Honoring National West Virginia Day with Don Knotts

As we continue with our National State Day Celebrations, this week finds us in West Virginia. Who else can we pick but Don Knotts?

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Born in 1924 in Morgantown, WV, Don Knotts was the youngest of four boys. Don had a rough youth. His parents were farmers and his mother was 40 when he was born. His father suffered from mental illness, and Don’s birth led to a nervous breakdown. His father died when he was 13 and his mother made her living running a boarding house after that. At an early age, Don began performing as a ventriloquist and comedian at church and school functions.

After graduation, Knotts began college but then enlisted in the army, serving during WWII from 1943-1946. He toured the Pacific Islands entertaining the GIs as a comedian. In 1948 he graduated from West Virginia University with a major in education, a member of the honor society.

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Before graduating, Knotts married Kathryn Metz. They would remain married until 1964 when they divorced. After college, the couple moved to New York to pursue a career in the entertainment industry.

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Steve Allen, Knotts, and Louis Nye–Photo: ebay.com

Believe it or not, his first role was in the soap opera Search for Tomorrow, and he would become part of the cast from 1953-1955. In 1956, he got his big break on the Steve Allen Show, playing a nervous man. He stayed with the show until 1959. The Tonight Show relocated to Hollywood with Jack Paar as host in 1959, and Don went with him. However, during his time on the show, he had a role in the play “No Time for Sergeants” and then in the film version with Andy Griffith.

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In 1960 Andy Griffith was putting together his own sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show, and he offered Knotts the role of Barney Fife, deputy. During his time as Barney, Knotts received five Emmy awards (three during his first five years).

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The Museum of Broadcast Communications sums up Barney’s character perfectly:

“Self-important, romantic, and nearly always wrong, Barney dreamed of the day he could use the one bullet Andy had issued to him, though he did fire his gun on a few occasions. He always fired his pistol accidentally while still in his holster or in the ceiling of the court house, at which point he would sadly hand his pistol to Andy. This is why Barney kept his one very shiny bullet in his shirt pocket. In episode #196, Andy gave Barney more bullets so that he would have a loaded gun to go after a bad guy that Barney unintentionally helped escape. While Barney was forever frustrated that Mayberry was too small for the delusional ideas that he had of himself, viewers got the sense that he couldn’t have survived anywhere else. Don Knotts played the comic and pathetic sides of the character with equal aplomb.”

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Mayberry Family: Knotts, Ron Howard, Griffith, Frances Bauvier–
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Originally, Don was supposed to be the straight man to Andy’s character, but Griffith quickly realized the reverse would make the show more successful. Andy always said he wanted to be done after five years. During that fifth year, Knotts began to search for his next job. He signed a five-film contract with Universal Studios. Then, Andy decided not to quit after season five, but since Knotts was already committed, he left the show in 1965.

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From everything I’ve read, it seems like the cast of TAGS got along very well. Although Frances Bavier seemed to take things more personally than others, the actors seemed to enjoy working together. Betty Lynn who played Barney’s girlfriend Thelma Lou described Knotts as “a very quiet man. Very sweet. Nothing like Barney Fife.” Mark Evanier, a television writer, called him “the most beloved person in all of show business.”

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Knotts family-viewable films were very popular including It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; The Incredible Mr. Limpet; The Ghost and Mr. Chicken; The Reluctant Astronaut; The Shakiest Gun in the West; The Love God?; and How to Frame a Figg.

One of my favorite roles of Don’s was as the shoe salesman in the Doris Day-James Garner movie, Move Over Darling.

He also returned to Mayberry for several episodes. (Two of his Emmys came from these guest spots.)

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Doris Day and Knotts–
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Knotts also kept busy on other television shows including appearances on The Bill Cosby Show, Here’s Lucy, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Newhart, and That Seventies Show.

Also, during these years, Knotts tried marriage again wedding Loralee Czuchna in 1974. The couple called it quits in 1983.

He received his second starring role in 1979 as Mr. Furley on Three’s Company. Knotts replaced Stanley and Helen Roper (Norman Fell and Audra Lindley) who left for their own spin-off show.

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Suzanne Somers and Knotts–
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He became the new landlord for the trio upstairs. He would stay with the show until it ended in 1984, racking up 115 episodes. I will admit that I did not enjoy the show, and I felt Knott’s performance was over the top and too stereotyped; I felt that way about the other characters also.

