Classic Cinema: The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) – By Jason S. Lockard

To millions he will always be Barney Fife, but to those that know his work beyond the Andy Griffith Show; Don Knotts was a King of Comedy and this month were taking a look at one of Don’s best comic gems 1966’s The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.

Don was born Jesse Donald Knotts on July 21, 1924 in Morgantown West Virginia to farmer William Jesse and Elsie Knotts. Don’s father was afflicted by schizophrenia and alcoholism and had a nervous breakdown and lost their farm; William died when Don was just thirteen years old. His mother Elsie would run a boarding house to pay bills so she could raise Don and his three brothers. After graduating from Morgantown High School Don enlisted in the United States Army and spent most of his service entertaining troops. Knotts did a ventriloquist act with a dummy named Danny "Hooch" Matador. Knotts said he was getting tired of playing straight man for a hunk of wood so one night, while aboard a troop ship where he was entertaining, he decided to end the partnership with his dummy and tossed "Danny" overboard. From that day forward, he worked as a single.

Don would go on to work on the stage and TV including his first big break on the soap opera ‘Search for Tomorrow’ from 1953 to 1955 and than shot to stardom on Steve Allen’s variety show. Than in 1958 Knotts appeared in the movie adaptation of the stage production [which he was apart of] ‘No Time for Sergeants’ with Andy Griffith. The friendship the two shared would last Don’s entire life!

In 1960 when Andy Griffith was offered his own TV show Knotts came along for the ride as the bumbling deputy with one bullet in his pocket Barney Fife! After five years on the show Don believe earlier remarks by Andy that five season was all he would do, Don made a deal for a five film contract with Universal Studios. When Andy announced he would continue the show Don felt he had to sign the film contract fearing he may never get the opportunity again! So Barney Fife “made the big time” joining the Raleigh, North Carolina Police force and Don was off to the movies!

Don first movie post The Andy Griffith Show is our film this month, ‘The Ghost and Mr. Chicken!’ Don played Luther Heggs, a newspaper typesetter in the fictitious town of Rachel, Kansas who longs to be a reporter and gets his chance when he with the “help” of Mr. Kelsey [Liam Redmond] The paper’s janitor writes a filler story on the 20th anniversary of The Simmons murders! It causes such a stir in the community that George Beckett [Dick Sargent] the owner of newspaper decides it would be a good idea for Luther to spend the 20th anniversary of the murder/suicide in the mansion! Reluctantly he agrees and as you may guess typical Don Knotts character is scared of his own reflection in the mirror and what he sees during the night scars him recounting “It was terrible, just terrible…. I‘ll never get over it as long as I live!”

The story is written and he become a celebrity to the little town of Rachel; he is even asked to speak at a chamber of commerce luncheon and this speech has to be heard to be believed! After his speech Luther is mobbed and is handed a piece of paper, he says, “What do you want me to write on this?” the man replies “Nothing you don‘t write on a summons!” Nick Simmons last remaining relative and owner of the mansion is suing Luther and the Newspaper for liable! Will Luther be cleared…. When he proves their really are ghosts in the mansion or will he loose his job and the paper be shut down you’ll have to watch the film to find out!

This film fast paced and hilarious at every turn! From the opening scenes of the film when Luther thinks he has a scoop of the murder of the town drunk, to his time in the mansion, to his speech, to every site gag; this is one film you can’t miss! Also in an interesting side note the Simmons Mansion is actually the Munster Mansion used in the classic TV series!

Knotts went on to make The Reluctant Astronaut (1967), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968), The Love God? (1969) and How to Frame a Figg (1971). He teamed with fellow comedian Tim Conway to star in Disney’s The Apple Dumpling Gang, and its 1979 sequel, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. They also did two independent films, The Prize Fighter and The Private Eyes.

Don would also return to Mayberry six times as Barney Fife. Five times during the run of The Andy Griffith Show and once on Mayberry RFD [the spin off] where he was best man for the marriage of Andy Taylor and Helen Crump.

It wasn’t till 1979 that Don would create another classic TV character in Ralph Furley the swinging bachelor landlord on Three’s company! Don worked on stage, TV and movies till the year of his death.

Don Knotts died in 2006, at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California from pulmonary and respiratory complications related to lung cancer. Andy Griffith [Don‘s long-time friend], visited his bedside just hours before his death. Knotts’ wife and daughter stayed with him until he died. He was laid to rest at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

Musician and fan J.D. Wilkes said of him: "Only a genius like Knotts could make an anxiety-ridden, passive-aggressive Napoleon character like Fife a familiar, welcome friend each week. Without his awesome contributions to television there would’ve been no other over-the-top, self-deprecating acts like Conan O’Brien or Chris Farley."

A statue of Don Knotts stands in Morgantown, West Virginia, in a memorial park on Don Knotts Boulevard. To many he will always be Barney Fife to Some Ralph Furley, but to me he is a Comic Icon! So celebrate the life of this comic icon and check out one of the greatest films he ever made The Ghost and Mr. Chicken!

So until Next month this is Jason Lockard saying if you want to see a good movie check out a classic!

Moral Rating: Nothing Offensive
Audience: Family
Genre: Comedy
Length: 92 min.
Released: 1966
Our Rating: A+