Don Knott’s death Friday at 81 is a great loss, even though Knotts’ real talent will hardly receive its just appreciation amidst the inevitable references to Barney Fife and Mr. Furley. Although the Barney character certainly deserves the accolades it receives, Mr. Furley encapsulates much of the tragedy that dogs brilliant comedians.
Thus Knotts achieved a kind of perfection on the Andy Griffith Show, and amazingly extended it further in a series of movies that Hollywood unfortuately pegged to the children’s market. But those movies, forced like many of the Marx Brothers’ best films into a fundamentally compromised format, allowed Knotts to develop his painfully nervous persona without the shackles of Mayberry’s rigid moral economy. Ultimately even that format was not commercially viable, however. And although Three’s Company’s Mr. Furley may be a beloved character for many, it represents our culture’s ultimate failure to find for Knotts a venue equal to his talent.
Second or third banana to John Ritter or Tim Conway in the Disney movies hardly does him justice, but his plight wasn’t much different from the Marx Brothers and such depressing ventures as The Big Store, or Buster Keaton appearing in beach-party movies, or Steve Martin and his low-grade family fare (most recently The Pink Panther).