By now, I'm sure that you've already heard that Don Knotts passed away this past Friday night. The sitcom legend -- who'd been quite ill for a number of years now -- died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills from pulmonary and respiratory complications.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved
If you look around the Web today, I'm sure that you'll discover dozens of well-written tributes to Don. Some that talk fondly about Knotts' Emmy-award winning work on "The Andy Griffith Show" while still other praise his hilarious performance as Ralph Furley in "Three's Company."
Me? I'd like to do something different. I'd like to talk about Don's work for Walt Disney Productions. In particular that series of family comedies that Knotts made for the studio back in the 1970s.
Now you have to understand that -- back in the 1960s & 1970s -- there used to be this saying about Walt Disney Studios. That "Disney either gets you on the way up or on the way down." Meaning that performers typically started out their careers by making movies for the Mouse (EX: Julie Andrews & Kurt Russell) or finished out their careers by appearing in pictures for Disney (EX: Ed Wynn & Charlie Ruggles).
It's also important to remember that -- when Don left "The Andy Griffith Show" in 1965 -- it was because Knotts was supposed to go off and have this great film career. Well, that never quite happened.
Oh, sure. Don made several very pleasant comedies for Universal Studios (Among them 1966's "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" and 1968's "The Shakiest Gun in the West"). But these pictures never quite won over audiences the way that Knotts' work as Barney Fife did.
Which is why -- in an effort to ignite his then-fading career -- Don returned to television in 1970, appearing in a comedy-variety show on NBC. Sadly, "The Don Knotts Show" only lasted a single season. And as a direct result of this TV show's cancellation, Knotts was thought to be a has-been.
As the years went by, there were fewer & fewer offers of TV & movie work. The phone eventually stopped ringing. Which is why Don was then forced to go out on the road and start performing on stage in order to bring in some desperately-needed cash.
Which is why -- when Knotts' agent called him one day in 1974 (while Don was appearing in a play in Kansas City) and said: "Disney wants you for this comic western that they're going to start shooting soon. Should I say 'Yes'?" ... Don immediately interrupted his agent and said "Yes! I'll take the job!"
At this point in his career, it had been more than three years since Knotts had last appeared before a motion picture camera (1971's "How to Frame a Figg") And given that Knotts was well aware of that old Hollywood saying (I.E. "Disney either gets you on the way up or on the way down") ... It must have been somewhat depressing for Don to have to report to work on "The Apple Dumpling Gang." To have to settle for just a supporting role in this family comedy.
Well, lucky for Knotts, Disney had teamed him with Tim Conway on that picture. Even luckier for Don was the fact that "The Apple Dumpling Gang" was being directed by Norman Tokar.
Now -- for those of you who don't know who Norman Tokar was: Norman was this guy who had started out his career in television, directing literally dozens of episodes of "Leave it to Beaver." And the success of that TV series eventually lead to a job offer from Walt Disney Productions. Where -- over the next 10 years -- Tokar helmed more than a dozen films for the Mouse House. Among them "The Ugly Dachshund," "Follow Me, Boys," "The Happiest Millionaire" and "The Boatniks."
So -- by 1974 -- Norman was a total pro when it came to working within the Disney Studio system. He was a consistant performer. Continually delivering the best possible picture on a tight production schedule and an even tighter budget. But when Tokar got Conway & Knotts in front of a camera and saw how well these two sitcom stars worked together, he realized that he had something really special here.
So when Tim & Don needed some extra time in order to work out a particular piece of slapstick for this picture, Norman found a way to make it happen. Even getting Conway & Knotts an extra week of rehearsal time (Not to mention an extra week of pay!) just so that they could then carefully choreograph this elaborate comic routine where the two dim-witted would-be bank robbers try to quietly sneak an extension ladder out of a firehouse.
"A lot of the credit for that film's success really has to go to Norman Tokar," Don said in an interview a few years back. "He would let Tim & I do whatever we thought was funny. He'd make you work hard, though. Norman would make you do things over and over and over again. But -- in the end -- he'd get the good stuff out of you."
Norman did get a lot of good stuff out of Conway & Knotts on "The Apple Dumpling Gang." Though not every gag on that picture went quite according to plan. There was that time that Don's shirt and hat accidentally caught fire. Which resulted in Knotts being knocked to the ground & quickly rolled around until the flames (From a gasoline-soaked rag that was sticking out of his back pocket) were finally extinguished.
Anyway ... The end result was that Tim & Don effectively stole "The Apple Dumpling Gang" out from under the film's stars, Bill Bixby and Susan Clark. And given that this Norman Tokar movie was one of the surprise hits of the Summer of 1975 (Grossing $36.8 million during its initial domestic run. Which was a huge sum for Walt Disney Productions back in the 1970s), Knotts suddenly had a film career again.
