Don Knotts and the Great Orson Welles…
On television and in the movies, comedic actor Don Knotts generally played second banana, deputizing himself — literally or figuratively — to someone else. Off screen, the reality of his theatrical relationships was a bit more complicated.
There was the time, for example, when Don spent a month of his life more or less babysitting the great Orson Welles.
Orson – – Broadway director at twenty-two, Citizen Kane producer at twenty-five – – first met Don in 1957 when he guest-starred on The Steve Allen Show, which employed Don as a regular. Though still in his early forties (he was born one hundred and one years ago this month), Orson was already in the twilight of his career, working on one of his final cinematic triumphs, Touch of Evil. The Steve Allen producers wanted him to read Shakespeare. Orson insisted that he first be permitted to perform his magic act. Orson was an accomplished magician – – just like Don, whose first great talent was ventriloquism.
Don revered the bearded legend and surely would have hung on his every word; but the mercurial star declined to mingle with the Steve Allen cast in rehearsal and “seemed, in fact, quite unapproachable,” Don recalled in his memoir.
Fifteen years later, Don took a phone call from a producer, who wanted to know if he would perform in a television adaptation of The Man Who Came to Dinner, an updated version of the Roosevelt-era play. The star would be Orson Welles.
Oh, yes, there was one catch: Orson, living in Paris, “was apparently having some tax difficulties with the IRS and did not want to return to the United States to do the show,” so it would be taped in England. Would Don be interested?
“I would have paid them to do it,” he recalled.
Arriving in London, Don didn’t know quite what to expect from the enigmatic star, and he was startled to discover that Orson took an instant liking to him. Through the first few days of rehearsals, Orson roared with laughter and filled Don’s ears with stories about Houdini, whom he had met as a child. The first few days of rehearsal “sailed breezily along,” with Orson entertaining the cast, enjoying his craft and sipping the occasional glass of wine. Orson had surrounded himself with stars; the cast included Joan Collins, Marty Feldman, and Lee Remick.
And then, everything changed. The time came when the performers were expected to set aside their scripts and recite their lines from memory. Orson began to transform. He “took on an anxious look, and he demanded that someone be brought in to hold cue cards for his lines,” Don recalled. “He also began to drink more wine, which he hid, unsuccessfully, in a coffee cup. He began to show signs of being slightly drunk, and he soon demanded that two more people be hired to hold cue cards so that he would always have his lines in his line of sight. It soon became clear to me that the poor man was scared to death. The part he was playing,” the lead, “is a demanding role with thousands of lines housed in dozens of long speeches. At this point in his career, Welles had not played a part this big in several years.
“He began to fight with the director, Buzz Kulik, and two or three times, Buzz stormed out of the rehearsal hall, vowing never to return. Welles demanded more and more cue cards, and before long, a dozen or so girls holding cue cards surrounded the rehearsal hall.”
Don had seen this before. Orson was cracking under the pressure of simply being himself. Who could possibly live up to that man’s reputation? And Don empathized: Don himself constantly battled psychosomatic ailments. He was a lifelong hypochondriac; he lived in perpetual terror of performing live; he sometimes spent days shut up in his room before going on the air. Don had lived in terror of failing to make the audience laugh since the day he broke through on Steve Allen.
Other men sensed Don’s deep well of empathy and were drawn to it. Now, the great Orson Welles, sinking beneath the weight of expectation on the set of The Man Who Came to Dinner, clung to Don as if he were a human life raft.
One day, Don left the set to take a physical exam, required by the insurance company that backed the production. As soon as Orson discovered Don had left, he shouted out, “Where’s Don? Where the hell is Don?” over and over, growing increasingly agitated. Soon, the director was agitated, too: “Where’s Don? Somebody find Don.” Someone found Don, and Orson was happy again. The director told Don, “Listen, I don’t want you to leave this rehearsal hall ever again. Whether you have a call or not, you be here.”
And then the first day of taping arrived, and Orson revealed “a whole new person,” Don recalled, wholly recovered from his previously crippling case of nerves. He arrived “bright and early, sober as a judge, and full of vim and vigor.”
By this time, the rest of the cast was a wreck. Influenza had crippled the production. Orson, though healthy, felt perpetually overheated, and he demanded that the studio be kept as cold as a meat locker. “Soon,” Don recalled, “our fever-ridden actors were bundled up in overcoats and mufflers.”
Orson Welles was a polarizing figure by this point, and the Nov. 29, 1972 American broadcast drew mixed reviews. “In happiness he is like a fat, chortling baby,” a delighted Los Angeles Times reviewer opined; “in his scheming chicanery, he is satanic in his maliciousness; his fury with those little pig eyes glowering over his half-glasses is absolutely Vesuvian.”
A few years later, Don was dining at the fabled Ma Maison restaurant in West Hollywood with his wife and some friends when, according to fellow performer Stella Berrier, he heard Orson’s Santa-Claus laugh issuing forth from another table. He turned, summoned his Barney Fife voice, and cried, “Would you keep it down?”
The great Orson pivoted in his chair, searching the room for the offender. Then he spotted Don, and he laughed so hard that he almost fell from his chair. When he had recovered, he walked over and said, “Don, you are terrific.”
–Daniel de Visé for Classic Movie Hub
Daniel de Visé is Don Knotts’ brother-in-law and author of Andy and Don, a lively and revealing biography, and the definitive work on the legacy of The Andy Griffith Show and two of America’s most enduring stars. Scheduled for paperback release on June 7, the book features extensive unpublished interviews with those closest to both men and a wealth of new information about what really went on behind the scenes. Click below to purchase the book on Amazon.