The Holy Bee Recommends, #15: “Andy & Don” by Daniel de Vise

r960-e3e07f80eaa2dd7cdb9cc4355d2faeb4I 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 or 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.)

8e5f2ee2f36dc9c4a22b55e2bfd5d144They 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 NorthWhat_It_Was,_Was_Football_cover 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.”

images12Underfed 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…

After No Time For Sergeants ended its run in 1957, Andy and Don went their separate ways. Andy had his sights set on film stardom, and immediately appeared in his one great film role: Larry “Lonesome” Rhoades in Elia Kazan’s A Face In The Crowd (1957). It’s the story of a drawling hayseed who is transformed by shady powers-that-be into a nationally famous Will Rogers-style “radio philosopher” — and becomes a megalomaniacal monster in the process. A scathing expose of media branding and the black cynicism at the heart of those who manipulate “the masses” like sheep, its message has never lost relevance (and may be even more relevant today, when a clueless, blowhard TV “reality star” is an actual Presidential candidate), and Andy Griffith has never given a better performance — nuanced, intense, and downright scary at times.

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Perhaps Andy’s greatest performance — the leering Lonesome Rhoades in A Face in the Crowd (1957)

After the expected film version of No Time For Sergeants in 1958, Andy put on yet another military uniform in the very second-rate navy comedy, Onionhead, later that same year. Then Andy’s phone stopped ringing. His film career stalled just as it was getting started. (As great as it is in hindsight, A Face In the Crowd did not exactly pack theaters.) He went back to Broadway with the less-successful Destry Rides Again, which played to half-empty houses. In desperation, Andy instructed his manager to put out feelers into the world of television. He admitted later he had the typical Broadway star’s snobbishness toward the lowly medium of TV.

Andy’s manager happened to know Sheldon Leonard, the producer of the mega-successful The Danny Thomas Show, then in its seventh season. Leonard agreed to cast Andy on an episode of Danny Thomas as the rural sheriff Andy Taylor, who pulls over Thomas’ urbanite New York character Danny Williams for running a stop sign, and detains him in the little town of Mayberry, North Carolina.

The episode, “Danny Meets Andy Griffith,” was broadcast on February 15, 1960, and got a very positive response. Viewers quickly warmed to “Andy Taylor,” still in his early incarnation: slightly obtuse and perpetually cheerful, always ready with a helping of corny sayings and folksy Southern humor. (Thomas’s character comes off in this episode as obnoxious and condescending by comparison. “You picked on the wrong guy this time, Clem,” he practically snarls.) It was clear the Andy Taylor character deserved his own series, and plans were hastily made to get it on the air by that fall, with Leonard, Thomas, and Griffith as co-producers and shareholders in the series’ ownership. The show would revolve around Andy Taylor’s daily life as sheriff in a small town filled with loveable eccentrics and very little actual crime, and his home life raising a young son as a single dad (with the help of the fussy, matronly Aunt Bee, who would be played to perfection by Frances Bavier, another Broadway veteran slightly ashamed of slumming it on TV.)

After No Time For Sergeants, Don, who had no film ambitions (yet), happily went into television, becoming part of the stock company doing comedy sketches for The Steve Allen Show, along with future TV stars Tom Poston (later known as George, the dim-witted handyman on Newhart) and Pat Harrington (later known as Schneider, the dim-witted handyman on One Day At A Time.) On The Steve Allen Show, Don perfected his long-gestating character “Nervous Man,” a poor soul usually trying to give a speech or lecture, but completely overcome with tics and neuroses — stammering, reversing words, dropping his notes, spilling his water, etc.

It was well-known in the industry that the “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” episode was a test-run for potential Griffith series. It was one of the first “back door pilots” (using an episode of an established show to introduce characters and settings for a potential new show.) On the night of February 15, 1960, the Knottses were watching the show with the Harringtons after a subdued dinner — they had just received word The Steve Allen Show had been cancelled, and they were unemployed after June. Don had lost touch with Andy after reprising his Sergeants role in the ’58 film version, but in a moment of inspiration the next day, he managed to acquire Andy’s phone number, did a little catching-up chit-chat, and finally asked the question that changed both of their lives (and possibly television): “Shouldn’t Andy Taylor have a deputy?”

Andy saw the wisdom of the suggestion, and had Don added to the cast. In doing so, he was giving away the opportunity to be the comedic lead. Don’s Deputy Barney Fife was an absolute whirlwind, stealing every scene he was in. He combined the Nervous Man with an officious sense of misplaced authority and a core of childlike vulnerability. In doing so, he created one of the most memorable characters in television history. (The Steve Allen Show had a last-minute, one-season reprieve after Knotts had joined the Griffith cast. His place was taken by Tim Conway. More on him later.)

