He was wonderfully unthreatening to other male comics, all of whom could think of themselves as one step closer to leading men than Mr. Knotts was. It's hard to think of an actor, in fact, who got more helping hands than Mr. Knotts in his early days. Male actors were forever offering him parts, trying to get him to join their acts. Sharing the stage with this skinny, spazzy guy could only make them look more commanding....I like the way the man's extreme sexual unattractiveness opened up a portal for him. Not only did he receive opportunities from other men (who believed that he couldn't be more loved than them) but he accessed wisdom (about the ridiculousness of men who believe too much in their own masculine greatness). Come on! Someone needs to do a Gender Studies seminar on Don Knotts.
In the nervous man, he reveled in the discomfort that most comics tend to pass off as indignation or savoir-faire. As Barney, he satirized swagger and self-importance. Finally, on "Three's Company" in the late 70's and 80's, he sent up the comedian's hypersexuality, which is often his pride. Mr. Knotts, over and over, was willing to play the desperate, pathetic low-man-on-every-pole. He did it so well — never forsaking his persona and trying to seize the lead, as nearly all major comedians do these days — that his talent for abasement became a source, paradoxically, of great authority. By revealing but never indulging these pretenses, he enlightened everyone he worked with, and his audiences.
February 27, 2006
Virginia Heffernan has a nice piece about the late Don Knotts: