Daniel de Visé an interview sent personally to David Alan Binder
Post date: Feb 8, 2016 2:34:37 PM
Daniel de Visé an interview sent personally to David Alan Binder
His website: http://www.danieldevise.com/
A conversation with Daniel de Visé, author of
ANDY [Griffith] AND DON [Knotts]
The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
DD: At first, I thought I wanted to write something about Don Knotts, who was my brother-in-law, or about Mayberry Days, the annual festival that celebrates The Andy Griffith Show. My literary agent suggested I refocus the project on Andy and Don and their friendship, and it immediately sounded like a better plan. Lots had been written already about the show, but surprisingly little about the friendship at the heart of it.
To me, this is a book about friendship – about the genesis and evolution of a very special friendship, one that played out over half a century and yielded some wonderfully creative work that millions of people could enjoy. There are different kinds of friendship. I like to call this one a Hollywood friendship. I don’t mean to say it was phony – quite the contrary. In Hollywood, you can spend hours and hours of very intense time with fellow performers over months and years, getting to know them almost better than members of your own family. That’s how it was with Andy and Don; during their years together on the Griffith Show, they spent nearly every waking hour together, sharing stories, making each other laugh, gossiping, playing music and singing.
Q: You’re in a unique position to write this book, given that Don Knotts was your brother-in-law. What resources did you have access to when researching the book?
DD: The time I spent with Don while he was alive gave me a good basic understanding of who he was and how his mind worked. I saw him at family gatherings; we traveled together to Las Vegas and Disney World. I asked him over and over about how he got started. I heard the story of the Nervous Man, how it came to him in a dream, several times. So, some of Don’s narrative was already in my head.
Certainly, the fact that I was related to Don gave me some measure of access to his friends and loved ones. It probably also helped me with people close to Andy, who could tell from the start that I had a good grasp of the two men and their friendship.
The reporting process for my two subjects was very different, and not just because I was related to one of them. Don had a small number of close friends and loved ones who knew him very well. That fact narrowed the parameters of my reporting on Don’s life. Andy, by contrast, had been the subject of literally thousands of articles in newspapers and magazines over the years. I found many old friends and classmates, but Andy didn’t seem to have a core group of two or three close friends who could retell his entire life story. Thank goodness for Dick Linke, who was a dear friend to Andy and his manager for many years, and who spoke to me several times for this book.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about how the friendship between Andy Griffith and Don Knotts began?
DD: Andy and Don met on the Broadway cast of the soon-to-be hit play No Time for Sergeants. The funny thing was, it was pretty miraculous that either one of them ended up in the cast at all. Both men desperately wanted parts; but they were pretty much unknown at the time, and no one seemed particularly interested in casting them. Andy wound up staging an impromptu performance in the casting office just to get noticed. Don showed up late for his audition and only got in the door because someone took pity on him.
By the time they sat down together at the first read-through, Andy was the star of the show and Don was a bit player. But they immediately noticed each other. Southerners weren’t that common on Broadway. Don admired Andy’s immense talent. He walked up to Andy one day, offstage, whittling on a piece of wood. But it was Andy who broke the ice, asking Don if, by any chance, he was the guy who had done the voice of Windy Wales. Windy Wales was a Gabby Hayes-styled old-timer on the early-50s Bobby Benson radio show. Windy was Don’s first big role.
Andy and Don immediately grew close. Toward the end of the 1950s, they drifted down separate paths. But the friendship was still there, and the Griffith Show brought them back together.
Q: The two men came from similar backgrounds. What about their upbringings do you think influenced their friendship?
DD: Going into the project, I knew the basics: Both Andy and Don came from the South, both grew up relatively poor and away from big cities, and both faced pretty long odds of ever becoming Hollywood stars.
The more I studied each man’s life, the more similarities I found. They were born a couple of years apart and grew up during the Depression. Neither man’s family could afford a crib; Andy’s first bed was a bureau drawer, while Don’s was a cot in the kitchen. Both families moved around, changing addresses and staying with relatives before settling into permanent homes. Both men dreamed of becoming performers from adolescence: Andy with his trombone, Don with his ventriloquist dummy. Both suffered real trauma as children; Don had a father who was mentally ill and occasionally violent, while Andy was the victim of intense bullying. Both men emerged as leaders at some point in their formative years, Don as class president in high school, Andy as a college performer and ascendant talent in the Lost Colony production on the Carolina shore. Both of them traveled to New York as young men, bombed and retreated back South before returning, older and wiser, to try again. Both were perfectionists. Andy married three times and raised two children; so did Don.