94a5efab85b3f890d995875c663af470Andy, whose homespun humor and witty asides were supposed to be the show’s comedic center, stepped aside into the role of straight man. To the series’ benefit, Andy Taylor became a different character than was originally intended — more level-headed, straightforward, and fatherly. The one-note grinning rube of the Football record grew into a more pensive, serious small-town sage. Don was so brilliant as an actor, Andy said he never minded ceding the spotlight. Don, in turn, said he couldn’t have done anything without the quiet support of his partner. During scenes, they would often observe each other in awe, or try not to laugh.

The Andy Griffith Show was filmed with a single camera and out-of-sequence, movie-style, unlike a lot of sitcoms of the era which were done live and in sequence, like a short play, with three cameras in front a studio audience. The lack of a live audience meant that studio executives insisted on a laugh track, which Andy was deeply uncomfortable with. Its presence was kept to a bare minimum.

The pace of the show was slower than the usual sitcom, and the humor was character-based and often quite low-key (Barney’s antics notwithstanding.) This owed a lot to to the influence and Andy and Don themselves. One of Andy’s first acts as producer was to make sure Don had a seat at the writers’ table. Great sitcoms, then as now, are the result of a roundtable of writers. The writers’ names actually credited on the episode are simply the starting point, and every script is subjected to the “writers’ room,” where everyone revises, throws in new jokes and one-liners, and does an overall punch-up. Then, on most shows, it will be filtered through the voice of the “show-runner(s).” All of the great Simpsons episodes had the stamp of George Meyer, no great Seinfeld episode escaped the pens of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, and all the best Andy Griffith Show episodes were frequently — and at times, extensively — worked over by Andy and Don.

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The Griffith Show writers’ room

Amazingly, none of the credited Griffith writers were actually Southern. And due to years as professional comedy writers, they were always looking for the joke, and trying to step up the pace (in order to fit in more jokes.) Under the influence of Andy and Don, they learned to slow it down, let the scenes breathe, and let the characters talk to each other rather than at each other. They quickly picked up the tone and feel of Southern expression, and began drawing on memories of their own small-town childhoods for inspiration, even if it they weren’t from North Carolina.

The quiet little back-and-forths on Andy’s porch or in the sheriff’s office that made the show special are pure Griffith and Knotts — and they were tireless perfectionists, beginning with improvisation and ad-libs, then rehearsing and re-shooting sequences until every inflection was exactly how they wanted it.

Interiors for the series were filmed at the Desilu Studios on Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood (now known as Red Studios Hollywood), and the cast and crew would frequently troop eight miles south to film the exteriors at another Desilu facility in Culver City. The Culver City back lot — known as “Forty Acres” — also served as Gotham City on the Batman TV series, and appeared in dozens of other movies and TV shows — but most people would immediately recognize the fake streets and buildings as good ol’ Mayberry. (Forty Acres was razed in 1976 for commercial development. Mayberry is now one of those characterless suburban business parks — all cinder blocks, manicured shrubbery, and tinted windows.)

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The iconic theme song by composer Earle Hagen was whistled by Hagen himself — he intended it as a rough demo, with brushed drums and a little bit of string bass. The demo was considered so charming, it was decided no further additions were needed, and it became one of the best-known TV themes ever. (“I’d never whistled before, and I’ve never whistled since,” said Hagen.) The backwoods “fishin’ hole” Andy and his TV son Opie (future Happy Days star and film director Ron Howard) were walking to was actually the Franklin Canyon Reservoir, a stone’s throw from the swanky Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. I, personally, have gone from standing on the exact spot on the dusty road traveled by Andy and Opie (those pine trees look pretty much the same) to ordering a drink at the bar in the Beverly Hills Hotel in less than fifteen minutes. It was weird and disconcerting, like being in a time warp.

(And speaking of throwing stones, for the moment where Opie throws the stone into the water, it was discovered that Ronnie Howard’s little arm didn’t have the firepower to cover the distance. He threw a rock, and a stagehand provided the splash with a second rock. If you watch the sequence carefully, you can see the splash is completely mistimed.)

The Andy Griffith Show premiered on CBS on October 3, 1960. It was the first five black-and-white seasons that established Mayberry and its denizens in the hearts of American TV viewers. Andy, Barney, Opie, and Aunt Bee were aided and abetted by Floyd the Barber, dumb-but-sweet Gomer Pyle, the local mechanic (only there for seasons 3 and 4, but he made a hell of an impression), Gomer’s equally slow cousin Goober, town drunk Otis, who would voluntarily lock himself in the sheriff office’s lone jail cell after a bender, troublesome hillbilly Ernest T. Bass, and several others.

