Did a Little Boy’s Toy Bullet Inspire the Most Famous Photograph of Barney Fife?
Anyone familiar with the great Don Knotts and his best-known character, the over-caffeinated deputy to Sheriff Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show, will recognize the photo. It pictures Barney, head cocked, eyes narrowed in his best Clint Eastwood impression, loading a bullet into his gun. The image graces walls, websites and t-shirts beyond number.
Farris Rookstool III, a former FBI analyst and current JFK historian who lives, appropriately, in Dallas, believes Don Knotts had the picture taken just for him.
Our story begins in January 1967, when six-year-old Farris learned from his father, Farris Rookstool, Jr., that the great Don Knotts was coming to Dallas. Don was touring Texas for the premiere of his new movie, The Reluctant Astronaut. Naturally, Farris wanted to meet him.
Farris, like most of America, knew Don as Barney Fife. But Don had left The Andy Griffith Show two years earlier, after five memorable seasons, for a film career with Universal. His first film, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, had been a winsome haunted-house feature. Astronaut, the second, explored the comedic adventures of an astronaut who feared heights.
The Rookstools had read in the paper that Don would pass through Dallas on January 27, part of a marathon press tour to launch the film, which paid mirthful homage to NASA and the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. Father and son talked it over. A lot of little boys wanted to meet Barney Fife. They decided Farris should write Barney a letter and leave it at the Statler hotel in downtown Dallas for him to find when he arrived.
Farris wrote Barney a note. He told the deputy how bad he felt that Sheriff Andy allowed him only one bullet. He tucked an extra bullet inside the envelope with his note: Not a real bullet, but a plastic one from one of his toys. It looked real enough.
Father and son drove downtown and left the bulging envelope at the front desk of the Statler, addressed to Don but meant for Barney.
We can piece together what happened next from news clippings, Farris’s memory and my book Andy & Don, a dual biography of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts that traces both men’s careers.
Don toured NASA in Houston on Tuesday, January 24. He attended the Houston premiere on Wednesday and goofed for the cameras with boxing superstar Muhammad Ali. On Thursday, January 26, he arrived with great fanfare in the Texas capital of Austin, accompanied by the winner of Auston’s Miss Astro-nette contest, a University of Texas student named Farrah Fawcett.
On Friday, January 27, Don was heading to Dallas “when I got a call from my advance man,” he recalled in his memoir. Fire had consumed the Apollo command module at Cape Kennedy, killing the three astronauts who were preparing a February space flight.
Suddenly, a filmed NASA spoof seemed inappropriate. “Universal thought it best to pull the picture,” Don recalled, “and rerelease it at a future date.” The film was already playing in Texas, but it wouldn’t appear on other American screens for several weeks.
Remaining press events were quietly scuttled, including the stop in Dallas: Barney wouldn’t see Farris’s note. Someone told Farris’s father Don was ill, which was probably an unfortunate but unavoidable fib. I searched news reports from that month and the next and found no account of Universal pulling The Reluctant Astronaut because of the Apollo fire. That wasn’t the sort of news you told the press.
“My father knew how disappointed I was not seeing Don and not being able to give him my bullet,” Farris recalled. But Farris’s father had a plan. He found a representative for Don in Hollywood, and he made arrangements with her to mail the package west. I’m not sure whom, exactly, Farris Rookstool, Jr., reached in Hollywood, and neither is his son. My best guess is that he connected with Don’s secretary, a woman named B.J. (Oddly enough, I never did learn the woman’s full name.)
Weeks passed without a word. Farris’s father finally telephoned his contact, possibly B.J. She told him Mr. Knotts had received the package but was tied up promoting his astronaut movie, which was finally coming out. If the Rookstools could be patient, she said, Mr. Knotts would do “something extra special” for Farris.
Farris checked the mailbox daily. And then, one day, an envelope arrived. Inside, Farris found the photograph of Barney loading a bullet, maybe his bullet, into his gun. Don had signed the photo, “to Farris from his friend Barney – Don Knotts.”
