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My Week With Don Knotts

by The Social Diary Entertainment Columnist Fred Saxon
Column #2, March 27th, 2006

Don Knotts passed away on February 24, 2006. While the uniquely talented actor and comedian may have died, the on-screen performances and enjoyment that he brought to audiences will live on forever.

Most will remember Don Knotts as the loveable, laughable Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show", or Mr. Furley on "Three's Company." I have my own special memories of Don and the week we spent together in Atlanta Georgia.

It was 1979. I was the entertainment reporter at WXIA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Atlanta. My agent sent me on an audition for the part of the ringside radio announcer in a new movie being made in Atlanta. It was called "The Prize Fighter," starring Tim Conway and Don Knotts. I got the part.

(pictured here - Fred Saxon and Don Knotts on the set of "The Prize Fighter." Photo is courtesy, credit and copyright of Fred Saxon)

I was thrilled to be doing my very first movie role, and even more thrilled when I discovered all of my scenes would be with Don Knotts and Tim Conway.

Don was playing "Shake", the manager of "Bags Collins", a rather clumsy and inept boxer, played by Tim. His place on the set was in the corner of the boxing ring, right next to where I was sitting as the ringside radio announcer. The story took place in the 1930's and we were dressed appropriately.

Anyone who has seen the movie-making process knows it's a game of "hurry up and wait". There is at least one hour of waiting for every one minute of shooting. My scenes were at the end of the movie, where Bags was battling a tough boxer called "The Butcher" for the championship. As the ring-side radio announcer, I was next to the corner, calling the fight-on camera-but would add the actual audio track later at a recording session in Hollywood.

For six days I went to the municipal auditorium early in the morning to have my makeup applied and take my place on the set. And for six days, Don Knotts was right there beside me as we both waited for the camera to roll and the director to yell "Action!"

While we waited we talked.

It was great fun to be part of a movie but it was a joy to be able to spend the time between takes talking and schmoozing with the great Don Knotts. He was a kind and quiet man, soft-spoken and friendly. Don told me stories and we shared laughs.

I remember Don referring to the green pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes on the table where my microphone was. The microphone and cigarette pack were both props. Don said that up to the start of World War II, Lucky Strikes were in a green package but as the war broke out, they changed their packaging to white using the advertising phrase "Lucky Strike Green has gone to war." He wasn't sure exactly why the company used that phrase but seeing the cigarette pack brought the memory of the slogan back to him. That conversation with Don Knotts has stuck with me, and I recently discovered the history behind Don's story on the internet. (http://www.wclynx.com/burntofferings/adsluckystrikegreen.html) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucky_Strike) Seems they were cleverly marketing cigarettes even then.

As the week unfolded, Don Knotts and I became friends as we shot our scenes, talked between takes and shared jokes.

Later, when I moved to Los Angeles and went to work for CNN, I would occasionally see Don at an event, but not often. He was a guy who shunned the spotlight and the glitz of Hollywood. I took an improv comedy class where I met Don's daughter, Karen. She was proof that the 'comedy gene' is indeed something you can inherit.

I often wish I had a video recording-or even an audio recording of the week I spent with Don Knotts on the set of "The Prize Fighter." I can see us in the scenes from the movie, but that only represents a few minutes of our time together.

The last time I saw Don Knotts was October 1999, some 20 years after we first met. My wife and I were having dinner in the Garden Cafe at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. Don was there, dining with a woman. I walked up to his table, introduced myself and reminded him that we had worked together on "The Prize Fighter". He remembered, and said, "that was fun."

Yes it was Don. Thank you. And thanks for all the smiles you brought us through the years with your loveable characters.

* Fred Saxon was selected as the first Hollywood-based entertainment reporter for CNN in 1980 and has been interviewing Hollywood stars ever since. Fred has appeared daily on CNN, The Nine Network Australia, KUSI MORNING NEWS, and FOX IN THE MORNING with his entertainment reports, movie reviews and celebrity interviews. Fred has also hosted the half-hour shows "Closeup," and "Fred Saxon's Inside Entertainment." He has been awarded two EMMYS for his work on television. For more on Saxon please visit www.fredsaxon.com

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copyright of the author, The Social Diary, San Diego Social Diary, margomargo.com and Margo Schwab.

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