The evening of February 15, 1960, actor Don Knotts and his wife, Kay, were at Pat Harrington’s house in Los Angeles, California, playing bridge. Don and Pat had become friends as members of the cast of The Steve Allen Show, where Don had attained semi-fame as the Nervous Man. NBC was about to cancel Steve Allen, so Don and Pat were looking for work; Pat was up for a guest role on The Danny Thomas Show. At 9 p.m. he halted Tuesday evening’s card game so he and his guests could watch that night’s episode.
The screen filled with a sketch of a man who looked like a sinister ventriloquist’s dummy. “Tonight’s special guest,” the announcer intoned, “…Andy Griffith.” The lens descended to a street, where the special guest, wearing a khaki sheriff’s uniform, sat in a Ford Galaxie 500 rigged as a squad car. He was escorting the show’s star and family into a soundstage town called Mayberry. Griffith’s character, a backwater lawman, had caught Danny Thomas running a red light.
“You picked on the wrong guy this time, Clem,” Danny warned.
“Name ain’t Clem,” Andy replied, with a wide smile. “It’s Andy, Andy Taylor.”
The episode, concocted by Danny Thomas producer Sheldon Leonard as a cheap way to float a pilot for a series he was pitching CBS, contained bits and pieces of what would become legend. The town drunk shambles into frame, announces, “I’m under arrest!” and locks himself in a cell. But the sot isn’t Otis, and Hal Smith isn’t playing him. Frances Bavier comes to see Andy, but she is not Aunt Bee; she is the widow Henrietta Perkins. Ronny “Opie” Howard is there, but Sheriff Taylor has no deputy.
Don was riveted. He and Andy had met on Broadway in 1955 on the cast of No Time for Sergeants, the comedy on which a hit film, also starring Andy, would be based. In the Broadway production, Don had been an $85-a-week bit player, but in their scenes together he and Andy generated audience-pleasing hilarity. Offstage between 400-some performances the two had hit it off personally as well, but once the play closed they fell out of touch. Don had no inkling Andy was working on a television show. A part on Andy’s show might just rekindle his career—and their friendship. The next day Don telephoned Andy in New York, where he was back on Broadway, playing the lead in a revival of Destry Rides Again.
“Listen,” Don said. “Don’t you think Sheriff Andy Taylor ought to have a deputy?”
After a long pause, Andy’s voice crackled back on the line.
“That’s a hell of an idea!” he told Don. “I didn’t know you were out of a job.”
“Yes, Steve was canceled.”
“Lord!” Andy said. “Call Sheldon Leonard.”
They decided to have Andy’s manager, Dick Linke, convey Don’s pitch to the producer. Andy made clear he wanted Don. Barely a week after the pilot aired, Don was at the Desilu Studios lot on Cahuenga Boulevard near Melrose. Founded by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Desilu would be responsible not only for I Love Lucy but many a memorable series, including My Three Sons, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Star Trek. Walking into Sheldon’s office, Don carried a sheaf of old scripts to suggest he was brimming with offers.
Sheldon played it cool. In an hourlong meeting, Don recalled, the producer “prodded me with questions about what I thought this deputy character should be like.” Don said he envisioned him as a grown man with the mentality of a nine-year-old boy, given to flights of Tom Sawyer fancy and prone to wearing his emotions on his sleeve.
There was no formal audition. Sheldon told the fretful actor his idea “would be taken under advisement.” He immediately wanted to hire Knotts but for tactical reasons kept Don waiting three weeks, during which Don filmed his final Steve Allen Show. Finally, his manager called: The part was his.
Sheldon had already hired six-year-old Ronny Howard, who was playing Andy Taylor’s son, Opie (named after Southern bandleader Opie Cates, a favorite of Andy’s), and Frances Bavier, who had been acting since 1925. On screen, Andy, Opie, and the future Aunt Bee melted hearts. Danny Thomas sponsor General Foods bought the series even before it aired. Executives loved the show’s Americana appeal, Andy’s warm smile, and Mayberry’s budding magic.
CBS budgeted Griffith for 32 episodes at $58,000 apiece, or about $1.8 million the first season. Dick Linke knew that he and his client weren’t big Hollywood names; for either to wield clout on the Griffith Show, both would need to ante up. From Bank of America, Dick borrowed several hundred thousand dollars to make Andy half owner of the show—the remaining shares would go to Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas—giving Andy and Dick together a majority stake, endowing Andy with a measure of artistic control, and, in time, making him and Dick wealthy.
Don Knotts had no ownership in the Griffith Show. Concealing their eagerness to sign him, the producers offered him a single season, and then a five-year contract, starting at $1,250 an episode, or about $35,000 a year. For 1960, that was good money for a television actor, and Don was assuming none of the financial risk his friend had.
According to Andy’s wishes, The Andy Griffith Show would shoot at Desilu with a single camera, treating episodes like movies, filming scenes out of sequence and without an audience. Danny Thomas and most other situation comedies used three cameras in front of an audience. This generated a natural laugh track and chemistry between audience and performers. But actors on three-camera shows played to the crowd, which could distract them and a show’s writers from building character and plot. The one-camera format meant a synthetic laugh track, which made Andy uneasy. He and the producers compromised: Griffith would use a laugh track, but sparingly.
