On behalf of all of The Andy Griffith Show fans, I’d like to thank Daniel de Visé for writing Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show. It’s extremely well-researched and includes 35 great photographs. Not a surprise given all the awards (including a Pulitzer) de Visé has earned. His investigative reporting twice led to the release of wrongly convicted men from life terms in prison. It might seem odd that a journalist of his stature would write a comprehensive book about a pop culture TV show. Not when you learn that he was the brother-in-law of Don Knotts, the actor who played Deputy Barney Fife, by way of his wife’s sister, Francey, the third and final Mrs. Knotts. And why not? TAGS wasn’t just any TV show. It ran from 1960-1968 and has never stopped airing. According to de Visé it is: watched by a fan club with more than one thousand chapters and celebrated in an annual festival that draws nearly thirty thousand fans to a real-life Mayberry….try to find a Honeymooner’s convention. WARNING: After watching deVise peel back the layers on the two men most responsible for the success of the show you’ll be binge-watching it in no time.
Q: I loved TAGS growing up. I was about the age of Opie and had a crush on him. I became hooked on it again when I moved from New York City to North Carolina to care for my mother at the end of her life. It ran on the CBS affiliate between the five and six p.m. newscasts! What was your familiarity with the show before you began writing the book, and of the Twenty Great Episodes you list at the back, do you have a favorite?
A: I’m so glad you liked the book, Jo, and thank you for writing about it. I grew up with The Andy Griffith Show, and while I’m not absolutely certain of this, I’m pretty sure I watched it on WGN, Channel 9 in Chicago, the superstation-to-be and broadcaster of Cubs games. The show was part of my regular slate of after-school and summer-afternoon viewing, and it was one of my favorites, along with The Brady Bunch, The Monkees and a few others. I was born too late to see it when it first aired, but the show wasn’t all that old when I caught up with it – – although it seemed old, and I probably wasn’t quite sure just how old. It’s amusing to think that the Griffith Show was actually on at the same time as the Monkees, which seemed like a much more contemporary show to me, and it was only a few years ahead of the inimitable Brady Bunch. I don’t recall having a favorite episode as a child, although when I sat down to watch the classic stories for this book, all of them rang familiar. If I had to pick one, I’d probably choose “Man in a Hurry,” which strikes me as the story that most powerfully expresses a really central theme of the show, which is that life is to be savored.
Q: When I visited the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with “Mama Jo” (located in Andy Griffith’s hometown), I learned it was where the conjoined twins Chang and Eng settled and raised twenty-one children between the two of them. They died way before Griffith’s time (1874), but their story is unforgettable and I found myself wondering how their extraordinary legacy may have affected the locals and Andy Griffith. Sheriff Taylor bestows an enormous amount of compassion on the quirky residents of Mayberry, and there were many, unlike any show I can think of at that time. Your thoughts?
A: When I think of the characters that surrounded Andy, I regard most of them as lovable, flawed individuals: They might have slightly off-kilter personalities, and they might not come from traditional nuclear families, and they might seem awfully naïve and sheltered and oblivious to Mayberry’s place in the big, wide world, and they might harbor any number of minor hang-ups and neuroses that a psychiatrist would probably love to explore, were a psychiatrist to set up shop in Mayberry. . . . And then you have Andy, the one citizen of Mayberry who has it all together. He might not have the most successful romantic life, at least in the early seasons, but he is clearly an intelligent, mature, worldly, well-adjusted man, someone who can function beautifully within the provincial cocoon of Mayberry but who can also hold his own among all the savvy outsiders who parade through town, all the businessmen and lawyers and politicians who roll in, quite possibly thinking they can put one over on the small-town sheriff. Because Andy is all these things, and his neighbors are not, Andy serves as their ambassador to the outside world, protecting Barney and Otis and Floyd and Bee from harm, saving them from themselves.
