Emmy’s Greatest Sit-Com Sidekicks: The Legacy of Barney Fife
In the five years that he portrayed Deputy Barney Fife, Don Knotts set the standard against which all future television sit-com sidekicks would be judged.
Knotts won five Emmy awards for his work as Deputy Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. It’s a testament to the character’s enduring appeal that the last two Emmys were awarded after Knotts had left the show, recognizing his work as a returning guest star.
Barney Fife may be a pushover. But Knotts’s achievement at the Emmys — five nominations, five statues, all for the same character on the same show — casts a long and imposing shadow over the Television Academy, which will host the 2018 awards on September 17.
In fairness to the many great comedic actors who have tried to surpass the great Fife, I should point out that Knotts came into the annual Emmy race with an unfair advantage. He competed in the category of supporting actor, which he was… sort of.
As I explain in my book Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic TV Show, Knotts was cast on Griffith as a secondary character but quickly broke out as the comedic lead, every bit the equal of his “straight man” and artistic partner, Andy Griffith.
And so, nearly six decades later, Deputy Fife remains the consummate TV sidekick. In the spirit of the Emmys, I spent some time poring over records of other winners and nominees in the categories of supporting actor and actress in television comedy, and I came up with four true heirs to the Fife legacy, profiled below. Some great comedic actors didn’t make the cut because they weren’t really sidekicks, others because they came from forgettable shows. I’ve included a few of them in an honorable mention section at the bottom.
And now, the envelope, please…
1. David Hyde Pierce, “Niles Crane,” Frasier. Four Emmy wins, eleven nominations.
Frasier might be the most successful spin-off in television history. It took shape as a vehicle for Kelsey Grammer, a supporting actor on the legendary Cheers who portrayed a Harvard-educated psychiatrist slumming among working stiffs in the namesake Boston pub. By the end of its run, Frasier had logged eleven seasons and snagged a record-breaking thirty-seven Emmys. The show and its cast regularly beat out Seinfeld.
Apparently, David Hyde Pierce was first considered to play Frasier Crane’s brother on the strength of his headshot; with their strong jaws and similar coloring, the actors indeed looked like they could be related. Pierce revealed a genius for comedic acting and proved the standout actor in a very strong ensemble.
Having watched most of the classic Frasier episodes, I can attest that Niles Crane is vital to virtually every great scene in that program, just as Barney Fife was central to most of the best Griffith stories. Pierce and Grammer played off each other beautifully – - whether fussing over dinner reservations, commiserating about their dismal romantic lives, or reeling at some fresh affront to good taste perpetrated by their determinedly blue-collar father, played by actor John Mahoney.
Fussy, hyperactive, and stricken with endless phobias, Niles Crane took his brother’s neurotic compulsions and his insufferable elitism to comedic extremes. He was more Frasier than Frasier.
2. Jason Alexander, “George Costanza,” Seinfeld. Zero Emmy wins, seven nominations.
Of all the characters on this list, Jason Alexander’s George Costanza probably comes closest to a true, Deputy Fife-styled sidekick. Alexander was cast by Seinfeld creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David to portray a lightly fictionalized version of David himself. Seinfeld, which ran from 1989 through 1998, was a sit-com vehicle for Seinfeld, a rising star of observational comedy. He and David, longtime friends and fellow comedians, conceived the show as a showcase for stories from their real lives.
When I watched Seinfeld on its initial run, I assumed most of the writing reflected Seinfeld’s own worldview. Now, after having watched Curb Your Enthusiasm, I see that Seinfeld – especially the early seasons – is essentially a Larry David manifesto. I also know, after reading Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s excellent Seinfeldia, that David wrote entire seasons of Seinfeld almost single-handed. Surely no one else could have come up with “The Deal,” in which George’s mother catches him doing you-know-what and ends up in traction, or “The Puffy Shirt.”
Alexander was hardly the lone standout in Seinfeld. Michael Richards, cast as the larger-than-life neighbor Kramer, won three Emmys for his work as supporting actor, and his electric physical comedy and priceless mannerisms could steal the show. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as Seinfeld’s ex-girlfriend Elaine, earned one Emmy and seven nominations for her own inimitable work. But they aren’t really sidekicks, and the relationship between Jerry and George clearly sits at the heart of the Seinfeld enterprise. You’d have no Seinfeld without Larry David, and no Jerry without George.
3. Valerie Harper, “Rhoda Morgenstern,” The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Three Emmy wins, four nominations.
