Well, I’ll be. They really did love each other.
Andy Samuel Griffith and Jesse Donald Knotts will always be Andy Taylor and Barney Fife in a near-perfect chapter of the American myth. But to each other, they were Ange and Jess, and as Daniel de Visé tells the tale in “Andy and Don,” their personal bond was accidental, complicated, wildly creative and enduring.
De Visé, Knotts’ brother-in-law, has written a rewarding dual biography that is the definitive story of their friendship – made manifest, and later immortal, on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
These two men with much in common – Southerners who grew up poor, suffered indignities in childhood and found amusement in the quirks of small-town life – came together through happenstance in the late 1950s and went on to reinvent TV comedy.
Three decades before Jerry Seinfeld did a show famously about “nothing,” Andy and Don essentially invented the “scene about nothing.” As de Visé describes it, when a script came up a minute short, they’d retreat to a corner and come up with Barney musing about a trip to the fillin’ station for a bottle of pop, or laboring to remember the preamble to the Constitution. Those improvised scenes became some of the show’s best.
The strength of “Andy and Don” is its wealth of such anecdotes. To the show’s addicts, they’re more affirmation than revelation. But whatever your level of Mayberry dependence, the tales are as satisfying as a Sunday band concert on the village green.
And the book does serve up some small, tasty surprises. Don, for instance, was probably the better athlete of the two. De Visé also tells several stories that illustrate how both men belied their “Griffith” characters – Don usually restrained, Andy a bit of a rogue.
They were always better together than apart, their chemistry imbued with real affection. And their collaborative genius, already evident, comes to life in the narrative.
Not only were Andy and Don the driving forces behind nearly every “Griffith” script, their frolics on the set between takes could be bawdy and side-splitting – as when Don once mimicked a pitchman who claimed his impotence was cured when he finally met the right woman, and Andy and Don launched into the chorus of “Love Lifted Me” in their familiar two-part harmony.
Don, in particular, could make Andy laugh anytime, and often tormented him with simple gestures until Andy would blurt, “Stop it, you son of a bitch.”
Both men had darker sides. Andy could be petty, clinging to grudges over perceived slights, and his weakness for drink fueled his philandering and two marital failures. In his worst moments, he was less Andy Taylor than the ignoble side of Lonesome Rhodes, his classic role in “A Face in the Crowd.”
And Don was a hypochondriac, a fretful, sleepless man who depended for years on alcohol and prescription drugs, and also had a wandering eye.
De Visé doesn’t spare them. But in his hands their foibles seem almost endearing. And as much as Andy would remember an affront, he offered ample rewards for loyalty, especially to Don. Don was also a generous soul, and his persona’s lovable insecurity was a comic-enhanced version of the real thing. And both mellowed with age. Andy spent much of his final years looking for confirmation that Don, as he lay dying, had heard Andy’s expression of love for him, and worrying about whether he would see Don in heaven.
As a story about a TV show and a creative partnership, “Andy and Don” satisfies. It’s also a lively look inside the entertainment industry in the latter half of the 20th century.
But more than anything, it’s the story of a beautiful friendship.
A TV Guide reporter compared Andy and Don in 1962 to Damon and Pythias, the Pythagorean models of male friendship – Damon offering his life as a guarantee that Pythias will show up for his own execution. As a tribute to their friendship, both men are set free.
Neither Andy nor Don ever had to offer his life for the other. But de Visé points out that Andy did sacrifice a good part of his ego, and his role as top banana on his own show, to play the straight man while his pal got the laughs. The result was a partnership that made them both legends, and a friendship that will be outlasted only by their fame.
Frederick: 919-829-8956. On Twitter: @Eric_Frederick.
Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show
Daniel de Visé
Simon & Schuster, 320 pages
Daniel de Visé will do a reading at 7 p.m. Dec. 3 at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, and at 2 p.m. Dec. 4 at McIntyre’s at Fearrington Village, near Pittsboro.
At noon, Dec. 3, hear him on “The State of Things” on WUNC-FM.