Some network hypesters would have you believe landmark television programs air every night, but in the humble opinion of Don Knotts, the season opener of NBC-TV's Matlock (7 p.m., Ch. 2) was indeed noteworthy.
The Nov. 29 show reunited Knotts and Andy Griffith - a genuinely dynamic duo in the 1960s - for the first time in a television series since Knotts left "The Andy Griffith Show" for a film career in 1965.The show introduced Knotts as Griffith's new neighbor on the hit dramatic series, in which Griffith portrays a folksy Southern lawyer, not unlike the folksy Sheriff Andy Taylor he played more than 20 years ago on CBS.
Knotts said his continuing role should in no way be confused with Barney Fife, the nervous deputy sheriff he portrayed in the 1960s, a role that brought him five Emmy Awards as best supporting actor in a comedy series.
"Barney was a pretty hyper character," Knotts said, "but at the same time, he was sort of a childlike character.
"When I went into motion pictures for awhile, I pretty much did that character but now, I would say I don't use his character much at all. I'll still do comedy, but I don't use the same tricks."
His appearance on "Matlock" certainly wasn't played for laughs. The episode had Knotts accused of murdering an unscrupulous car dealer. Griffith defends Knotts and, in true "Matlock" fashion, discovers the real killer.
The series, which began its third season, was held up by the 51/2-month writers' strike but that gave Griffith the time he needed to convince himself a reunion was in order.
"We usually have a three-month hiatus but the strike added three more months on top of that," said Griffith, 62. "So I just started toying with the notion of introducing Don as a neighbor, and even started working out scenes on my own.
"Don Knotts is the best comedic actor I have ever met. His presence affords us the opportunity now to lighten up our stories a bit, get some comedy relief in before getting back into serious business."
"He has nothing to lose, certainly, since his show is already a hit," Knotts said. "Maybe I'll knock it down a few notches."
The two met in 1955, when Griffith was preparing for his first major role in the Broadway play "No Time for Sergeants."
"I was at a rehearsal and Don came to an audition for a small part," Griffith said. "You can't help but notice him. He appeared as nervous as his on-camera personality would suggest. And I knew we had to find a part for him."
They appeared together again when "Sergeants" was adapted for the movies in 1958 and for five of the eight years that "The Andy Griffith Show" ran on CBS.
The last time Griffith and Knotts teamed up was in May 1986, when the original cast of "The Andy Griffith Show" was brought together for a television movie.
"Andy was very deliberate in his decision of the proper time for that (reunion)," Knotts said. "He did not want a reunion just for the sake of having one, because you are always a little cautious about those things.
"But it was a happy company, and everybody seemed to get back into the old routine. That is exactly what you would hope for out of those situations. Andy is definitely a loyal guy."
Knotts, 64, began his comedy career on the old Steve Allen show. His movies have included "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken," "The Apple Dumpling Gang."
He also appared in the popular TV sitcom "Three's Company" in the 1980s, playing the landlord with Don Juan dreams.
His earliest dramatic television work goes back more than 30 years "back in 1954 or 1955," he said, when he was on the soap opera "Search for Tomorrow."
"One of the toughest jobs I ever had, 15 minutes live without cue cards," said Knotts. "I played a guy who was really a psychotic-neurotic kind of character, who was afraid to talk to anybody but his sister.
"Lee Grant was my sister. And let me tell you, this character was really a psycho, and not a funny psycho."
Lately, he said he's been wondering whether life imitates art or vice versa, stemming from a visit to his home town, Morgantown, W.Va.
"The folks down there told me they wanted to have a day in my honor," Knotts said. "And when I arrived, I found that the local sheriff and his deputy were in charge of the big parade.
"The deputy reminded me of Barney Fife, to the T. He had this blackboard and was barking orders. I thought, `After all this time, jeez, I am seeing the REAL Barney Fife."'