powered by AFI
Believe it or not, Don Knotts enjoys a vast cult following. Just check out the many internet shrines and personal pages dedicated to him on the worldwide web. While he is most famous for his hilarious portrayal of small town deputy sheriff Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, his film career is distinguished by a handful of truly eclectic comedies like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), a haunted house farce, and The Love God? (1969), in which he inherits a girlie magazine and becomes a national sex symbol. The strangest one of all, however, is The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), an odd combination of live-action and animation which works as both a fantasy musical-romance (the songs by Sammy Fain and Harold Adamson include "I Wish I Were a Fish") and an underwater espionage thriller. Set during the early days of World War II, Knotts plays Henry Limpet, a henpecked bookkeeper in Brooklyn whose only pleasure in life is his all-consuming interest in aquatic life. During an outing to Coney Island with his nagging wife Bessie (Carole Cook) and her admirer (Jack Weston), Limpet falls off the pier and is miraculously transformed into a dolphin. His new life underwater proves to be a lot more exciting than his former life as a man; he falls in love with a beautiful female dolphin called Ladyfish and he becomes the U.S. Navy's secret weapon, tracking down and sinking Nazi U-boats in the Atlantic. Yet, despite a happy ending, there is a core of sadness at the center of the film - that of a loner who never finds his place in human society and instead chooses to live in an alternate fantasy world.
Granted, the premise of The Incredible Mr. Limpet was a little too weird to pass as a Walt Disney film (it was actually produced by Warner Brothers) but if it had actually been created and marketed by the folks at Disney, it might have been a huge success at the box office. As it was, the film didn't quite fit into any niche though it was targeted at family audiences and kiddie matinees.
In his autobiography, Barney Fife and Other Characters I Have Known, Knotts fondly recalls the film and the difficulties of making it: "I was only on-screen as myself for about twenty minutes. The rest of my work was doing the voice of the animated fish. The picture was produced...by a man named John C. Rose...a perfectionist, he hired and fired several animation artists before he found one who came up with a drawing of the fish, Henry Limpet, that satisfied him...I don't think the powers that be at the studio quite understood the picture. According to the director, Arthur Lubin, Jack Warner, who'd been watching the dailies, sent him a memo one day that read: "You've got a funny actor down there. Why don't you give him something funny to do?" Mr. Limpet was not supposed to be funny. Quaint and amusing, yes, but not funny. All of John Rose's dogged determination paid off. I thought it turned out to be a splendid motion picture. I can't say the New York Times critics agreed with that assessment, however. They panned it. While I was in New York doing PR for the picture, I approached the front door of a restaurant and the doorman said, "Welcome back to New York, Mr. Knotts. Gee, I understand you've got a lousy movie in town."
Obviously the New York Times critics represented a minority viewpoint because The Incredible Mr. Limpet has gone on to become a cult favorite over the years through its frequent television showings. Jim Carrey is rumored to be interested in a remake of it and the film was certainly a smart career move for Knotts. Lou Wasserman, president of Universal, saw The Incredible Mr. Limpet and immediately signed Knotts to a long term contract that resulted in a steady stream of profitable comedies beginning with The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and including The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) and The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968). Knotts' unpredictable success as a solo comic led to his own variety show (The Don Knotts Show, 1970-71) and a career resurgence in the mid-seventies due to a series of comedies with co-star Tim Conway (The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), Gus (1976) and several more).
Producer: John C. Rose
Director: Arthur Lubin
Screenplay: Jameson Brewer, Joe DiMona, Theodore Pratt, John C. Rose
Cinematography: Harold E. Stine
Film Editing: Donald Tait
Art Direction: LeRoy Deane
Music: Harold Adamson, Sammy Fain, Frank Perkins
Cast: Don Knotts (Henry Limpet), Carole Cook (Bessie Limpet), Jack Weston (George Stickel), Andrew Duggan (Harlock), Larry Keating (Admiral Spewter), Elizabeth MacRae (voice of Ladyfish), Paul Frees (voice of Crusty).
By Jeff Stafford