a knife to barney fife’s throat

Today’s selection — from Andy and Don by Daniel de Visé. Don Knotts vaulted to national fame in the 1960s as Barney Fife, the exasperatingly comical deputy sheriff and sidekick to Andy Griffith in theAndy of Mayberry sitcom. Just as Barney’s false bravado masked his insecurities, so Don’s ascent to stardom masked a deeply grim childhood:

“Don was fourteen years younger than his next youngest sibling, William Earl, a boy so slender he was called Shadow. Don was an accident, Elsie, thirty-nine and married to a forty-two-year-old invalid, had not planned to bring another child into the world.

“Don’s childhood was bleak, even by the sepia-toned standards of the Depression. The house on University Avenue sat in a crowded row of unkempt wooden colonials set against a steep hill. He slept on a cot in the kitchen, next to the stove. Two of his older brothers, Shadow and Sid, shared a bedroom with a boarder. Willis Vincent ‘Bill’ Knotts, the most ambitious sibling, had already decamped to seek his fortune as a manager at Montgomery Ward. Don’s mother and father slept in the living room, and Jesse Sr. spent most of his waking hours on the sofa, staring into space. Don’s brothers liked to drink and fight; there was little to distinguish them from the vagabonds who paraded in and out of the University Avenue home.

Don Knotts early in his career as a ventriloquist

“Don emerged from infancy with a ghostly pallor, a skeletal frame, and a predisposition to illness, traits he shared with his older brother Shadow. ‘I did not come into the world with a great deal of promise,’ Don recalled. ‘By the time I started grammar school, I was already stoop-shouldered, painfully thin, and forever throwing up due to a nervous stomach.’

“Three decades later, Elsie Knotts would ask Don, ‘Do you remember when you were in nappies, and your father used to hold a knife to your throat?’ Don did not. Only in therapy did the memories come flooding back. Don spent his first years living in fear of the monster on the couch. Jesse Knotts harbored a primal jealousy toward Don, the unexpected baby who drew Elsie’s attention away from her bedridden husband. From the day Don arrived, he competed with his father for his mother’s care.

“The only path out of Don’s kitchen bedroom led through the living room, where his father lay. Don would try to tiptoe by. Sometimes he would pass unnoticed. Other times, the father would emerge from his fever dreams and train his bloodshot eyes on his youngest son. Don would freeze as he heard the ragged growl of an unpracticed voice: ‘Come here, you little son of a bitch.’ Don would slowly retreat from the room. Usually, the summons was an empty threat. But on occasion, Jesse would rise from the couch like a shambling ghoul and stagger into the kitchen to find a blade. Then he would stumble through the house in search of his son; the hunt wouldn’t take long, as there was nowhere for Don to go. Jesse would pin Don against the wall, raise the knife to his throat, and terrorize the child with dark oaths: ‘I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch.’ “

Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show

Author: Daniel de Visé
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Copyright 2015 by Daniel de Visé
Pages 4-5
 
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Delanceyplace.com is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context. There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.

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