Al Checco Shares Memories About Don Knotts
Al first knew Don during their days in the Army during World War II. They remained friends until Don's passing in February. Al appeared in two episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show." He was bank robber Mort in "The Bank Job" during the second season and played Hennessey, who worked with Barney on the case in "If I Had a Quarter Million Dollars" in the fifth season. (You remember that case, it's the one that they handled just like the McAllister Case.)
Al's long list of acting credits includes work in three films with Don Knotts (The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Reluctant Astronaut, and How to Frame a Figg). He also appeared in Angel in My Pocket with Andy Griffith.
Al was one of 21 speakers at the "Celebration of a Life" memorial for Don Knotts held in Beverly Hills in May. Time was limited for extensive stories there, but Al has graciously agreed to share with us here some of his special memories of Don during their Army days.
In 1943, the Army wrangled a group of soldiers who had given some indication of either being an entertainer or at least having performing talent into a unit that it called Detachment X. Al Checco picks up the story from here:
They brought us in from all over the country. Our unit was a conglomeration of people who had at least some background as far as entertaining. They wanted to get representatives from various branches of the Army, such as the engineers, air corps, infantry, quartermaster, and so on.
We had singers, musicians, dancers, actors, jugglers, magicians...and one ventriloquist, Don Knotts. We'd all had basic training and what have you with our previous units. We knew how to fire a rifle and all that. We were all sent to Fort Meade in Maryland to be part of this new, ominous-sounding outfit called Detachment X.
But the Army hadn't really thought it out so much as far as a table of organization and how we would operate. We had no commanding officer. In fact, officers would hide behind coconut trees to avoid going with us. We ended up being the only democratic unit in the whole Army. We actually held elections. We voted for our own representative to lead us. We called him a first sergeant, but he really wasn't. We just called him that. A lot of us ended up being the representative for a time, and then we'd get disgusted with it and have another election to vote somebody else into the job. It was really wacky.
None of us conformed to any sort of Army regulations. We wore all kinds of uniforms-from fatigues to air corps uniforms to sweaters or whatever each person happened to have. There was no rhyme or reason to what we wore. We really were a motley crew. None of us ever got promoted or anything. When they discharged us, they did bump most of us up a notch or two. I was discharged as a sergeant. I think Don was, too.
But if you look at the Army records, you would think that our outfit was the greatest fighting force since the Civil War because we deployed to so many forward battle areas. But we were just an experimental group of entertainers. They called us Detachment X only because they had no better name for us.
The whole idea of our unit was to try to keep the morale of the soldiers up on the front lines, so the areas where they sent us to perform were therefore really places with a lot of combat very nearby.
After we rehearsed a little, they sent us overseas-to the Pacific. We were the first entertainment unit to be sent to the Pacific theater of battle. The first place we landed was Milne Bay, New Guinea. We were sent to islands all over the Pacific. We performed on whatever we could put together to be a stage. Sometimes it might be just the backs of a couple of trucks. Other times we had a tent or a structure that was a pretty decent place. We called our show "Stars and Gripes."
Particularly when we were first there, the Japanese kept bombing us at about the same time every night during the first act, just before I was supposed to sing a song. Maybe I should have taken the hint. Don was supposed to go on right after me with this cute little ventriloquist act that he did. When the Japanese bombed us, the sirens would go off, and we'd have to stop the show, jump in our foxholes or whatever, and then come out and finish the show. This went on for a number of weeks. I kept suggesting to Don that we resume the show with him going first to get it off to a good start because my song was O.K., but it was nothing special. Don would say, "No-no, Al, what you do is good. You warm up the audience." Of course, he was just conning me.
Don never liked doing that ventriloquist act. It went over great, but Don just got tired of doing it and felt limited. He really wanted to do the comedy sketches.
We were unloading at one of the islands one day and working like a chain helping each other with footlockers and musical instruments and all that. Danny, Don's dummy, was always in a suitcase that traveled with the other gear. But we discovered that case was missing. Out of the clear blue sky, that suitcase was gone. When we asked Don about it, he just shuffled back and forth and sheepishly said, "Well, I don't know. I don't know."
While we were still in the service, Don never did really admit to throwing Danny overboard. But through the years, he let me know that was in fact what he did. [In Don' autobiography, Barney Fife and Other Characters I Have Known, he still wouldn't officially admit to throwing Danny overboard, but would say only that he left Danny on a beach. But Don admitted to others over the years that he actually tossed Danny out to sea.]
Anyway, what happened was that, because Don could no longer do his ventriloquist act, he got put into a couple of the sketches, and got big laughs, as only Don Knotts could do. [He created sketches with comedian Red Ford and later Mickey Shaughnessy.] He began developing the kind of nervous characters that he would become famous for on "Steve Allen," and even similar to Barney Fife.
Don also helped out with the writing for the main show-as well the presentations we did at the hospital wards. The closing number for the main show was called "My Pinup Girl." Of course, there were no women in our outfit, so various guys would dress up as the pinup girls. Each one would come out. And finally Don would come out with his grand physique, all 110 pounds, and bring the house down with great laughs.
He developed this great ability to play women, stooges, doctors, anything. It was a great advantage to our show to have Don play all these different characters and not be stuck with the ventriloquist act. Had he not assassinated his own dummy, he might have been a ventriloquist for a long time and who knows what would have happened-or not happened. Would there have been a Barney Fife?
After we were discharged, Don and I kept bumping into each other. I was doing Broadway shows, and he was doing his radio show [Don played old-timer Windy Wales on "Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B"], and we would often visit. Sometime later, I was doing a play in Boston shortly after my wife, actress Jean Bradley, unexpectedly died. Don was also in Boston doing No Time for Sergeants. Let me tell you-the compassion Don showed for me in those days was incredible. I'll never forget it. He really was such a kind, caring, interested person. He wanted to share my problems. He was a true friend.
Well, we both eventually found our way to Los Angeles and found work. We stayed in touch. Don introduced me to Aaron Ruben and along the way I did a couple of "Andy Griffith" segments. We kept crossing paths. I was in several of Don's movies. I have a picture of Don, which is still on my wall, that Don inscribed "Long may our paths cross." And that's true. We kept running into each other for a lifetime.
Even in his last years, we would see each other at various times, such as when we played penny-ante poker. He didn't see very well, you know. I'd say, "Don, I think you've got a straight there."
Don would say, "You think so? I'll raise!" He was unassuming and modest, and hilarious all at the same time.
Don was more than a comic, more than an actor. He was one of the kindest hearts I've ever known.
As humble as he was, he was also a magnet for crowds. No matter where we were, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, or wherever, he was like the pied piper, by accident. He didn't seek it out or encourage it. It just happened. We'd walk down the street, and people would just follow him. He was a phenomenon. Talk about American Idols. Don absolutely was. I miss him.
We extend our tremendous thanks to Al Checco for sharing these wonderful memories of his friend Don, especially about their Army days, which haven't been widely reported through the years.-ed.