North Carolina. He was not well-off and posh enough to be accepted as a peer by Mount Airy’s wealthier society on the north side of town, and not poor enough to be accepted by the hardscrabble, working class families (who often had ten or more children) on the south side. Andy, an only child, was stuck in the middle and friendless. It didn’t help that he was too gawky and uncoordinated for sports, and even when he discovered he had a talent for singing, his big ears and oversized pompadour hairstyle tended to provoke laughter whenever he performed as a youngster.
He got out of Mount Airy as soon as he could, and achieved success in the drama and music departments of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializing in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. Before, during, and after college, he was intermittently part of the cast of the “longest-running symphonic outdoor drama” in stage history, The Lost Colony, a regional North Carolina phenomenon still running to this day. He met his wife, Barbara, among the The Lost Colony’s rep company, and the pair became professional party entertainers, hirable for your neighborhood barbeque or Shriners’ banquet. She sang (beautifully, it was said), and he told folksy, Southern monologues. When one of these monologues, What It Was, Was Football was released as a 45-rpm single in late 1953, it was a monster seller, and Broadway came calling…
Although he used the internalized memories of his hometown when creating the The Andy Griffith Show, Andy never really forgave Mount Airy for all of its snubs. When the town began capitalizing on it reputation as “the real Mayberry” by selling merchandise, hosting cast reunions and “Andy Griffith Days” festivals, Andy himself always kept his distance.
Jesse Donald Knotts, Jr. was born in 1924, deep in West Virginia coal-mining country in the town of Montgomery. The Knottses were dirt-poor (little Don slept on the kitchen floor next to the stove, the warmest part of the house), and their troubles were compounded by the presence of Don’s father, who was not only a raging alcoholic, but also an increasingly paranoid schizophrenic, who frequently threatened family members’ lives. (Don remembered him holding a knife to his throat.) No wonder Don’s early comic character was known as “Nervous Man.”
Underfed and undersized, Don knew his tense expressions and flailing mannerisms gave him a comical appearance, and gravitated toward performing as a protective barrier. He taught himself ventriloquism, and made a few dollars with his dummy, “Danny,” here and there. After high school, he attempted to break into show business by traveling to New York. He spent most of his time loitering in talent agencies’ waiting rooms. Broke and chagrined, he returned to West Virginia and enlisted in the Army, where he (and Danny the Dummy) were assigned to “Detachment X,” an entertainment corps that served right on the front lines of World War II (it was sometimes referred to as “the USO with helmets.”) After a few months, Don began to view ventriloquism as limiting and small-time. Danny the Dummy was pitched overboard from a troop transport into the South Pacific, and Don joined the ranks of the comedians.
The first chapter of Andy & Don is quite rightfully called “Don’s Demons.” Memories of his monstrous father, dead since Don was 13 and bedridden long before that, still haunted him constantly. He always felt like a bad Christian because he never felt the passion he saw in the fire-and-brimstone services at the Pentecostal church of his youth. He developed intense hypochondria and insomnia, and frequently had panic attacks and psychosomatic sickness before performances.
Intense psychotherapy finally allowed him to let go of his religious hang-ups and become agnostic. Andy was always religious — he seriously considered entering the ministry at one point (the Football recording was credited to “Deacon Andy Griffith”) — and became even more so in his last years, when he privately fretted about Don’s soul.
But for all of their deep talks over a half-century, they never really discussed religion.
The downside of psychoanalysis was that Don’s therapist was pretty free and easy with the sleeping pill prescriptions, and Don was hooked for much of his adult life.
After the Army and a bachelor’s degree on the G.I. Bill from the University of West Virginia, Don began to make inroads into radio and the earliest era of television, appearing in small but memorable parts on everything from soap operas to children’s shows. On a whim, he auditioned for an upcoming Broadway play called No Time For Sergeants, starring the overnight sensation Andy Griffith, who had done that funny football record… Continue reading