Andy Griffith Was Supposed to Be the Comic Lead on ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ But Don Knotts Outshone Him

When The Andy Griffith Show began in 1960, Andy Griffith’s vision for the program featured himself as the comic lead of the show.

Once second banana Don Knotts, who played deputy Barney Fife, arrived on set, Griffith realized the dynamics had changed and so would his plans.

'The Andy Griffith Show' cast members
‘The Andy Griffith Show’ cast members | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Don Knotts invited himself to the ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ cast

Don Knotts realized that Andy Griffith was launching what looked like a very funny new comedy series when he saw his friend on television one night on the Danny Thomas sitcom, The Danny Thomas Show in 1960.

According to Daniel de Visé, author of 2015’s Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show, Griffith’s pilot on Thomas’ show paved the way for the newer show’s success.

De Visé wrote, “As Don beheld Andy on [television], ‘the wheels in my brain began to whirl,’ Don recalled. The part of Sheriff Andy Taylor seemed perfect for Andy. A show like that would be honey to the sponsors, with all its homespun charm. And Don wondered if there might be a place for him in Mayberry.”

Knotts immediately reached out to Griffith, with whom he had appeared on Broadway years earlier in the show No Time For Sergeants. Chatting with Griffith by phone, Knotts let him know he’d loved his pilot on Danny Thomas’ show and while he was at it, asked, ‘Listen, don’t you think Sheriff Andy Taylor ought to have a deputy?’”

Andy Griffith was supposed to be the comedic star but Knotts changed everything

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As much as Griffith had the intention on his show of being the comedy lead, he realized when he began working with Don Knotts that, for the sake of the show, he would have to concede that dynamic to his show partner.

Don Knotts was that good.

“When Don joined the company,” Griffith told the Archive of American Television in 1998, “the second episode was called ‘Manhunt,’ and I knew by that episode that Don should be the comic and I should play it straight for him and that made all the difference.”

Griffith and Knotts remained friends for life

Andy Griffith, left, and Don Knotts in 2004
Andy Griffith, left, and Don Knotts in 2004 | SGranitz/WireImage

In a 1999 interview, Don Knotts spoke on Griffith’s comic timing and his delight simply at being on the show’s set.

Knotts said of his former show partner, “[Andy] was fun. I think Andy had the time of his life on that show. Andy was very expressive.

“His wife used to say to me, ‘Don’t sit in front of Andy at the movies! If something funny hits him, he’ll hit you right on top of the head.’ That’s the way he is; he’ll hit the wall. If I said something funny to Andy, he’d run clear across the sound stage. He’s just very demonstrative. He’s fun to be around.”

De Visé wrote, “Though their Mayberry partnership lasted only until 1965, the two remained best friends for life. Andy was with Don in 2006 at his deathbed.”