The first episode’s sets were simple: the courthouse, scene of most interior shots; the Taylor living room, kitchen, and porch; the barbershop; the mayor’s office; and the filling station interior. Exteriors were shot mostly at Forty Acres, a back lot half an hour away in Culver City. Cecil B. DeMille first used the Culver City lot in the 1920s for silent films; the property also made appearances in King Kong and Gone With the Wind.
The Griffith Show’s minimalist theme song came from composer Earle Hagen. Hagen said after he and the producers had been “beating our brains out for a couple of months,” he woke one day thinking the tune ought to be simple enough to whistle. “And it took me about ten minutes to write it,” he recalled. He whistled a simple demo backed with a string bass and drums and took it to Sheldon Leonard. Sheldon loved it. “I tell you what,” he said. “I’ll shoot Andy and Ronny walking along the lake with a couple of fishing poles over their shoulders.” Earle’s original demo became the theme. “I never whistled before in my life,” he recalled. “And never since.”
On the first day of production, in the summer of 1960, the core cast and crew met in a Desilu conference room to read the script for “The New Housekeeper.” Sheldon Leonard would direct, one of two times he personally oversaw
a Griffith episode.
Don arrived, nervous but buoyed by working on a calm one-camera production, not a torturous live shoot. And he sensed the presence of great talent. Andy asserted himself as a benevolent leader. Don called the experience “one of the most delightful days of my life.”
The next Monday, to shoot the show’s open, the crew drove through Franklin Canyon, above Beverly Hills, to a city reservoir surrounded by indeterminate flora that could as easily have been North Carolina as California. The 20-second sequence called for Andy and Opie to amble along a dirt road and for Opie to lob a rock into the water. Assistant director Bruce Bilson shouted, “Roll it!”
“They came walking down the road,” Bilson recalled. “The kid threw a rock…and it didn’t get in the lake. So we did another take, and the kid threw the rock, and it didn’t go in the lake. And so I said, ‘Okay, propman—get behind that bush down there, and when I say, “Throw it,” throw it.’” Bilson shot a third take. Again Opie underthrew, but the propman delivered. In the show’s opening sequence, sharp-eyed viewers will note a slight, gravity-defying lag between Opie’s toss and the splash.
Franklin Canyon would host many Griffith Show picnics and manhunts. Andy and Barney would occasionally launch a leaky rowboat into the reservoir and fish—a delicate undertaking. They were dunking worms in Angelenos’ drinking water.
The cast settled into a businesslike but relaxed schedule. Key players would gather at 9 o’clock on Thursday mornings to “read down” the script for the next week’s show as the script supervisor kept time with a stopwatch. Then they would read the script for the following week, to gain a feel for it and, if the draft didn’t work, what changes might be in order. Most of the cast would be dismissed. Writer Aaron Ruben would stay behind with Andy, Don, and the directors to work on rewrites. Friday morning, new scripts would be handed out, and the cast would begin rehearsals on the soundstage. Shooting would commence at 8 o’clock Monday morning and continue through Wednesday.
The first episode filmed, “The New Housekeeper,” seemingly written to please CBS and sponsor General Foods, had Andy as a winsome widower, introduced Aunt Bee as his matronly housekeeper, and posited a tender relationship between father and son. Andy dominated, generally playing the buffoon. There was no Barney Fife, illustrating what the program might have been without Don.
Ron Howard later recounted his first impression of Barney Fife. “Andy and this man were talking very quietly. Andy was a lot bigger than that fellow. And they were talking, and I couldn’t really hear much, but I started watching,” the young actor said. “All of a sudden, this very quiet man, Don Knotts, became a complete bundle of nerves. Cameras were rolling. I think he was tapping his pocket and saluting and knocking his hat off…I remember turning to my dad and saying something like, ‘Is that man crazy?’ And he said, ‘No, no, no. He’s a very funny actor.’”
Don made the most of his first real scene, a 90-second exchange in the sheriff’s driveway. “Deputy Barney Fife reporting, sir, with an important message,” he says with a stiff salute.
“Barney, I’ve told you, you don’t have to do that,” Andy smiles. “This ain’t the army. You see, it’s just me and you.”
“Well, shucks, Andy. I want to do good on this job. Even if it’s just deliverin’ messages. I want to do it right.”
“Well, I know you do, and I admire your attitude.”
“You see, Andy, I want the folks in this town to realize that you picked me to be your deputy because…Well, you looked over all the candidates for the job and you judged their qualifications and their character and their ability, and you come to the fair, the just, and the honest conclusion that I was the best suited for the job. And I want to thank you, Cousin Andy.”
The exchange illustrated the magic that could unfold when Andy and Don shared a scene.
“There was such electricity,” Sheldon Leonard recalled. “When we saw it in the dailies we all looked at one another and said, ‘Well, that’s it. Let’s get [Don] tied up, let’s make sure he’s part of the show.’”