Throughout their lives, Andy and Don shared stories about growing up poor in the South, about small-town life and colorful relatives and trips to the soda fountain. While both Andy and Don eventually had managers and agents, I believe they were even closer with each other than with those men. They would go to each other to seek advice, to try out a new character or to size up a fellow performer.
Q: The book features extensive unpublished interviews with those closest to both men – who are some of the people we hear from?
DD: I was very, very fortunate to conduct my own interviews with nearly every living soul who knew Andy and Don well. The list includes their costars, Ron Howard, Jim Nabors, Betty Lynn, Elinor Donahue, and Maggie Peterson Mancuso; Don’s manager, Sherwin Bash, and Andy’s manager, Dick Linke; Don’s children, Karen and Tom Knotts, and Andy’s daughter, Dixie; Don’s former wives, Kay and Loralee, and his widow, Francey. I also spoke to many of Andy’s and Don’s professional peers, including Lee Grant, Tim Conway, Pat Harrington, Rance Howard, Ken Berry, Elaine Joyce, Claudette Nevins, Joan Staley, Lee Meriwether, Joyce DeWitt, Richard Kline, and Nancy Stafford. I spoke to Matlock producers Dean Hargrove and Joel Steiger, to Griffith Show directors Bruce Bilson and Peter Baldwin, and to surviving Griffith writer Sam Bobrick. I also spoke to a broad range of friends from every chapter of Andy’s and Don’s lives.
Some of my subjects died between interview and publication, which means that I may have recorded their final words on Andy, Don and the Griffith Show. That group includes the late Richie Ferrara, probably Don’s closest childhood friend; the late Al Checco, Don’s army buddy and frequent costar; and the late Emmett Forrest, a dear friend of Andy’s who almost single-handedly assembled the Andy Griffith Museum.
Q: Griffith and Knotts were far more complicated men than their public personas let on. What are some of the things we might be surprised to learn about their lives off-screen?
DD: Both Andy and Don were very different from their most famous characters. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s a fan of the Griffith Show. We all know that television characters aren’t replicas of the actors who portray them.
Let’s start with Don. Certainly, there are aspects of the real Don Knotts that surface in Deputy Fife. Don’s native charm comes through, loud and clear, in his television deputy; so does his prodigious gift for making other people laugh. Barney is a worrier; so, too, was Don. But real-life Don was also mature, highly intelligent, and deeply talented. Don was a ladies’ man – just like Barney, come to think of it. Don was also very serious and fiercely ambitious, traits few would ascribe to Deputy Fife. Barney was a bit of a bull in a china shop; Don, by contrast, was quite reserved. Many people I interviewed remembered Don sitting alone in the corner of a room, smiling contentedly, keeping to himself. When he spoke, Don was thoughtful, courteous and charming; but you had to draw him out.
As for Andy, no one worked harder than Andy himself at reminding people how different he was from the Mayberry sheriff. Andy could be a warm, fatherly man, just like Sheriff Taylor. But he could also be brash and wild. Andy would laugh louder than anyone else in the room. His joy, at such moments, was positively explosive; he was known to express it by punching his hand through a wall or sprinting out of a room. Andy loved to sing and play music, just like the sheriff; he also loved practical jokes. He and Don had a penchant for off-color humor that would make Deputy Fife blush. Andy had a temper; he once wrecked a Manhattan hotel room, and he had a reputation for holding seemingly endless grudges against people he felt had betrayed him. He was also deeply, endlessly loyal to those who stuck by him.
Q: Though Don Knotts won five Emmys, some might argue he was underappreciated as an actor. Do you agree?
DD: I would argue that both Andy and Don are underrated – not for their work on the Andy Griffith Show, but for their broader accomplishments as actors.
Many people consider Don one of America’s great comedic actors, sort of a missing link in the recognized lineage of great comic actors, men such as Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen. Don’s five Emmys are legend. He went on to headline a string of hit movies, some of them now recognized as cult classics. Modern-day comic actors such as Jim Carrey and Jerry Seinfeld publicly idolize Don and his work. Billy Bob Thornton, creator of Sling Blade, told me Don was his favorite actor and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken one of his favorite films.
By the same token, a whole generation of Hollywood producers and directors worship Andy for his work with Elia Kazan in the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd. Andy played “Lonesome” Rhodes, an Arkansas drifter who rises to national celebrity on radio and television and then becomes drunk on the power he has amassed. The film reaped middling reviews in its day but is now an acknowledged classic.