The show stayed in the Top 10 in the ratings for its entire run, but neither Andy nor the series itself ever won an Emmy in their category (Andy was never even nominated.)

Don Knotts, however, won five for his supporting role as Barney Fife.

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Initially, Andy and Don agreed to end the series after five seasons. When season five wrapped in the spring of 1965, Don decided to stick to his word, and leave the show. He had a shelf full of Emmy gold, the attention of Hollywood producers, and movies were calling. He had already shot his first film as leading man, The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), on his hiatus between seasons two and three. He was able to squeeze it in, since it was a live-action/animation mix, and much of his work was voiceover only. (He also filmed a cameo as Nervous Man in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World around this time).

Andy, too, was tempted to honor his pledge and turn in his badge, but CBS backed the proverbial dump-truck full of money up to him to keep him on. There has been some confusion as to whether Don signed his movie contract before he knew Andy was continuing the show, but there were reportedly no hard feelings between him and Don, and Don returned in the final seasons for several guest spots (netting him two more Emmys.)

Sadly, the post-Knotts Andy Griffith Show was just not the same. It was now in color, Griffith was nowhere near as engaged and invested as he once was, and Barney’s departure (written off as taking a job in a police department in the “big city” of Raleigh, NC) had left an un-fillable void. They tried a new deputy, played by Jack Burns (former George Carlin comedy partner, future Avery Schreiber comedy partner), but he was so abrasive and unlikable that even good-natured Sheriff Taylor couldn’t hide his loathing. The character was quietly shelved after eleven episodes.

By the eighth season, Andy had had enough and announced his departure. CBS wanted to keep Mayberry around, so they brought in Ken Berry (F Troop) as another widower with a young son. The last few episodes of The Andy Griffith Show in the spring of 1968 were really the first few episodes of Mayberry R.F.D., with the character of Sheriff Taylor barely appearing as he prepared to head for Raleigh with Opie and new wife Helen Crump. Mayberry R.F.D. officially premiered under that title in the fall, starring Berry as farmer and city councilman Sam Jones, and Frances Bavier, who gamely stuck to the ship as Aunt Bee.

Don, meanwhile, was off to a great start as a film comedian. He signed a big contract with Universal Pictures, and his first three Universal features, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) and The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968), along with Limpet, were solid box office hits, and have since become Saturday-afternoon superstation staples. He was compared to the silent greats Chaplin and Keaton, or at least as good as Red Skelton or Danny Kaye.

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Then came the stumbles. The hippie sex farce The Love God? (1969), where Don plays a Hugh Hefner-style swinger, was dated as soon as it came out, and subsequent years have not been kind to it. His fifth and final film under the Universal contract, How To Frame A Figg (1971) has disappeared from the pop-culture landscape entirely. His attempt at a self-titled, prime-time variety show in the 1970-71 season (BTW, who didn’t have a variety show in the early 70s?) was considered the biggest turkey on television at the time, and Universal did not offer a new movie contract.

Luckily, Don caught a third wind in the second half of the 1970s as the comic76734a_lg relief in several Disney family films. Even though he had to play second fiddle to a goal-kicking mule, the money was good, and he found his second great comedic partner. The two Apple Dumpling Gang films paired him with his Steve Allen Show replacement and Carol Burnett Show alumni Tim Conway, and their chemistry led to two successful, independently-produced, Conway-penned comedies — The Prize Fighter (1979) and The Private Eyes (1980), filmed back-to-back on shoestring budgets.

d3f934a0c41b0d4aa6cddf6875dcf1deAfter wrapping the Conway films, Don joined the cast of the ABC sitcom Three’s Company at the start of its fourth season in the fall of 1979. Three’s Company was an audience hit, but a critical disaster — its puerile, double-entendre heavy slapstick was seen as the lowest level of TV comedy. Don created his last iconic character, Ralph Furley, the poorly-toupeed, downstairs-dwelling landlord of the series leads, who draped himself in scarves and eye-wateringly bright 70s polyester in the deluded belief he was a desirable ladies’ man. The other cast members remembered him as a shy, sweet guy who sat quietly at the cast read-throughs, then unleashed his comic id when the cameras were rolling.