Don and Andy remained close friends throughout their lives. When Andy returned to television as Matlock, Knotts also received a role on the show as Les Calhoun, Matlock’s neighbor from 1988-1992.

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Knotts and Griffith in later years–
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Don suffered from macular degeneration, and eventually it caused him to become virtually blind. In 2002 Don married a third time when Frances Yarborough became his wife.

Knotts died in 2006 from pulmonary and respiratory complications from pneumonia related to lung cancer.

Off screen, Knotts seemed to be a very funny guy. His daughter Karen said, “Here’s the thing about my dad. He had this funniness that was just completely, insanely natural.”

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He told his daughter his high school years were some of his happiest. His home town loved him too, and a statue honoring him was unveiled in 2006 in front of the Metropolitan Theatre. The statue was designed by local artist Jamie Lester, another West Virginia native.

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Don Knotts had a spectacular career. As a young man, he got a job in a chicken factory and spent his days pulling feathers off dead chickens because he was told he had no future in the acting profession. It would have been hard for him to imagine at the time the legacy of performances he would leave—television shows and movies that generations of fans would watch. More than sixty years after Barney Fife put that bullet in his pocket for the first time, viewers continue to watch and love the Mayberry residents as they go about life in their small town. And the fact that the place where he first learned about life cared enough to fundraise and build a memorial to honor him says a lot. Thank you Don Knotts for showing us the importance of humor and following your dreams!


ALF: Amusing, Ludicrous, and Funny

April does begin with April Fool’s Day, so this month we take a look at a few shows I call oddly wonderful. Some of them may be odd, some wonderful and some oddly wonderful. You get to decide. These are shows that were very different but popular hits.

In 1963, My Favorite Martian came to earth to live with a news reporter, Tim O’Hara. In 1978, Mork landed on earth from Ork and lived with Mindy. In 1986, ALF, aka Gordon Shumway, crashed into the Tanners’ garage and moved in with the family. In all three series, the extraterrestrial tries to adapt to earthly ways and causes a lot of complications for the people he lives with.

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ALF aired in September of 1986 on NBC. Producer Bernie Brillstein was asked to catch Paul Fusco’s show with his puppet character. Brillstein had managed Jim Henson, so he knew something about this type of comedy. He thought ALF was hilarious and could be the center of a new sitcom. The company was Alien Productions; Fusco became a co-producer and Tom Patchett helped create the series, wrote the scripts, and directed the episodes. ALF produced 99 episodes (in syndication, it was 102 since there were three one-hour episodes during its time on the air).

ALF was one of the first sitcoms to use Dolby surround sound. The show was one of the most expensive sitcoms to produce because of the technical elements surrounding the puppet and the long tapings that developed. To try to help out with the expenses, ALF was licensed for a variety of toys, foods, and other types of merchandise. One fun fact is that every episode was the name of a song. Some of the shows were named, “Hungry Like the Wolf”, “Stayin’ Alive”, and “Gotta Be Me.”

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ALF (alien life form) was a sarcastic, sometimes overbearing, character from Melmac. The Tanners take him in to protect him after he crashes into their garage. Willie Tanner (Max Wright) is married to Kate (Anne Schedeen) and they had two children, Lynn (Andrea Elson) and Brian (Benji Gregory). The plan is for ALF to repair his spaceship and then leave. Later ALF learns that his planet was destroyed by nuclear war. Eventually he becomes part of the family as he develops affection for them and vice versa.

Of course, ALF causes no end of trouble for the Tanners. In one episode, Brian is building a model of the solar system as we know it. ALF reveals to him that there are two planets past Pluto which Brian includes and then gets in trouble for.

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Like Mork, as ALF becomes closer to the family, he is exposed to several of their friends and family. He is friends with Willie’s brother Neal (Jim Bullock), gets to know a psychologist Larry (Bill Daily), has a love-hate relationship with Kate’s mom, Dorothy (Anne Meara), and builds a relationship with a blind woman, Jody (Andrea Covell), who never realizes that ALF is not human.

ALF meant well and often was trying to help someone else when he caused many of his problems.

When Anne Schedeen became pregnant in real life, a baby was written into the show named Eric. ALF temporarily lives in the laundry room but eventually he and Willie convert the attic into a small apartment.

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ALF often talks about eating cats. On Melmac, cats are raised for food. However, he bonds with the Tanners’ cat Lucky and, when Lucky dies, he becomes very sad. He has one heart that is located in his right ear, and he has eight stomachs. ALF claims he came from a large family, his best friend growing up was Malhar Naik, his girlfriend was Rhonda, he attended high school for 122 years, and was captain of his bouillabaisseball team. The sport was played on ice but used fish parts as bats and balls, requiring nose plugs on warm days. Melmac apparently had blue grass, a green sky, and a purple sun.