As a sidekick to Mary Richards, Rhoda Morgenstern represents many things her best friend is not. Mary is a WASP from the upper Midwest; Rhoda is a Jew from the Bronx. Mary is formal, polite, proper, and a tad uptight; Rhoda is plainspoken, earthy, bohemian, and occasionally course. Mary is the straight woman in this classic situation comedy; Rhoda is one of four or five inspired comedic characters created to orbit around her. All were good enough to carry entire productions on their backs: Rhoda eventually departed to the spin-off Rhoda, landlady Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) to Phyllis, and gruff boss Lou Grant to Lou Grant, while co-star Gavin MacLeod would later pilot the successful-but-silly Love Boat and the riotous Ted Knight would resurface in the unfortunate Too Close for Comfort.
But Rhoda is Mary’s BFF, and their relationship lies at the center of this great proto-feminist ensemble. The characters are most memorable for what they have in common: Both are unapologetically single women, somehow managing to survive without either husband or children, a state of existence almost unimaginable in the television universe a decade or two earlier.
(In Andy & Don, I argue that the actress Aneta Corsaut’s Helen Crump character on the Griffith Show was effectively Mary Richards a decade before Mary Richards, a single, professional woman living apart from her parents and daring to date a man – - Sheriff Andy Taylor – - without marrying him.)
One of the great things about Mary Tyler Moore is how many of its characters are rendered as complex, three-dimensional beings, rather than simplistic comedy caricatures. No doubt millions of viewers identified with Mary Richards; I bet many others saw shades of themselves in the gritty Lou, the affable Murray or the brash, beloved Rhoda.
4. Rainn Wilson, “Dwight Schrute,” The Office. Zero Emmy wins, three nominations.
I was surprised to see how seldom Rainn Wilson was honored by the academy for his work as Dwight Schrute, the hyperkinetic beet farmer of The Office, over its nine-season run.
Many great performers came and went from the American adaptation of the U.K. mockumentary series about a paper company in a gloomy London suburb. Yet, to my mind, two characters owned every scene in which they appeared. One was Dwight – like Barney Fife, a child trapped in a man’s body, whose every movement, mannerism and utterance seemed better-suited to an eleven-year-old boy. The other was Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, the program’s nominal lead and also the nominal manager of the namesake office, although he, too, seemed frozen in unresolved adolescence.
The Office risked veering off into sit-com chaos by positing wild, physical comedic actors as both lead and sidekick. The program’s straight man, its Andy Taylor, is clearly Jim, played by a pre-buff John Krasinski. Jim is the surrogate for the Office viewing audience, along with Pam, his love interest: They are very nearly the only “normal,” well-adjusted characters in the room, and much of the comedy derives from their raised-eyebrow reactions to the comedic chaos around them. (The pranks Jim and Pam play on the hapless Dwight often verge on elitist bullying: The Office is a surprisingly cruel show.)
Wilson’s work in The Office was tireless and brilliant. He wielded his tall, gawkish, Bill-Moyers-meets-Garrison-Keillor frame as a comedic weapon, his herky-jerky movements reminiscent of the great Basil Fawlty. And his energy never slacked: Watch the season-five skit in which Dwight works over a CPR dummy, a scene as fresh as the actor’s work in season one. Perhaps no one else in recent memory has come closer to channeling the manic genius of Barney Fife.
1. Gary Burghoff, “Radar,” M*A*S*H. One Emmy, seven nominations. Not really a sidekick, Radar was the only M*A*S*H mainstay as downright lovable as Alan Alda.
2. Christopher Lloyd, “Rev. Jim,” Taxi. Two Emmys, two nominations. I think Christopher Lloyd was as much a prototype for Seinfeld’s Kramer as the real-life Kramer.
3. Laurie Metcalf, “Jackie,” Roseanne. Three Emmys, five nominations. The most likeable character on Roseanne, a welcome foil to the brash lead. And, like Barney, an officer of the law!
4. Rhea Perlman, “Carla,” Cheers. Four Emmys, ten nominations. A real standout in an amazing ensemble. Is Carla the most “Boston” character on Cheers?
5. Eric Stonestreet, “Cam,” and Ty Burrell, “Phil,” Modern Family. Four Emmys between them. These two whirlwinds made Modern Family television’s funniest show for a few years.
6. Megan Mullaly, “Karen,” Will & Grace. Two Emmys, eight nominations. My favorite character on a groundbreaking sit-com.
7. Lisa Kudrow, “Phoebe,” Friends. One Emmy, six nominations. I used to consider “Phoebes” one of two or three truly funny characters on Friends. Two decades on, she seems to have aged better than the others.
8. Bryan Cranston, “Hal,” Malcolm in the Middle. Zero Emmys, three nominations. Bryan Cranston’s second-best role. And that’s saying something.
-Daniel de Vise 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’s latest book is The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France, published in June by Atlantic Monthly Press.