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Few television characters were more human than Barney Fife

"I feel like we just lost a member of the family." Those were my wife Cheryl's words. She was reading the obituary of actor Don Knotts, who died Feb. 24 at age 81.

When I think of Don Knotts, I automatically think of Barney Fife, the good-hearted Mayberry, N.C., deputy who wore his heart on his sleeve and always seemed to have a knack for taking a precarious - albeit comedic - situation and quickly shoving it off the cliff altogether.

Knotts performed plenty of other roles, some similar to his character on "The Andy Griffith Show," some not. But I'll never be able to separate him from the rail-thin deputy who fancied himself a ladies' man and who, despite his confirmed bachelorhood, never hesitated to give Sheriff Taylor advice on how to raise his son.

Barney, you might recall, was firmly in favor of bud-nipping when it came to rambunctious boys.

Honestly, there was a lot about Knotts himself that I simply didn't know. I didn't know, for instance, that he'd been married three times and had two children. I didn't know he started out as a ventriloquist and moved into broader comedy when he joined the Army at 19 and entertained fellow troops during World War II.

I didn't know that Donald was his middle name, that his first name was Jesse and that his family's roots in America trace back to the 1600s.

And I didn't know that at one time he took up the venerable occupation of chicken plucking when somebody told him flat out that he just wasn't going to cut it as an actor.

That last little bit floored me.

Barney Fife - a chicken plucker?

My first thought was that fact gave his movie "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" a new perspective for me.

My second thought was: How in the world did the writers for "The Andy Griffith Show" miss out on a chance to have Barney get into a big snit, up and quit his deputying job and end up plucking chickens until Andy brings him back to his senses and the courthouse?

Surely writers who could come up with the wonderful concepts such as kerosene-flavored pickles, a rock-throwing hillbilly and a goat loaded up with dynamite could work a little chicken plucking into an episode.

Admittedly, I don't know that chicken plucking is, in itself, funny at all, but I'm pretty sure Don Knotts could've made it funny.

He made Barney - even though he was on a two-dimensional, black-and-white TV screen - come across as human. That, to me, is what separates Barney and "The Andy Griffith Show" from so many others.

When I watch it, I see well-rounded characters with a sense of history. I see two guys - Andy and Barney - who are truly friends, who might tease each other, but who wouldn't be purposely hurtful for the world.

I see Mayberry, a place they created where, for 30 minutes at a stretch, I can sneak away from terrorism, war, politics, high gas prices, sniping people, budgets and other problems, much like those who watched the episodes in the early '60s got away from a presidential assassination, social upheaval, atom bombs, another war and their other problems.

You can't hide from it all, but everybody needs to hang up a "Gone Fishin'" sign from time to time.

I read where Knotts said in interviews that he didn't mind always being remembered as old reliable Barney Fife, the guy who advocated bud-nipping, keeping romance alive with inspired telephonic poetry and always making sure you had a bullet in your pocket.

Honestly, I can't see why he would have minded it.

After all, he made Barney.

And Barney - well, Barney made him part of the family.

Jim Hendricks is editor of the Albany Herald, sister paper of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at jim.hendricks@albanyherald.com.