But Don ... He was a very loyal guy. Not to mention being incredibly grateful to the folks at Disney for helping to revive his career. So -- though other studios came a-calling in the 1970s -- Knotts chose to stick with the Mouse. Making another five films for the studio -- 1976's "Gus" & "No Deposit, No Return" (In which Don co-starred with Darren McGavin, who also sadly passed away this past weekend), 1977's "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo," 1978's "Hot Lead and Cold Feet" as well as a sequel to his 1979's "The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again."
Now, admittedly, no one would ever think of these six Disney / Don Knotts movies as cinematic masterpieces. They were just like all of the other live action family comedies that Walt Disney Productions churned out during this period. Basically bland and fairly formulaic.
Well, that didn't matter to Don. All that Knotts knew was that -- as a direct result of appearing in all of these pictures for Disney -- his career was brought from the brink. Which is why -- throughout the remainder of his career -- Don remained quite fond of those films.
"Of all the movies that I made for Disney, 'The Apple Dumpling Gang' was my favorite," Knotts once told a reporter. "Working on that picture was the most fun I ever had. Working with Tim was just terrific. He was obviously the funniest one in that film"
Speaking of Conway ... One of the other things that Don got out of his days at Disney was his on-going personal & professional relationship with Tim. While working on the three films that they did together for Walt Disney Productions (I.E. "The Apple Dumpling Gang," "Gus" and "The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again"), these two sitcom stars got to be good, close friends.
And after their contract with the Mouse House was up, Knotts & Conway then went on to make two other family-friendly comedies for TriStar Studios: 1979's "The Prize Fighter" and "The Private Eyes." Then -- during the 1990s -- Don & Tim would also occasionally go out on the road and do personal appearances together.
Anywho ... Over the next 25 years, Knotts remained loyal to Disney. So when the folks at Disney Television Animation called and asked Don to do the voice of a dogcatcher on "101 Dalmatians: The Animated Series," he happily agreed.
Speaking of dogcatchers ... How many of you remember that dogcatcher character from "Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure"? The one that was so obviously patterned after Don's performance as Barney Fife? Even though voice veteran Jeff Bennett did this incredible impression of Knotts' most famous character, one has to wonder why Disney didn't just go out & hire the real thing?
Speaking of things Disney should have hired Don Knotts for, let me confirm one famous film myth for you: Rob Minkoff and Don Hahn really did want to hire Don to play the frightened caretaker in Disney's "The Haunted Mansion." Unfortunately, before Minkoff & Hahn could actually close the deal with Knotts' people, that particular scene got cut out of the picture. So Don then lost out on the chance to play the role that he was born to play.
Of course, this was about this time that Knotts' health really began to fade. But that didn't stop the folks at Disney Feature Animation from recruiting Don to play one final role for the studio. Mark Dindal (Who had previously used Knotts for the voice of T.W. Turtle in his 1997 animated feature, "Cats Don't Dance") insisted that only Don was the only vocal performer who'd be right for Mayor Turkey Lurkey in "Chicken Little."
So Disney once again reached to Knotts' people. And happily -- this time around -- a deal could actually be struck. Which is why Don then came in for three or four sessions in 2004 & 2005 in order to record dialogue for this particuar animated picture.
(L to R) Mark Dindal, Randy Fullmer & Don KnottsCopyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved
"We were very lucky to have Don Knotts on board as the voice of Turkey Lurkey," said Randy Fullmer, "Chicken Little" 's producer. "He's played so many characters that seemed befuddled, a little nervous, and emotionally distraught. He was a natural for this part."
With *** Zondag doing a truly wonderful job with the animation for this character, Mayor Turkey Lurkey became one of the comic highlights of "Chicken Little." Which is why that it's sort of fitting that this character was the very last thing that Knotts did for Disney. Turkey Lurkey was really the perfect capper for Don's decades-long career at the Mouse House.
Yes -- all in all -- Don Knotts spent over 30 years being closely associated with the Walt Disney Company. And based on what I've been able to learn while working on this tribute this past weekend, Mr. Knotts was extremely proud of that association.
Of course, maybe this was because -- at a time with Don really thought that his career was over (I.E. "Disney either gets you on the way up or on the way down") -- it was the staff at Disney Studios that actually helped turn things around, that got Knotts' career back on track. Which was something that Don reportedly remained forever grateful for.
Anywho ... That's the story of Don Knotts' association with the Walt Disney Company. Which (I'm hoping) will give you a somewhat different perspective on Mr. Knotts' career than some of the other tributes that you'll find out there on the Web today.
The entire JHM family wishes to extend its sincerest condolences to the friends & family of Don Knotts during their time of sorrow.