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Despite the funny scripts and fond remembrances viewers had, it was a difficult show to work on. The human actors had trouble playing second fiddle to a puppet, and there were a lot of complications trying to film with ALF. The set was on high tension alert all the time. When the final scene was filmed, Max Wright, who had the hardest time adjusting to working with ALF, walked off the set and left without saying good-bye to anyone. Schedeen said “There was no joy on that set . . . it was a technical nightmare—extremely slow, hot and tedious.” A thirty-minute show could take 20-25 hours to shoot. Schedeen said she was fond of her screen children, but some adults on the show had difficult personalities. Later in life, Wright said he found out the show brought a lot of enjoyment to people and felt better about his time portraying Willie.

One of the issues was that the set was built on a four-foot platform with trap doors all over so ALF could appear anywhere. He was operated from underneath the set and the doors and holes could be treacherous. To avoid wear and tear on the real puppet, a stand-in was used to rehearse named RALF (rehearsal alien life form).

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Luckily, none of all the problems behind the scenes leaked out to the public. The show was popular in season one. In season two, it reached number five. It continued to hold its own in season three, with tenth place. However, season four saw a sharp decline and the show came in at 39th. In March of 1990, NBC moved the show from Monday to Saturday, but the ratings continued to decline.

The show had one of the most interesting endings in sitcom history. The production team hoped by having a cliffhanger at the end of season four, they could convince the network to bring it back for a fifth season, but it did not work that way. The Tanners take ALF to a field where an aircraft is going to reclaim him. Suddenly he’s circled by a group of military automatons. No one knew if he would be taken to Area 51 or escape. Viewers were left wondering what happened to ALF. NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff later admitted to Fusco they had cancelled the show prematurely.

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Six years later, ABC aired a movie, Project: ALF. None of the original cast was in the film. The movie was not well received.

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However, the movie was not the end of ALF. The character has had more lives than all the cats he ever ate combined. Marvel Comics developed a series of books in 1987 which ran for four years with 50 issues. An animated cartoon that aired Saturday mornings which was a prequel to the show also ran for a couple of years.

One of the most unexpected outcomes of the show and, in my opinion, one of the funniest, was ALF’s talk show which aired on TV Land. ALF was a talk show host with none other than Ed McMahon as his sidekick. It was on for only seven episodes but featured guests like Drew Carey and Merv Griffin.

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Believe it or not, it didn’t end there. In 1987 while the show was still on the air, ALF appeared on an episode of Matlock. He was in an episode of Blossom when he denies her entrance to heaven in a dream. He was the only extra terrestrial to appear on The Love Boat: The Next Wave. He was a regular on Hollywood Squares. In addition to a bunch of other shows, he appeared on Good Morning America in 2011, on The Simpsons several times, twice on Family Guy, once in Young Sheldon, and a stuffed animal ALF was in a Big Bang Theory show. The guys buy a box at a garage sale after following someone they think could be Adam West. One of the items in the box is the ALF doll.

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In addition to shows, ALF appeared in a variety of commercials including telephones, Delta Airlines, Super Bowl XLV, and Radio Shack.

If all that is not enough, in August of 2018, Variety reported that there was a possible ALF reboot coming from Warner Brothers. One of the rumored ideas is that ALF would emerge from Area 51 into a world that has drastically changed, somewhat like Austin Powers, I guess.

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I’m not sure that it would be a good idea to bring ALF back. The original is a classic and extremely funny if you aren’t aware of all the background tension. I think we’ll let the show speak for itself. Here is a typical example of the conversations that Willie and ALF had around the breakfast table.

Willie: You can’t vote, ALF, you’re not a citizen.

ALF: I’ll apply for a green card.

Willie: That’s only if you want a job.

ALF: Pass. (After a pause) I know, I’ll marry Lynn, become a citizen, and then drop her like a hot potato.

Willie: ALF . . .

ALF: Sure, it will be hard on her at first. She’ll cry, drink a little too much, join up with a bongo player named Waquine.

Willie: ALF

ALF: You’d like Waquine, he doesn’t like beets.

Willie: Neither you nor Waquine may marry my daughter and you may not vote.

ALF: Fine, I won’t have a voice in government. Waquine will get deported, and they’ll make him eat beets.