Q: Andy Griffith, Mayberry, and its colorful inhabitants are the cornerstones of an $80 million tourist industry in the Mount Airy area. Yet Griffith wasn’t a fan of the town and distanced himself from it — until the Barney Fife statue was to be erected there in 2006 after Knotts’s death (six years before Griffith died). Can you talk about why he held back his affection for the town? Also, what was the statue brouhaha about and how it was resolved?
A: Andy had – – to put it delicately – – mixed feelings about his home town that endured for many years. As a boy in working-class Mount Airy, Andy fell victim to frequent bullying: He was an only child, clean-scrubbed, well-dressed and pampered, dwelling among other boys who had none of those advantages, children from large families who seldom got square meals or new clothes. They gave Andy a hard time. Later in life, when he began to circulate among wealthier children from the more affluent part of town, they gave him a hard time. It must have seemed to Andy, in his youth, that everyone gave him a hard time. I don’t think he felt that too many people were willing to give him a break. When he finally got a break, when he became a successful entertainer and reaped a hit single and went to appear on Broadway, I don’t think he was all that eager to share his success with the folks back home.
Decades passed, and Andy forgave his home town and even came to embrace his exalted status in Mount Airy. And so it was that, when Don died in 2006, Andy found himself reluctant to allow Don’s admirers to erect a statue of him in Mount Airy. I think that by then, Andy actually savored his stature as hometown hero, and I don’t think he wanted to share that stage with anyone else. He extinguished the campaign and urged proponents of the statue to decamp to Don’s home town of Morgantown, West Virginia. And that’s exactly what happened: A statue of Don is now planned for Morgantown.
Q: It’s been pointed out that no one on TAGS was married — except for Otis and he stayed drunk. I don’t recall any talk about Andy’s deceased wife. It’s another unusual aspect to the show. Wasn’t the original concept to have Andy get married and start another family? All attempts to bring a serious female relationship into Andy’s life sputtered out. Why do you think that was the case? (If Barbara Eden playing a manicurist for one episode couldn’t spark something with Andy, no one could.)
A: Yes, I do believe the original plan was for Andy to have a love interest, and she arrived in the form of Elinor Donohue, a well-known actress who had starred in the successful sit-com Father Knows Best. For a brief time, Elinor’s name even appeared ahead of Don’s in the credits, and she was clearly meant to join the cast as Andy’s eventual girlfriend and/or wife. Unfortunately, the pairing just didn’t pan out. There was no chemistry between Andy and Ellie, and she found herself getting fewer and fewer lines as the first season wore on. She finally asked out of her contract at the end of the season. There followed a procession of would-be girlfriends, and none of them worked out. Andy just didn’t look comfortable acting in romantic pairings. Then, in Season Three, Aneta Corsaut was cast as schoolteacher Helen Crump and the producers finally found the chemistry they were looking for – – both on screen and off, as it turned out.
Q: You certainly drew back the curtain on Andy Griffith’s far-from-perfect twenty-two year marriage. Also his rages, insecurities, philandering, and grudges. It’s interesting that the one woman on the show he was deeply involved with off-screen — Aneta Corsaut who played Helen Crump — fought with him on the first day on the job, something no one else would dare to do (and shades of my favorite episode, “The Perfect Female”). Griffith wanted to marry her but she never wanted to get married to anyone, and never did. Very progressive for the time. Or very Mayberry. Was anyone on the show happily married in real life? [Click here for Drew Friedman’s investigation of pin-up shots reported to be Bavier.]
A: I don’t know too much about the private lives of the various Mayberry players, apart from Andy and Don. I know that Don’s own marriage to college sweetheart Kay was on the rocks by that time. I believe Frances Bavier had once been married, but she was, I believe, single during those years. I’m pretty sure that the actors who played Otis and Floyd were happily married, and that Thelma Lou was happily single.
Q: Though Don Knotts wasn’t as hyper as Barney Fife, I wasn’t surprised he suffered from insomnia and was extremely insecure and a hypochondriac. Being quite the Romeo did surprise me. You said he suffered years of abuse in his youth from men (his likely schizophrenic father was one of them) and preferred the company of women. Griffith was one of his few male friends. Knotts wanted to be loved and mothered and women love to do that.
