July 21st is Don Knotts’ birthday; he would be 93 years old today. Most noted for his Emmy award winning performance as Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, Knotts had a lengthy career with Walt Disney Pictures.
His multiple movie and television appearances have spanned decades under the Disney banner. Knotts costarred with Tim Conway in 1975 and 1979’s The Apple Dumpling Gang and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. Playing Theodore Ogelvie, he and Conway were hapless cowboys in the Wild West trying to make a fortune. Their shenanigans always led to hilarity. Long before we had the Air Buddies movies, Knotts played Coach Venner to the California Atoms in 1976’s Gus. The movie is about the Atoms football team and how they switch their mule mascot to a position on the field.
Knotts not only started his own Disney franchise (which I bet is primed for a reboot), was an original star of when animals played sports movies, but he also joined the veritable Herbie franchise in 1977’s Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. His role as Wheely Applegate was part copilot and slapstick sidekick to leading man Dean Jones.
In Hot Lead and Cold Feet, Knotts was Sheriff Denver Kid trying to keep the peace as two brothers compete for the ownership of a town that was founded by their father. Naturally, the mayor is crooked and tries to steal the town from the brothers.
The 1970’s seemed to be the decade of Don Knotts with the Walt Disney Company. Whether he was trying to make his fortune, defend the rights of others, or help win a race in Monte Carlo, Don Knotts dominated the movie scene, carrying Walt Disney Pictures into the 1980s.
By the 1990’s Knotts’ worked shifted to voice work or bit parts in movies. He briefly voiced a small role in 1997 in the 101 Dalmatians: The Series. In 2005 when Walt Disney Pictures released their first computer animated movie Chicken Little, Don Knotts was a part of the cast as Mayor Turkey Lurkey. His final performance would be voicing the role of Sniffler in 2006’s Air Buddies before his death on February 24th, 2006.
Even though they weren’t a member of the Disney family at the time, Knotts had a memorable appearance on episode 1 of season 2 of The Muppet Show. From the opening sequence of Knotts cowering in the corner of his dressing room that he shares with the oversized muppet Gorgon Heap, to playing his bass with the Electric Mayhem for the final song where he plays it so fast that the bass explodes, Knotts comedic abilities where on display with the Muppets. His sweetness comes through as he comforts Fozzie at the end of the episode. Fozzie loses his coolness and the hip sunglasses that Floyd gives him at the start of the show. “Square is beautiful”, Knotts says as the show ends.
The first time I saw a Don Knotts Disney movie my Dad and I were at the Fort Wilderness campfire. The nightly outdoor movie schedule often plumbed the depths of the Disney movie vault to keep the resort guests entertained. I was skeptical at first, but Dad said it was a funny movie, and besides we had nothing else to do.
As I sat and watched the movie, I knew who Don Knotts was, and though I wouldn’t admit it at the time, I enjoyed the movie. Maybe it was because of the humor of the movie, or that I just enjoyed this special memory with my Dad from our trip. I’m not sure which has a more powerful influence over me but when I saw the Don Knotts for movie collection at Costco recently, featuring The Apple Dumpling Gang, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, Gus, and Hot Led and Cold Feet, I had to buy it.
Looking back at his career, Don Knotts is a Disney legend and should receive this honor. From his multiple live action movies in the 70’s, his voice works in the 90s, being a star in Walt Disney Pictures first computer animated film Chicken Little, to his memorable appearance on The Muppet Show, it’s time for this honor. Heck, Knotts must have fans within the company as Imagineers even snuck a reference to the non-Disney film The Incredible Mr. Limpet into Disney California Adventure’s The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure.
Happy Birthday, Don Knotts, you continue to entertain and delight audiences with your humor. To anyone on the selection committee for the Disney Legends award, please make Don Knotts a Disney Legend, he has earned it. After all, his partner in The Apple Dumpling Gang, Tim Conway was made a Disney Legend in 2004.