Willie: How many cups of coffee have you had today?

ALF: Forty. Why?

Sheldon Leonard: A True TV Pioneer

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The Depression changed the course of Sheldon Leonard’s life. He was born in Manhattan to Jewish parents. He went to Syracuse University on an athletic scholarship. While there, he was president of the dramatics club. His degree was in finance, and he landed a job at a prestigious brokerage firm. Then the Depression hit, and he was out of a job. He had to fall back on the only other skill he could think of which was acting.

In 1931 he married Frances Bober whom he was married until his death. They would have two children.

Acting was not quick money either though. It took five years until he landed his first major Broadway role in Hotel Alimony in 1934. It did not have a long run, but his next two shows were more successful: Having a Wonderful Time in 1937 and Kiss the Boys Goodbye in 1938.

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He then entered film work. He had several very small roles in a couple of movies and a couple of shorts, but in 1939 he was cast in Another Thin Man, the popular movie series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. That began his career as a heavy, often being cast as a gangster. He would appear in To Have and Have Not with Bogie and Bacall in 1944. In 1946 he was cast as the bartender in It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Because it has become a Christmas staple, it has brought Sheldon a lot of recognition. Sheldon would appear in 74 movies during his career, 69 of them by 1952.

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During this time, he also gave radio a try. He was working on both sides of the mic. He sold scripts to several shows including Broadway is My Beat. He also portrayed his stereotyped gangster role on many shows including as Grogan on The Phil Harris, Alice Faye Show. You could hear him on Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, Duffy’s Tavern, the Halls of Ivy, and The Judy Canova Show, among others.

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It was only a matter of time before Sheldon took his talents to television. He appeared in four episodes of Your Jeweler’s Showcase in 1952. In addition, he was listed as producer and director for several of these episodes. He appeared in I Love Lucy in 1953 as vacuum salesman Harry Martin and several I Married Joan episodes in 1952-53. One of my favorites was his role as Johnny Velvet on Burns and Allen when he kidnaps Gracie but takes her back because she drives him crazy. In 1954 he co-starred in The Duke which lasted 13 episodes.  This show featured an artistic boxer who leaves the ring to open a nightclub. Sheldon also directed the pilot as well as some early episodes of Lassie and The Real McCoys.

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However, the show that made him a household name was his director/producer role on Make Room for Daddy, Danny Thomas’s hit sitcom. The show was in the top ten, and Sheldon even found time to appear on the show 19 times. The show continued from 1953-1964. Leonard had found his sweet spot. During his career, he would direct and produce shows such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle USMC, and I Spy.

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Sheldon convinced Carl Reiner to step back from acting as Rob Petrie and produce The Dick Van Dyke Show. That conversation resulted in Dick Van Dyke accepting the role, leading to 158 episodes. If you watch carefully, you will notice Sheldon appearing twice on the show in minor roles. The show was nominated for 25 Emmys and won 15.

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Sheldon also is credited with creating the spinoff. One of Danny Thomas’s episodes was set in North Carolina where he gets picked up for speeding in a rural town and has a run-in with Sheriff Andy Taylor. This episode turned into the long-running The Andy Griffith Show which was on the air from 1960-1968 netting 249 episodes. The show won 6 of the 9 Emmys it was nominated for.

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The spinoff was so successful he did it again, moving Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle from the gas station attendant on The Andy Griffith Show to his own show, Gomer Pyle USMC. That show was on the air for five years (150 episodes), and Sheldon would also make an appearance there as Norman Miles.

Thomas and Leonard as L&T Productions were also behind the The Joey Bishop Show and The Bill Dana Show. Thomas and Leonard’s shows were notable for emphasizing characters and relationships over slapstick or situation comedy. You cared about the characters even when they were a little kooky like Gomer Pyle or Barney Fife. They were committed to high-quality scripts. Many of the writers they employed went on to successful shows of their own including Danny Arnold for Barney Miller; Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson for The Odd Couple, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy; and Bill Persky and Sam Denoff for That Girl and Kate and Allie. L&T Productions ended in 1965.

