What Those Who Remembered Forgot: Don Knotts (1924-2006) on the Air

Last night, I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Dr. Jack (1922), the chief passenger in an early but well-oiled Harold Lloyd vehicle, a sentimental comedy speeding up to some nimble last-reel slapstick. Within a few years of this outing, Lloyd reached the height of his silent screen career with classics like Safety Last (1923) and Girl Shy (1924), my favorite among his many fine films. Watching the genial and ingenious Dr. Jack as he rescued a girl’s doll from a well or cured a schoolboy of his feigned illness, I had a vision of this good physician attending to the aches and growing pains of Don Knotts, the late comedian who was born just about the time Girl Shy first flickered on American movie screens.

I cannot claim to have followed Knotts’s career on television and in motion pictures closely over the years. I never as much as sat through a single episode of The Andy Griffith Show, even though I enjoy whistling its catchy theme. Nor have I ever laid eyes on I Love a Mystery, the television adaptation of Carlton E. Morse’s previously discussed serial thriller “The Thing That Cries in the Night.” And I sure didn’t rush to hear him in Chicken Little, either. Such well-nigh disqualifying deficiencies notwithstanding, I can contribute here an “on the air” footnote to his otherwise well-documented career. In fact, researching Knotts’s early years on radio, I came across a rather remarkable echo.

As a radio performer, Knotts is undoubtedly best known as sidekick Windy Wales—teller of tall tales—in the revival of the Bobby Benson adventures, which had begun in the early 1930s as the kind of juvenile radio serial Irwin Shaw mocks in his short story “Main Currents of American Thought.” Such quasi-folk antics aside, Knotts was given an opportunity to play the brother of a true American storyteller: Samuel Clemens, the writer still better known by his pseudonym, Mark Twain.

Heard on the Cavalcade of America program, the play was an adaptation of Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and starred Raymond Massey as the grown-up author recalling his life story. As Twain’s brother Henry, Knotts was heard in a brief but pivotal scene dramatizing an incident that changed the life of the reluctant author.

Sam and Henry (the Clemens brothers, not Gosden and Correll’s Amos ‘n’ Andy precursors) worked together on the Pennsylvania, a Mississippi riverboat on which Sam was being trained as a cub pilot. The captain instructed Henry to tell the pilot to stop at a certain landing; but the hateful, irascible man denied having been informed. Sam defends his brother, engages in a fight with the pilot and knocks him down; but even though he is being congratulated rather than punished for his assault on the man, Sam thinks himself unfit to be his replacement. Leaving the boat, he bids farewell to Henry, who stays aboard. Before they part, Henry once more urges Sam not to squander his talent as storyteller.

Shortly thereafter, Henry, along with some 150 others, loses his life after an explosion aboard the Pennsylvania. Yet his voice remains alive in Twain’s mind, and Henry’s hopes for his brother are being realized at last. “Life on the Mississippi” was broadcast on 24 February 1953—exactly fifty-three years prior to Knotts’s own death last Friday.

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