The whole family was out for the evening; when we came home about 11 p.m., there was a message from my office that Don Knotts had died. It went without saying that a beloved TV actor was gone.
And one who has been a regular part of my screen-watching life. I only knew his work for Steve Allen from retrospectives, since I was too young to see it new. But I've spent much of my life watching and admiring -- heck, loving -- ''The Andy Griffith Show.'' And I remember feeling as if it just wasn't the same when Knotts left the show. Andy and Barney were a great team, as were Knotts and Griffith, two guys who had known each other -- and worked with each other before ''Andy Griffith,'' in the play and movie of ''No Time for Sergeants.''
In Richard Kelly's book about ''The Andy Griffith Show,'' Knotts recalls how he was looking for work after Allen's show, and read about Griffith's show. At the time, it did not have a deputy for Sheriff Andy Taylor, so Knotts called Griffith and suggested one. Griffith referred Knotts to producer Sheldon Leonard -- and a wonderful collaboration was born, one that echoed across TV (and that made Knotts's appearance in ''Pleasantville'' resonate with the audience).
And let us never forget how important that collaboration was. Knotts could be funny and touching on his own -- ''The Incredible Mr. Limpet'' remains a fond memory of my youth -- and worked well in tandem with Tim Conway. But it's crucial for Barney Fife that Andy loves and respects him; it makes us love Barney even when he messes up. And Barney is key to our watching Andy; not only do we admire Andy more for his loyalty to Barney (a loyalty that is returned, as we would often see in episodes where Andy ran into trouble), but Barney's extremes of behavior make Andy look solid and respectable.
Indeed, in Kelly's book, Griffith's performance as Andy changed when he realized that he did not have to be a broad character, that others were carrying a lot of the comic water. ''I just realized that I'm the straight man,'' he is heard saying in the book. ''I'm playing straight to all these kooks around me.''
Knotts, of course, was the greatest of all the kooks -- and the most heart-rending. I'll always remember the feeling I had the first time I saw the episode where Barney comes back to claim Thelma Lou -- only to find she is no longer available. It almost broke my heart, since any ''Griffith'' fan wanted Barney to be happy, and he had lost a chance for it. It wasn't just that Barney was a wonderful character, it was that Knotts played him so wonderfully.