I’ve always identified with Barney Fife, the incompetent, nervous, self-aggrandizing deputy from “The Andy Griffith Show.” As played by Don Knotts, who died this weekend at the age of 81, Barney Fife was one of the most memorable characters from my childhood. Like many Jewish kids living with crazy relatives in the big city, I longed for the simple, ultra-goyishe way of life enjoyed by the residents of fictional Mayberry. I dreamed of being Opie Taylor, growing up under the wise and calm tutelage of Sheriff Andy Taylor and the nurturing care of kindly Aunt Bee. Everyone in Mayberry seemed subdued and reserved, from doddering Floyd the barber to the Forest Gump-like Gomer Pyle. Even Otis the Drunk seemed like he was on more of an even keel than some of my own family members. But the character who made us laugh the most was the sole resident of Mayberry who closely resembled the neurotic, anxiety-ridden, loudmouthed know-it-alls I was growing up with (and becoming myself). Barney Fife—the most Jewish Gentile in Mayberry.
Mayberry is often held up as a model of true Christian values. There’s a website that offers a bible class centered around episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Following Knotts’ death, Christian bloggers weighed in on the spiritual impact of Barney Fife. And yet, to me Barney’s sensibilities are familiar as can be. Why am I surprised? The reality is that the small-town Christian values of Mayberry were created by mostly urban Jewish writers, including my father’s best friend, Sam Bobrick, who wrote some of Barney’s best episodes.
My sister recently found a letter that Sam wrote to my parents when he was a struggling writer in New York in 1960 (don't you miss those typewritten letters with all those wonderful mistakes?). He had just decided to quit his job as a staff writer on “Captain Kangaroo” and as he says in the letter at right (click to enlarge), “I was breaking my hump trying to think like a four year old and I kept finding myself two years behind.” Sam decided to leave the show to try his luck writing sitcom scripts (“Those half hour shows bring in two grand a show. If I just get three a year I’m in business.”). In the meantime, he figured he could live on the tiny unemployment check he received, “45 bananas a week, plus knowledge that Elvis owes me two grand helped matters.” That last bit of news, geometrically increasing the eBay value of Sam’s letter, is a reference to his song that Elvis Presley had recently recorded called “The Girl of my Best Friend.” No matter what she accomplished in her life, we always considered this song my mother’s biggest claim to fame. How many Chicago housewives could turn on the radio and hear Elvis singing about them:
Her lovely hair,
Her skin so fair
I could go on and never end
Oh, I can’t help I’m in love
With the girl of my best friend.
The way they kiss
Will my aching heart ever mend
Or will I always be in love
With the girl of my best friend?
Okay, I’m not saying that the song belonged on the Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band album but it had a special place in my heart. Sam wrote it with Beverly Ross, who also penned such classics as “Lollipop” and “It’s Judy’s Turn to Cry.” Sam then went on to write some of the great songs from the Mad magazine albums including “She Got a Nose Job,” “Please Betty Jane, When Are You Going to Shave Your Legs,” and my all-time favorite, “It’s a Gas,” which consisted of a series of musical riffs punctuated by an endless supply of loud belches. As Sam says on his website, “it was endeavors like this that brought my music career to an abrupt but necessary halt.”
Our favorite part of “The Andy Griffith Show” was the credits. We looked forward to them every week to see if the show was one of the episodes Sam wrote with his writing partner at the time, Bill Idelson. In addition to “The Andy Griffith Show,” the two wrote for “The Flintstones,” “Bewitched,” and “Get Smart,” among other classic shows of the 60s. Bill Idelson was also a well known character actor who is best known for his role as Sally Rogers’ nebbish boyfriend Herman Glimscher on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Sam and Bill’s Andy Griffith episodes always featured a lot of business for Don Knotts. They won a 1964 Writer’s Guild award for an episode called “Barney’s Bloodhound” in which Barney is convinced he can train a miserable old mutt named Blue to be a crackerjack police dog. A dangerous criminal has escaped from a nearby prison and Barney insists that Blue is hot on the trail. In this scene, Blue has just wandered up to Floyd in the barbershop. When he goes up to Floyd and sniffs his pocket, the barber proceeds to remove a lollipop.
Andy: Has that dog been in here before, Floyd?
Floyd: Oh, yes. Barney had him in here a little while ago and I gave him a lollipop. Oh, he's a smart dog. He knew where to get another one.
Barney: (annoyed) It was NOT the lollipop he was after. He was after the man's scent – that's all – just the scent.
Floyd: Oh, no, no, no. I think it was the candy. I smell of witch hazel and shaving cream. That wouldn't interest him. No, no, no, it was definitely the candy.
Andy: Good. Good dog. He'll probably lead us right to the criminal. Provided he's travelin' around with a pocketful of lollipops.