Leonard offered Knotts a contract under which his compensation would top out at $3,500 an episode, or about $100,000 a year, in season five. The deal guaranteed him airtime in 10 of every 13 episodes. (Soon enough, though, he would be begging for even a single week off.)
Most televisions shows fail, and Griffith’s fate wouldn’t be clear until the first episode aired in the fall. By then, the team would have filmed at least 10 episodes. “We liked it. It was fun. It was funny. Everybody was good,” said Bilson. “But we were working in a vacuum.”
Having filmed “The New Housekeeper,” the team took up “The Manhunt,” which introduced Barney Fife.. About six weeks into production, Andy was in the restroom standing beside a studio electrician named Frank. In all those weeks, the crewmember hadn’t had a word to say to Andy. Now he turned and said, “You’ll be in the top 10 in six months.”
The producers analyzed episodes, trying to decide which to run first. The CBS brass chose “The New Housekeeper.” Andy and much of the creative staff preferred “The Manhunt.” The reason: Barney Fife. “The Manhunt” opens with Andy and Opie fishing. As they’re pulling their boat onto shore, a squad car roars up.
“Sheriff! Sheriff!” Barney bellows as he leaps out. “You’ll never guess what’s happened! Somethin’ big!”
“Well, what is it?” Andy asks.
Barney’s eyes bug. “Biggest thing ever happened in Mayberry. Real big. Big! Big!”
With this episode, which won the 1962 Writers Guild Award for best comedy writing in a TV series, the cast and crew began to sense something special. Whenever a scene brought Andy and Don into focus, Don’s eyes would widen and his body would tense as he became Barney. Andy’s eyes would warm with adoration, and the two of them would unleash primal comedic force. “The Manhunt” reordered the Mayberry universe.
“By that episode, I knew that Don should be the comic and I should play straight for him, and that made all the difference,” Andy recalled later. “Don on this show changed the whole groundwork of it. Because every comic character that came on—we added them as fast as we could find them—I played straight to all of them.”
By playing the straight man, Andy Griffith brought Mayberry balance and his series immortality, his timing and gravitas elevating the artistry not just of Don Knotts but of such talents as Howard “Floyd the Barber” McNear and Jim “Gomer Pyle” Nabors.
“To be a straight man is a wonderful position,” Andy recalled. “You are privileged more than anyone else—to be in the scene and to watch it, too. I could watch Don Knotts and Frances and the rest with a thousand times more delight than anyone in the audience ever could because I’m between the camera and you on most shots and I’m closer to Don’s eyes than you can ever be.”
“Our timing was alike,” Don said. “I could almost tell when Andy was going to come in, and he said he could do the same with me. And Andy found Barney funny. I think that helped, too. I could see something in Andy’s eyes that he was trying to keep from laughing, which would help me try to be even funnier. And Andy was like the ultimate straight man. He was the best you could imagine.”
Neither man received a writing credit, but both made enormous contributions to scripts almost from the start. Andy insisted Don help fine-tune episodes. When holes in a script needed plugging, Andy would turn to Don. “Why don’t you see if you can write a funny little thing to put in there?” he’d say.
Their collaboration produced the pair’s first classic routine. The team was polishing the script for “Ellie Comes to Town,” the fourth episode aired. As the producers were reviewing pages, Don scribbled.
“Hey, Andy, I just memorized the lawman’s code,” he said. “Try me out.”
Andy faced his coconspirator. “Okay, Don,” he said. “Go ahead.”
Don handed Andy a sheet of scribble, slipped into character, and asked the sheriff to test his recall of the code. Mesmerized, the team watched Don lead Andy through the exchange he had just conceived.
“‘Rule number one,’” Andy reads. “All right. Go ahead.”
Barney sits, concentrates, knits his brow, clears his throat. He looks up at Andy with a grave expression.
“You just wanna give me the first word?” he asks.
“An,” Barney repeats. “An. An?” He looks quizzically at Andy.
“I’m lookin’ right at it.”
“An. An…” Barney sighs. “Uh, you wanna just give me the second word?”
“Oh, yeah. An officer…an officer…an officer…an officer…an officer…” Barney sinks his head in his hands, twirls in his chair, and thuds his forehead against a coat tree.
The prolonged exchange, with Barney twisting his face and disheveling his hair in agony, reaches a comic crescendo with Barney barking back the final words of the “code” moments after they leave Andy’s mouth.
To keep Andy from losing his composure, the team shot most of the scene with him and Barney delivering their lines individually. Only on the final portion were both men in frame, Andy struggling not to explode in laughter. As aired, the camera then cuts to a shot of a sober Andy.
“You wanna go over it again,” he asks. “Or you think you got it?”
“I got it,” Barney replies. ✯
Adapted from Andy & Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show, by Daniel de Visè (Simon & Schuster 2015; paperback edition available June 2016). Daniel de Visè has written for the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, and other newspapers. His investigative reporting has twice led to the release of wrongly convicted men from life imprisonment; he shared in a 2001 Pulitzer Prize.