A: It’s important to remember that Don Knotts was, among other things, a big Hollywood star. He had a marvelous personality; he could make you laugh, but he also came across as a genuinely caring person, and he was very intelligent and loved to go out to fine restaurants and clubs. What wasn’t to like? He had very close relationships with many of his co-stars, some of whom described him rather like a charming drinking buddy and confidante. And it can’t have hurt that anyone dating him gained entry to any number of lavish Hollywood parties, and they probably had to compete with Don for the attention of the other party-goers!
Q: What was your reaction when you found out your wife’s sister was dating Don Knotts? There was almost forty years difference in their age.
A: I started dating Sophie (my wife) in 1987, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know her older sister was dating Don. I was surprised, sure, but that was mostly because he was a huge star, and I guess the whole thing made sense once you considered that Sophie’s family had moved to Hollywood and that Francey was working in the Industry. I first saw them together at Disney World, and they clearly adored each other. Francey was always an old soul, and Don was quite childlike in many ways, and maybe you’d have to see them together to understand this, but it didn’t feel to me like there was any generational difference at all.
Q: I’m curious as to how she handled being married to an icon — and one I’m sure women loved whether he was married or not. Did she develop a technique for gracefully handling overzealous fans?
A: No one I’ve ever met has better people skills than Francey. Don would be mobbed everywhere he went, and he would never turn a fan away, so it always fell to Francey and others around him to do the “dirty work.” I think that in those situations Francey would be polite but firm, gently prodding Don toward the exits and explaining to fans that the poor man did eventually have to eat and sleep. Having said this, I should note that I’ve never met anyone who has anything but the warmest memories of Francey; she is truly a delightful person. As for Don and his fans, one of the most confounding problems he faced was all the bullets: Lawmen would give Don bullets by the drawer-full, and he never knew what to do with them. How do you dispose of a bullet?
Q: I didn’t know that in 1960, Griffith and his manager Dick Linke borrowed several hundred thousand dollars in order to be fifty-fifty partners on the show with Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard. A huge risk considering most TV shows didn’t make it. (Later, they owned even more of it.) Don Knotts never had any stake in it, though he was paid well. When Knotts talked to Griffith about becoming a partner in the show, given the depth of their friendship, he considered it bad form to talk about this through their managers. Tell us what resulted from that meeting and what came to light about it four decades later.
A: Don was all set to leave the Griffith Show after season five, because Andy had been planning on a five-year run. Then, the network offered a million dollars, and Andy decided to stay. Don approached Andy privately and said he’d stay, but only if he could have an ownership stake in the series. Apparently Andy balked at Don’s offer, because he assumed (for some reason) that Don wanted half of Andy’s stake, and Andy didn’t want to give it up. Don actually sought a smaller share, something commensurate with his stature in the ensemble. But these weren’t professional negotiators, and they were probably too embarrassed about the whole subject to have a proper negotiation. So, Don left the show, and Andy recounted the secret meeting to Don’s manager four decades later, after Don’s death.
Q: You pointedly left yourself out of the narrative of the book. Was it limiting or freeing?
A: I omitted myself from the book because there is no part of the Andy-Don friendship that concerns me. My focus on every page was the friendship, and anyone who didn’t play some role in that friendship got cut. Including me.
Q: There was no show like TAGS; no comedic duo like Griffith and Knotts; no friendship like Andy and Don’s. I’ve only skimmed the surface of what you brought to light. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Please tell us what you’re working on now.
A: I’m happy to say that I’ve sold my next book to Grove Atlantic, a publisher I deeply admire. The book will concern the golden era of professional cycling, the era that yielded the charming film Breaking Away. They say, ‘Write what you know.’ I grew up as the son of a cycling-mad Belgian, in a house filled with bicycles and bicycle parts, heading out to watch bicycle races every week. Thank you for asking some great questions!