Now, Farris’s father revealed the full story Don’s aide had told him: Don had gone into a studio with his old Barney Fife outfit and had a professional photo taken of him with the boy’s toy bullet.
The elder Farris telephoned his contact and told her how happy the photo had made his son. He asked if Don planned another visit to Dallas. He didn’t, but he would be flying through Dallas in May. If Farris could travel to Love Field, Don would meet him between planes.
One day in May, Farris’s father drove him to the airport. An American Airlines representative escorted them to a gate, where the boy, now seven, watched his hero deplane. The group walked to the airline’s Celebrity Room (a real place, judging by the subsequent photo), and someone snapped a photo of the two, Don in a grey suit, Farris in a busy plaid jacket that would not have looked out of place on Opie Taylor in Mayberry.
“Farris,” Don said, “that was the nicest thing you did, giving me your bullet.”
“Barney,” Farris replied, “or do I call you Mr. Knotts?”
“You can call me either one,” Don said. “I will treasure that bullet forever. Thank you.”
To return to the question I posed at the start of this account: Was Farris Rookstool truly responsible for the photograph Don had sent him? It’s a good question, because that photo would become perhaps the single most famous image ever shot of Barney or Don.
Barney fans could have their pick among dozens of images of the iconic deputy. But everyone always wanted the bullet shot, the one where Barney looked like the Man with No Name from the spaghetti westerns.
“The photo is important because it captures the bravado quality of the character,” says Neal Brower, author of the excellent Mayberry 101, an exploration of Andy Griffith Show story lines. “The humor of the photo is created because Barney is a very unlikely hero. The photo has also been used many times over the years (I have a coffee cup with the photo on it) and thus is a quickly recognizable image that TAGS fans associate with the series.”
TAGS, to the uninitiated, is Mayberry shorthand for The Andy Griffith Show.
Oh, how Don grew to loathe that photo. He signed it thousands of times. Because of how the photo was framed, with Barney’s long, dark tie hanging down the center, there was nowhere to sign it except across Barney’s crotch. Don winced with embarrassment every time he lifted a Sharpie.
I asked Neal Brower and a few other Mayberry insiders if they thought it possible Don had arranged the photo especially for a six-year-old boy. Opinions varied. On the one hand, Don was a genuinely nice man, and he loved children, and nothing would have made him happier than to surprise a little boy with a meaningful present.
On the other hand, young Farris was hardly the first boy to send a bullet to Barney. Don received bullets by the drawer-load. Hundreds of them. It is entirely possible that Don’s agent or manager or assistant was on the phone with a little boy every day, telling him Barney was going to do something “extra special,” and then mailing out another copy of the hilarious photo with Don’s name scribbled across the crotch.
I can’t even say for sure if that photo was actually taken in 1967, although I have no proof to the contrary. Common sense suggests it’s more likely the picture was shot around 1964 or 1965, while Don remained on the show. Then again, Don’s own publicity engine really heated up in the following years, after he’d left the iconic show.
I haven’t found anyone who knows for certain. If anyone reading this has a subscription to an old-newspaper database and some free time, by all means, launch a search of your own. If you can find a copy of the famous photo older than spring of 1967, leave a comment or drop me a line through my author website, www.danieldevise.com. Maybe I’ll send you an autographed copy of Andy & Don.
As for Farris Rookstool, his adoration for Barney Fife more or less led him into a long and celebrated career with the FBI. Farris is one of a vanishing breed of peace officers who grew up watching Barney on The Andy Griffith Show.
“When people would ask me what made me want to work in law enforcement,” he recalls, “I often told them it was my love of Barney Fife, and what a positive role model he was for me.”
–Daniel de Visé for Classic Movie Hub
Daniel de Visé is Don Knott’s 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. The book features extensive unpublished interviews with those closest to both men. De Visé shares a wealth of new information about what really went on behind the scenes, including personal struggles and quarrels.
If you can’t wait to win the book, you can click below to purchase it on amazon: