‘The Andy Griffith Show’: Watch Don Knotts Open Up About Leaving Show in 1999 Interview

by Josh Lanier
(Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Don Knotts said he would have loved to stay on and play bumbling deputy Barney Fife for as long as Andy Griffith would let him. But a conversation they had years earlier set the stage for Knotts earlier exit from the hit show.

The comedy duo of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show was one of the greatest of all time. Knotts’ over-the-top antics combined with Griffith’s calm made for something truly special that lasted five seasons. But then, Knotts left Mayberry for the richer pastures of Hollywood. He said he would have stayed if not for a conversation he had with Griffith years earlier.

“I left because Andy had said he would never do the show longer than five years, and I had a five-year contract,” Knotts told Archive of American Television. “And during the fifth season, I thought, ‘Geez I start looking around or more work.’ And I wound up getting an offer from Universal to do movies and do my own pictures. And then Andy suddenly said he was going to stay on another two or three years. Well, I’ve already cast my lot I guess. I hadn’t really signed, but I had said I would. I had focused all my attention in that direction. And I don’t know I just went ahead. but it was a tough time for me because I enjoyed the Griffith Show so much that I hated to leave. I never expected, never expected it to go on.”

The Andy Griffith Show continued on without Knotts for three more seasons. Griffith has said the show lost a lot of its luster during those final seasons, partly because they were missing Don Knotts.

Andy Griffith: Don Knotts Saved the Show

Don Knotts wasn’t in the pilot episode of The Andy Griffith Show. But after filming it as a spinoff of The Danny Thomas Show, Griffith knew something was off. Griffith told the Television Academy Foundation that the show didn’t work.

But the studio ordered the show to series. That’s when Griffith reached out to his old friend Knotts and invited him to try out for the Barney Fife role. As soon as Knotts was on set, Griffith said he knew he’d found the missing piece.

“I knew by that (second) episode that Don should be the comic, and I should play straight for him, and that made all the difference,” Griffith also said. “All the difference.”

That allowed Mayberry to become “a living town,” he said, which opened up so many avenues for other comedic characters.

“Mayberry was actually the star of the show,” Griffith said. “(Producer) Sheldon (Leonard) said one time, ‘I think we mis-named this show. It should have been called Mayberry to start with.’”

Griffith also admits that without Knotts the show would have never worked.

“He changed the whole groundwork of it,” Griffith said.