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In the mid-1960s Sheldon produced I Spy. He cast Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as secret agents.  This was the first series to star a black actor in a lead role. In a March 7, 2016 Modern Times article, David Fantle and Tom Johnson discussed Sheldon Leonard and I Spy. Leonard said he knew what he was doing. “Race was very much an issue at that time,” he said. “I was intellectually conscious of it, but emotionally unaware of it. When I say emotionally unaware, I mean I was free to think of Cosby as the man to fill the slot I needed. Intellectually I knew the problems I’d have to face to get him on the air.” I Spy was a humorous suspense show and was known for its exotic locations, filming in countries such as Hong Kong, England, Morocco, France, and Greece among others. The critics rewarded Leonard. The show was nominated for Outstanding Dramatic Series Emmy every year of its three-year run and earned Leonard an Emmy nomination for directing in 1965.

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Sheldon was also the producer behind Accidental Family and Good Morning World, both shows debuting in 1967 and ending in 1968 and My World and Welcome to It in 1969. Accidental Family was about a widower who is a stand-up comedian. He buys a California farm which is managed by Sue Kramer who is also his son’s governess and his love interest. Good Morning World was about morning disc jockeys in LA. One is happily married, and one is a ladies’ man. Goldie Hawn was the next-door neighbor and Billy De Wolfe was their boss. On My World and Welcome To It, John Monroe is a married man with a daughter. He frequently daydreams and fantasizes about life. This show was unusual in that it included some animation along with the live action.

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In the Fantle and Johnson article referenced above, Leonard also talked about his favorite sitcom. He said his favorite might be the one that needed the most attention. “My favorite show was cancelled after the first year. My World and Welcome to It, based on the writings of James Thurber and starring William Windom. It won every award, and they cancelled . . . It was satire and above their (the network bosses’) heads. That show and I Spy are my favorites.”

In the early 1970s Sheldon would produce From a Bird’s Eye View and Shirley’s World. From a Bird’s Eye View was a sitcom about two stewardesses, Millie from England and Maggie from America. Millie was always getting into mischief and Maggie bailed her out. Shirley’s World starred Shirley MacLaine as a photographer who travels the world for her London-based magazine. The locales were similar to I Spy.

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In 1975 Sheldon starred in a new sitcom, Big Eddy which only lasted for ten episodes. He was Eddie Smith was the owner of the Big E Sports Arena in New York. He was an ex-gambler fighting the impulse to get back into it. He has a bunch of eccentric people in his life including his ex-stripper wife Honey and their granddaughter Ginger.

In the 1980s, Sheldon would continue to show up on various television shows, appearing in Sanford and Son, The Cosby Show, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, and Cheers.

Along with author Mickey Spillane, Leonard was one of the first two people to become a Miller Lite spokesman. In his New York accent, he tells the audience, “I was at first reluctant to try Miller Lite, but then I was persuaded to do so by my friend, Large Louis.”

Sheldon Leonard passed away at the age of 89 in 1997. His wife Frances passed away in 1999.

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Sheldon Leonard is undoubtedly one of the greatest television producers. Most of his shows were consistently in the top ten. They are classic shows still on the air today.  Sheldon required scripts that brought characters to life. He created spinoffs when he believed in the characters. He was not afraid to take risks. Besides casting Bill Cosby, he cast Lois Nettleton as divorced Sue Kramer on Accidental Family. This was in the mid-1960s and yet when Mary Tyler Moore’s show aired in 1970, the network refused to allow her to be a divorced character.

In the Mercurie Blogspot from November 10, 2013, Carl Reiner discussed Leonard: “Sheldon has mentored more people in our business than anyone else I know. He knew how to teach what he knew, and what he knew was situation comedy with the three-camera technique. Sheldon was a producing genius who understood comedy. He had four or five shows going, but he would walk in and give his intelligence and his time to every script that was being read for the week. And we always came away with a better script because we would discuss and argue and come to a better situation.”

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Garry Marshall was also quoted in this same article: “Sheldon was a sort of man’s man, yet he had all the creative sensitivity of the artist. No matter what story you were working on, he could help you fix it. He would never put down your idea. If I had to describe Sheldon in one word, it would be gentleman. He was a Renaissance man with a New York accent—and possibly a gun!”

The Herb Garden Germination

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As a salute to Leonard, the writers of The Big Bang Theory, named their main characters Sheldon and Leonard in honor of Sheldon Leonard.

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Sheldon himself seems to explain his success best. After working on his memoir in 1995, And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Holiday Adventures, he said “I was driven by an urge to survive and being very self-indulgent. I never did anything for very long that I didn’t like or enjoy. I would survive only on my own terms. I had to enjoy what I was doing, and I would have done what I did even if nobody paid me. That’s the secret of success in any business: do it well and enjoy doing it.”

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He did it all well, and we all enjoyed it.