People may be surprised to hear that, between Andy and Don, Andy was a lot more insecure about his artistic credentials. Andy envied Don for his Emmys and for his artistic recognition on the Griffith Show. The critics rarely praised Andy’s understated performances as Sheriff Taylor during the years the show was on the air; that appreciation would come much later. When the Griffith Show ended in 1968, Andy spent the better part of two decades looking for another hit.
By the time he died, Andy was an American icon, memorialized by the president. But think about how little real recognition he got for his acting. Over the course of his career, Andy earned a single Emmy nomination, for the fine 1981 television movie Murder in Texas, but never an award. The Griffith Show never won an Emmy for best comedy, and Andy wasn’t even nominated for his work as Sheriff Taylor.
Q: You mention in the book that Andy Griffith was not pleased with the Griffith Show spin-off, Mayberry RFD. Why was that?
DD: I don’t think Andy thought Mayberry RFD was very good. But he became great friends with its star, Ken Berry, and I’m sure Andy would never blame Ken for whatever shortcomings he saw in the show. Andy was always his own worst critic, and I think he could be similarly unflinching in his appraisal of other projects!
Q: What do you think fans of The Andy Griffith Show will be most surprised to learn when reading your book?
DD: Griffith Show fans tend to be very knowledgeable about the show. Much has already been written about the program, its genesis and the comings and goings of its stars. I guess what’s less well-known is some of the drama that played out behind the scenes in the personal lives of my subjects.
I think people might be fascinated by the deliberations between Andy and Don that ended with Don leaving the Griffith Show after five years; Don offered to stay on the show, and Andy ultimately declined his offer, and the details of that negotiation are pretty gripping. Both Andy and Don had pretty busy romantic lives; both succumbed to the temptations of fame at one time or another, and you’ll read about that in the book.
I think some fans will be surprised to know that Jim Nabors’ sexual orientation was no secret to members of the cast and crew – Jim was “out,” in a sense, although his manager and co-stars certainly respected his privacy and helped him protect it.
I also think many fans have forgotten – or never knew – how little recognition the Griffith Show received when it was on the air. The program got precious little love from the critics; the reviews were mostly lukewarm, and television writers seemed genuinely surprised when it became a hit. Again: Look at the Griffith Show’s Emmy count compared with, say, Sheldon Leonard’s other timeless sit-com, The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Q: What is your favorite episode of The Andy Griffith Show, and why?
DD: I list 20 favorite episodes at the end of the book, and it’s hard to pick just one. But I think my favorite is “Man in a Hurry.” There are parts of that story that make me tear up, and other parts that make me laugh, although not quite so hard as I laugh when I watch “The Pickle Story” or “Convicts at Large.” I think “Man in a Hurry” is probably the single best 25-minute distillation of the Mayberry philosophy that you’re going to find. And what is that philosophy? Life is to be savored.
Q: There are still Mayberry Days festivals held all around the country. Why do you think the show has had such a lasting impression and legacy?
DD: I can’t think of another television program from the black-and-white era that endures quite like The Andy Griffith Show. The funny thing about Mayberry Days is that, as the years pass, we see more Mayberry festivals, rather than fewer. I am aware of at least five Mayberry gatherings, at last count. The original event in Andy’s home town of Mount Airy, North Carolina, is surely the oldest and biggest; but now we see similar gatherings in Danville, Indiana, Westminster, South Carolina, and both Lebanon and Vine Grove, Kentucky. And some of those celebrations are relatively new. The Mayberry universe continues to expand.
Why does this program, which debuted 55 years ago this October, remain so popular? Certainly, the Griffith Show is great television. But the same could be said for Dick Van Dyke, The Honeymooners and several other shows that offered uniformly great writing and acting. There seems to be more at work.
I think there’s something timeless about the Griffith Show. Andy, Don and the other creative minds of Mayberry set out to make a program that reached back into America’s small-town past. They purposefully avoided assigning a particular date to Mayberry. The program presumably takes place in the present; yet, the town’s inhabitants seem to be living in the John Steinbeck era. They drive backdated cars, place telephone calls through a human operator, and spend little or no time watching television or riding on airplanes. It was widely understood on the Mayberry set that Andy and company were revisiting the South of Andy’s youth, a small town of the 1930s or 1940s. I think that very temporal uncertainty is what renders Mayberry timeless. The town always looked old, but it somehow never seemed dated – not then, and not now.
END OF INTERVIEW
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