When shoes are simply too big to fill

When shoes are simply too big to fill

Andy Griffith Show 3 JPG

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.

7 Reviews

    I was just saying to my girlfriend on Sunday how Jack Burns had no shot at ever replacing Barney Fife no matter how good he was. That is how great Barney was. Jack Burns came up as a topic because I just recently learned he was part of a comedy team with George Carlin before Burns & Schreiber. I did not know that.

    Another aspect of the decline of the show I believe was the transition from B&W to color. Something in the lights and shadows of B&W Mayberry evoke a more pastoral and genteel America, one more associated with the 1930’s in some ways. The color shows looked almost harsh and less authentic, bathed in too many green walls and noticeably cardboard looking sets.

    AB, or after Barney, Sheriff Taylor was a more cranky figure, Howard and Goober could be amusing, but without the brilliant Floyd character, or a visiting Barney Fife, the characters and show seemed bathed in melancholy and formula. Aunt Bee’s driving or restaurant adventures were as close to jump the shark moments for this franchise. Still and all, a fantastic show.

    Jack Burns is a very funny man. He had great success teaming with Avery Schreiber later on. He landed on his feet. However, he was miscast for the Andy Griffith Show. He was simply too New England for Mayberry, NC. I believe Jerry Van Dyke would have been more successful, as his performance in the Season 5 finale (intended to be an introduction to his character) indicates. However, we will never know. I disagree with the author about the final 3 seasons. Concentrating on the other host of characters made the show more about the town, and is likely why it survived into the Mayberry RFD years. Some of those episodes are quite good. Though I agree nothing can match seasons 1-5. The earlier poster makes a good point about the negative impact of color on TAGS, and other shows as well during the 60s.

    Great article and wonderful comments!!! I am still a huge fan of TAGS & continue enjoying it via Netflix. I thoroughly agree with Mr. Garrett – – Don Knotts as Barney was completely irreplaceable. I don’t believe a comedian in existence at that time could have ‘filled his shoes’. Personally I felt Jack Burns was out of place in the town of Mayberry, as it also appeared the atttitude of the other characters towards Warren (as written in the scripts) seemed to show. When Don Knotts reappears episodically after season 5, those shows were so enjoyable and exciting to watch, yet also created such a yearning to have him fully return to the show. I agree also with poster Wade Collins that the change in format from B & W definitely affected the quaintness & serenity of the small town feel of Mayberry. But still to this day, all 8 seasons, I feel, are still more relaxing, more stress-relieving and completely enjoyable to watch over and over again. I cannot say that about the sit-coms developed since that wonderful time period of the 60’s. There are very few exceptions. Though the show ‘Frasier’ is one for sure!

    It is clear that Andy Griffith should have stuck with his plan to end the show after 5 seasons. Sheriff Taylor had become more of a grouchy jerk (except when Barney returned), Jack Burns could not replace Don Knotts, and a several of the other characters that appeared in the original episodes were not as funny. I noticed when Back to Mayberry, the 2003 reunion show aired, there was no references to any of the colored episodes or Jack Burns, which may have been done out of respect to Don Knotts. Btw, if Jack Burns’ character, Warren Ferguson was irritating to Sheriff Taylor, I wonder how it would have worked out if he had served under “Acting Sheriff” Barney Fife in the 1986 reunion movie, “Return to Mayberry?”

    Barney IS irreplaceable, but I really like/love Warren, he was quite a character all on his own!!!!!

    I watched the originals as a kid (I was born three months after Ron Howard, so I was always the same age as Opie in the show). Re-watching them on Netflix reminds me why I lost interest after Don Knotts left. Warren is so spastic and annoying. I loved Barney’s total lack of self-awareness, his haste to take credit for hilarious situations that just happened to work out no thanks to his efforts, his overly confident know-it-all attitude, etc. And I agree with the other comments regarding the switch from B&W to color; the show had a nostalgic feel that color ruined (and ew, that green kitchen!).

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