Daniel de Visé is the author of Andy & Don, a book that chronicles the lives and friendship of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts. De Visé, who is Don Knotts’ brother-in-law, brings over 20 years of journalism experience to his research and writing. We had the chance to speak to him about covering one of television’s most renowned comedies and its stars.
The book is about Andy [Griffith] and Don [Knotts]—is it focused on their friendship throughout life or just [The Andy Griffith Show] and their friendship within it?
It’s about their friendship throughout—but remember, they weren’t friends until they were in the third decades of their lives, and the middle 50% of the book is about the show. That’s such a massive part of their friendship and what people care about. I try to start with each man’s birth and go all the way to their death.
So it’s like a double-biography.
It is a double-biography. It’s funny—an early reviewer of it accused me of writing a formulaic double-biography, which is hilarious because I didn’t know there was a formula. I apparently followed it unwittingly.
How do you find the balance between both subjects?
The balance came easily, because I started by focusing one long chapter on each man’s childhood. Once they’re together, there’s all those chapters where they’re both participating. Once they’re apart again, later in their lives, each man did so many different things that I found myself focusing 50/50 on each of them. It would have been tricky if one had done a lot less, but they were both so active throughout their careers. It was easy to keep it moving on both of them.
Since you knew Don personally, did that connection inspire you to write the book? Had you been a fan and interested in the behind-the-scenes aspect of things prior to knowing him?
I was a fan of the show growing up. I wasn’t one of these people—and [I] meet people like this all the time—who are huge fans, who’ve watched every episode multiple times. I loved the show when I was a kid, but I never would have dreamed of writing anything about it before I was related to [Don]. For most of the years after I was related to him, I wouldn’t have dreamed of writing anything about him because I was so busy with newspaper work, and he was so busy living his life.
What changed a few years ago was that I suddenly had some time, because I finished what had become my first book…so I decided to delve into this.
As his relative, what was something that surprised you about Don as you researched the book?
It surprised me how neurotic he was. I guess I’m thinking of Woody Allen now that I say neurotic, but he wasn’t anything like Woody Allen. He was so talented that you’d be amazed to hear that he would fret horribly, especially before going on live television or any kind of live performance. He would literally lock himself in his room and worry that he was getting sick. He would practice his lines over and over and over again, hundreds of times. Sort of obsessively. It drove his wife up the wall.
He was a hypochondriac. He was sort of obsessive-compulsive about learning his lines. Of course it paid off, because by the time he delivered his lines he delivered them beautifully. He was really a leader on the shows he was on, with his amazing ability to deliver his lines perfectly.
When you were prepping to write the book, did you find yourself binge-watching the whole series?
No. Even for this book I didn’t watch every episode, nor did I watch every single other thing these guys did. I didn’t see the point to that. With the Griffith Show I watched the important episodes—by which I mean probably most of them—but there were a bunch that I skipped. I didn’t have time or even space in the book to catalogue every single episode. There are so many people who got there before me. If you look on IMDB or any of the many fansites there’s lots that have been written about all the episodes, kinda like Star Trek. It’s very easy to figure out which are the significant episodes and which are the also-rans. I skipped a number of them that didn’t seem as essential to telling their story.
What do you think is the episode for people to watch?
For their friendship and understanding their friendship, I think the most important episode is “Andy on Trial.” It features a speech, sort of a soliloquy, by Don explaining their friendship and why Andy is so important to Mayberry and to him. That’s not the best Andy Griffith episode, but that’s the one that I think explains their TV friendship, as well as their real one, way better than any other.
As far as best episodes of the show, I think a lot of the funniest ones are when Gomer/Jim Nabors is on the show, when the three of them are engaging together.
Don left the show in 1965 because he had originally been told it was only going to be five seasons. Did his departure have any effect on their friendship?
They had a misunderstanding at the end. Don actually came back. This is a revelation in the book; I’m certain this hasn’t been written before the book came out. He offered to stay, which would have prolonged the relationship on the TV show, and who knows what would have happened. But he wanted to have an ownership share in the show. [Don and Andy] weren’t seasoned negotiators, and they were uncomfortable negotiating. It just broke down. It didn’t work out. Andy ultimately wasn’t comfortable giving him a share of the show; he thought Don wanted to split Andy’s share, which probably isn’t what Don wanted. They weren’t negotiators; they never really fully explored it. Don’s manager told me this many years later. That was the final nail in the coffin, and so Don left but they remained dear friends. That misunderstanding didn’t end their friendship at all.
When you look back at the process of writing this book, is there a particular moment or memory that comes to mind?
When it sank in that I wasn’t going to have to fight and claw my way into proving that they really were good friends. I was actually reading another book about [Ulysses S.] Grant and [William T.] Sherman and their friendship during the Civil War. In reading that book I was struck at how the author kept documenting over and over in different places the dimensions of their friendship, proving that they were friends. It was an academic book, and I realized I’m not doing an academic book. With Grant and Sherman, the friendship consisted of a whole bunch of interactions that occurred over a rather brief time, and yet it justified an entire big book—it was a hugely important friendship. It made me realize that the friendship I was writing about was kind of like a college friendship. If you’re really close to somebody in college, then 10 years after that you remain really close to them, even if you don’t see them that much. Even if you’re not seeing each other at all, it remains this powerful friendship because of all the stuff you shared a long time ago.
This, to me, feels like that sort of friendship. They spent these years together of very intense interaction, doing this wonderful project about which they felt so proud, something they cherished and treasured years and decades later. They always came back to it and felt such reverence towards those times that they spent together. It made it sort of magical, this relationship between them. They saw a lot of each other and talked all the time and remained the best of friends. That was an important revelation, that I didn’t have to prove over and over that they were friends. Even if they had only spent those five years together, it still would have been a deathless friendship for the two of them.
The Andy Griffith Show is among the top shows in the history of television. How do you see it reflected in television or comedy today?
I know that Seinfeld paid homage to The Griffith Show. I believe, I’m not certain of this, but I think that they adapted the English Valet episode—where this guy gets sentenced to be Andy’s valet—into a running theme in Seinfeld, where Jerry and George are working on a pilot and the pilot is a guy [who] gets sentenced to be somebody’s butler. I think that was homage to The Griffith Show.
Anytime you get a character like Dwight Schrute, I think you’re seeing the reincarnation of Barney. This is a character who is an overgrown nine-year-old, follows the rules to the letter, very literal, very gullible, easily fooled, easily teased, very vulnerable and very, very funny. I think he was the comic centerpiece for [The Office] just as Barney was the centerpiece for The Griffith Show.
Of course, any time you have a single camera comedy that is made patiently, methodically, without an audience, like a film—that itself is paying homage to The Griffith Show, which was a one-camera comedy, shot like a movie.