In my opinion, Don Knotts’ portrayal of Barney Fife was as subtle and nuanced as anything Meryl Streep has ever done in front of a camera. Knotts had a way of displaying his vulnerabilities with such depth and understanding that you would wince in pain as you laughed. Every week the show would provide another opportunity for Barney to dream big only to be thwarted again and again by reality and the massive insecurities which continually seeped through the eggshell-thin veneer of Barney's arrogance and bravado. Where the rest of Mayberry’s residents represented the Our Town-like archetypes of family values, Barney Fife was forever raw and exposed. He was us.
On my very first date with Kendall in 1989, after meeting her at Sam Bobrick’s daughter’s wedding, we went to a fundraising event at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for some old movie society. Sitting at our table with us was none other than Barney’s girlfriend Thelma Lou, the actress Betty Lynn. I was more excited to meet her that night than any of the big movie stars who were at the event. Barney dated Thelma Lou throughout his tenure in Mayberry but he could occasionally be found warbling love poems on the phone to his other fling, the mostly unseen waitress named Juanita. For shame, Barney! But he always came back to Thelma Lou in the end, and finally married her in the 1986 reunion special, “Return to Mayberry.”
We were at our friend Leona’s house a few weeks ago and I was looking at some old framed pictures on her coffee table. Leona’s late husband Bob Van Scoyk was a successful writer and producer of shows such as “Columbo” and “Murder She Wrote” so there were lots of big-name celebrities in the photos. But it was only one faded photograph in a square lucite frame that caused me to start jumping up and down with excitement: “Oh my God, it’s Helen Crump!!” Andy Taylor’s girlfriend Helen, whom he later married, was played by Aneta Corsaut. Helen was also Opie’s teacher and was the kindest, most loving educator any young boy could ever hope for. I hadn’t had such a crush on a teacher since Beaver Cleaver’s Miss Landers! Leona’s photo showed a much hipper Helen Crump than I remembered. Aneta looked very mod in her hiphugger elephant bells and love beads. Sadly, Corsaut died ten years ago of cancer, but not before Andy Griffith hired her (along with Don Knotts and Betty Lynn) to appear in several episodes of his successful 1980s show “Matlock.”
Don Knotts left Mayberry after five years to pursue a movie career and his films were among my childhood favorites. I’ll never forget that spooky organ music in “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.” I remember being truly scared by that movie which also starred Joan Staley (Playboy’s Miss November 1958 and now a grandmother of 11) and the great Reta Shaw. And I think my love of the space program owes as much to Knotts’ “The Reluctant Astronaut” as it does to the actual Apollo missions. Just last month, I introduced Leah to my favorite Don Knotts film, “The Incredible Mr. Limpet.” I wanted to show her our friend Carole Cook, who plays Knotts’ wife in the film (before he turns into a fish). Carole, still one of the funniest people on the planet and appearing next weekend in her usual slot at the annual S.T.A.G.E. benefit, was actually quite mean in the film, blowing Mr. Limpet off so she could carry on with sleazy Jack Weston. Leah and I were rooting for Don Knott’s ocean-based paramour, the lovely Ladyfish, as voiced by Elizabeth MacRae. Boy, that voice sounded familiar, I thought. When we watched some of the special features on the DVD, including footage from the premiere of the film that was held in an underwater theatre in Florida (the first and last film to be projected in the ocean!), I realized why. MacRae was the actress who played Lou-Anne Poovie, the girlfriend of Mayberry’s Gomer Pyle after he left town to join the Marines and got his own show, also written by Sam Bobrick.
Though not the brightest bulb on the marine base, I had a major crush on Lou-Ann Poovie. Some thought her accent wildly offensive to Southerners but I later read that it was quite authentic. Who can forget her “Wayul, ack-shoo-ully..” or the way she pronounced her boyfriend’s name (“Gom-uh!”) Sam wrote some of Lou-Ann’s best episodes including 1967’s “Lou-Ann Poovie Sings Again.” This autographed photo that Sam sent us in the late 1960s was one of our prized possessions and was tacked to our wall for many years. I still invoke some of Gomer’s catch phrases on a regular basis even though I don’t think anyone around me knows that’s what I’m doing:
Citizens arrest! Citizen’s arrest!
I was so moved this weekend to hear that as Don Knotts was taking his last breaths, the two people at his bedside were his wife Frances and Andy Griffith. Their friendship had lasted almost fifty years and had survived the ups and downs of their respective careers with flying colors. “I loved him very much,” Griffith said after Knotts died. “We had a long and wonderful life together.”
In a way, the two of them remind me of my father and Sam. It’s hard to imagine a closer friendship. They’ve known each other since they were six, were there for each other through difficult childhoods, career struggles, poverty and success, marriage and divorce, and a variety of family joys and traumas. At our wedding last year, my dad and Sam were like a vaudeville act. Every time my dad would speak Sam would heckle him from the crowd. But rather than get upset, my dad would laugh uproariously and tell everyone what a comic genius Sam is. Like Andy Taylor and Barney Fife or Andy Griffith and Don Knotts, Peter Miller and Sam Bobrick are my role models for all that friendship can be.