One of the great myths of television was that Andy Griffith was essentially playing himself as Andy Taylor. Rest assured, Andy Griffith was not peaceful, benign Andy Taylor. Andy Griffith was a darker and more tempestuous figure than Taylor. In his prime, he liked partying, certainly drank more than was good for him, and enjoyed a pretty decent amount of sex — not always with his wife. He had a vicious temper, and was capable of holding icy grudges for decades. Two marriages ended in a storm of broken dishes and holes punched in walls. (First wife Barbara entered Alcoholics Anonymous around the time of their 1972 divorce.) He could also be the flip side of all that — a kind, loyal Southern gentleman. Certainly part of him was Andy Taylor (just as part of him was Lonesome Rhoades.) In short, he was human, with all of the complexities that entails.

Mayberry R.F.D. was canceled in 1971, part of CBS’s “Rural Purge” that also saw the end of The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, and sent the corny country variety show Hee Haw spinning into syndication. CBS would now focus on cutting-edge urban comedies like All in the Family, and left Andy, at the time still co-owner of  Mayberry R.F.D., scrambling for a new revenue stream.

Andy spent the 70s in forgotten TV movies-of-the-week and failed pilots, often playing morally ambiguous or villainous characters, in an attempt to break free of typecasting. (This included a weird, sci-fi garbagemen-in-space thing called Salvage I that lasted twenty episodes in 1979.) By 1983, he was nearing bankruptcy.

Don never left the public eye until Three’s Company ended its run in 1984, then his appearances became more sporadic. Coincidentally, this is right when Griffith’s career started to spark again. In late 1985, Griffith filmed the hugely popular reunion TV move Return to Mayberry (co-starring Don, of course), and the first few episodes of that juggernaut of the grey-haired crowd, Matlock.

For the twenty years between Don’s departure from the The Andy Griffith Show and Return to Mayberry, Andy and Don maintained their friendship with long, gossipy phone calls every two or three weeks, mailing each other old radio comedy recordings with handwritten commentary, and dining together whenever Andy had a free moment in L.A. Andy was spending more and more time at his secluded compound near the beach community of Manteo in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and only came to L.A. a few months a year to film Matlock. For Matlock’s final two seasons, Andy had the entire production moved to Screen Gems Studios in North Carolina. cf0887649f864927509240261814be9d

Despite the distance, Andy and Don talked constantly of working together again. When it finally happened, to rousing success, with Return to Mayberry, Andy added Don to Matlock in a recurring role as Ben Matlock’s neighbor, “Ace” Calhoun. But the character didn’t really work, and was dropped after a few seasons.

Like Andy, Don had been married and divorced twice, and both were now past their tom-catting years and settled down with gorgeous blonde wives (at least) thirty years their junior.

While Andy was enjoying a massive late-in-life success with Matlock, Don entered the world of regional theater, voiceover work, and a long semi-retirement. Macular degeneration was slowly robbing him of his eyesight, and he had to have his scripts recorded on tape in order to memorize them.

Every biography has a depressing last chapter. Getting old sucks and is not for the weak. Towards the end, Don was suffering from pulmonary fibrosis and lung cancer (never a heavy smoker, Don believed it was due to being raised in the midst of constant coal-dust.) Embarrassed by his his frailty and oxygen tank, he was rarely seen in public by the early 2000s. Andy was equally ashamed of his mobility scooter. (He was diagnosed with a degenerative nerve disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome in 1983, and did a lot of Matlock with leg braces under his pants. Any scenes showing him moving quickly or walking any distance had to be filmed in small segments.)

In 2005, Andy and Don agreed to have a gala Christmas dinner, in full view of each other with all of their medical paraphernalia, at the fanciest restaurant in Beverly Hills, the Belvedere in the Peninsula Hotel. Even at that point, they talked about somehow working together on one last project. For the first time in months, Don didn’t need his oxygen, and the little tank stayed in his wife’s purse.

Don died a few weeks later, in early 2006. Andy followed in 2012.

Andy summed it up: “The five years we worked together were the best five years of my life.”

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4 Comments

Filed under Books, The Holy Bee Recommends

4 responses to “The Holy Bee Recommends, #15: “Andy & Don” by Daniel de Vise

  1. The book sounds like a fun read. Thanks for sharing the highlights. Next time I’m in LA, I’ll have to take my husband to the fishin’ hole behind the Hollywood Hills Hotel.

    Long before he produced The Andy Griffith and The Dick Van Dyke Shows, Sheldon Leonard played Nick the Bartender in “Its a Wonderful Life.”

    • Yeah, I picked up that bit of trivia about Sheldon Leonard at some point. I had made it through most of my life without seeing “It’s A Wonderful Life” — avoiding its Yuletide unavoidability became a point of pride with me — until I was made to watch it by my wife’s family. Naturally, I was floored by how good it was.

  2. This is a great write-up of what seems like a really interesting book. I never knew most of that about the Andy Griffith Show, and I never thought about why it was slower than most shows of the era or the fact that it was deliberate.

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