When Bob Kesling replaced long-time Voice of the Vols John Ward as the University of Tennessee’s radio broadcaster following Ward’s retirement in 1999, many said he would never get a fair shake due to Ward’s immense popularity.
That was probably a safe assumption. More than a decade and a half later, though, it’s also safe to say that Kesling will never be endearing to Tennessee fans the way Ward was. He just doesn’t have the same knack for the profession that Ward had.
But at least Kesling got a chance.
Sometimes, the shoes that are left in someone’s absence are so big that those who try to fill them never get that fair chance. Just consider Jack Burns.
When Don Knotts left the cast of The Andy Griffith Show following its fifth season to go to work for Universal Studios, Burns was cast as Deputy Warren Ferguson — an effort of Griffith and the show’s producers to fill the comedic void left by Knotts’ Barney Fife character. And never had a chance.
It’s interesting to read the show’s history. Barney was never intended to be the show’s main draw. Instead, it was Griffith’s character — Sheriff Andy Taylor — who was supposed to be the funny man, and Deputy Fife was supposed to be his straight-as-an-arrow sidekick, not unlike the roles the two had played while working together on No Time For Sergeants prior to TAGS. In the first few episodes of Season 1, the evolution of Sheriff Taylor is evident; he starts out a bumbling country bumpkin sheriff and quickly transforms into a straighter, more serious role. As Griffith later said, “By the second episode, I knew that Don should be funny, and I would play straight.”
And Knotts was perfect in that role. He earned an Emmy nomination for best supporting actor in each of his five seasons on the show — winning the award three times out of the five. (He was so good that he earned two more Emmys through five guest appearances on the show after his original departure.)
It’s obviously hard to imagine TAGS without Sheriff Taylor, and it’s also hard to imagine the show without Otis Campbell or several of the other characters who became mainstays. But, clearly, fans were especially enamored with Barney Fife.
So when Knotts left the show after Season 5 — Griffith had originally planned for the show to end after five seasons, Knotts had negotiated a contract with Universal, and stuck with his opportunity for the big screen after Griffith recalculated his plans for TAGS beyond those first five seasons — many fans believed it would just never be the same.
That’s where Burns came into the picture. He was cast as Warren Ferguson, the nephew of Floyd Lawson who would replace Fife as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff.
Warren burst onto the scene in the first episode of Season 6, arresting Aunt Bee and all her friends for illegal gambling because they were hosting bingo games at the Ladies’ Bazaar.
With his trademark questioning (“Huh? Huh? Huh?”), Warren was clearly no Barney Fife. But he was hilarious in his own right.
That’s easy to see as a fan of the show who wouldn’t even be born for many years after the final episode of TAGS aired…not so easy for fans to see at the time. Burns’ character proved hugely unpopular, and he simply disappeared after 11 episodes in the sixth season. He was written out of the series completely, without explanation.
It’s interesting that the 11 episodes Warren appeared in were actually written for Barney. That might have doomed Warren’s character right from the start, but Burns actually pulled them off quite well.
It’s also interesting that Burns wasn’t the first choice to replace Knotts. Jerry Van Dyke was recruited to be the deputy sheriff (remember, he appeared in a Season 5 episode as a displaced carnival worker who volunteered at the Sheriff’s Office), but ultimately decided to star in My Mother the Car — a decision he later said that he regretted (not surprising, since that show only ran one season). Van Dyke was a funny man, and that would’ve been an interesting dynamic for the show to have explored . . . but it’s probably safe to say that even Van Dyke could not have replaced Knotts in the eyes of fans.
As an after-the-fact observer, it seems to me that TAGS was still a funny show with funny story lines during the first half of Season 6, when Warren was a regular. But after that, especially as Season 7 began, it seemed like the story lines became stale, the routines became dull and everyone was simply trying to finish out the show’s three-year contract that Griffith had signed after Season 5. Howard Sprague, the County Clerk, became an increasingly prominent player in Mayberry — and one thing we can all probably agree on is that Sprague was certainly not Barney Fife or even Warren Ferguson.
It wasn’t just that, of course. Howard McNear’s health continued to decline and he eventually left the show (he had suffered a severe stroke after the show’s first season, yet remained on the show for most of its duration with Floyd the Barber only in seated scenes, or in limited standing scenes with a special prop that had been built for him). The barber shop was replaced by Emmitt’s Fix-It Shop. Emmitt was no Floyd and the fix-it shop was no barbershop. Frances Bavier’s on-set relationship with Griffith continued to deteriorate (Griffith and Ronny Howard actually visited Bavier at her North Carolina home several years after the show ended and she refused to see them — though she would ultimately call Griffith from her deathbed in 1989 and apologize) and, as a result, Andy’s on-scene chemistry with Aunt Bee wasn’t what it once was. In short, TAGS suffered the same ailments that all long-running shows eventually experience, and those helped spell its demise.
Of course, that — like Warren’s ability to replace Barney — is a matter of subjection. When the final episode of TAGS aired in 1968, the show was still ranked at the top of the Nielsen’s Ratings. In all of television history, only two other shows have accomplished that — I Love Lucy in 1951, and Seinfeld in 1989.