Above them all, before them all, one spindly giant lurks in the cinematic shadows. He is the mother-squid of method acting from whom De Niro, Day Lewis and Streep were birthed onto the giant screen. Years before Mr. De Niro gained 100 pounds of gut lard to play Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull”, or Mr. Hoffman perfected the bird-like gaze of the Wapper-loving, matchstick-counting idiot-savant of “Rainman”, or Mr. Day Lewis grew his surrealistically large mustache for "Gangs of New York,"...before any of them, an unheralded TV actor named Donald Knotts gambled a safe and modestly lucrative career as a Mayberry deputy sheriff to transform himself—physically, psychologically and emotionally—into an achingly credible cartoon fish in “The Incredible Mr. Limpet.” And thus changed the course of American movie-making forever.
Personally, I can recall only one other performance in the past fifty years that astounded me half as much: I speak, of course, of Wilson the volleyball, Tom Hanks' scene-stealing co-star in “Cast Away.” (Wilson the volleybal, who, in shameful display of the rank prejudice still prevalent among the Academy against characters of leather, lost the 2000 Best Supporting Oscar to Benicio Del Toro.) Even now, remembering that day in the theatre, I can feel the tears and sputum dripping down my face into my Jujubes and Zagnuts, can yet hear the howls of grief wrenched from my slippery intestines, as that sweet-natured, stitched-leather piece of sports equipment bobbed away, ever the uncomplaining stoic, over that last wave into nothingness. (Why, God, do bad things happen to good volleyballs?) What a faithful friend was Wilson! What a good listener and secrets-keeper! Mr. Hanks should get down on his knees and thank the universe for the privilege of sharing his lost island, dank cave and hairy coconuts with Wilson the volleyball. Or, conceivably, I suppose he could have been a soccer ball. (A teather ball would have had one of those loopy carabineer jobbies to attach it via the rope to the teather "pole".)
But back to “Limpet”: by any measure, Mr. Knotts as Henry Limpet the accountant (before he became the fish) was the kind of woebegone, life-whipped schlimazel most people could feel good about kicking half to death to relieve the impotent peevishness of ordinary existence. So perhaps it’s not really surprising that Limpet glimpsed a better world than ours inside the murky algae bloom of his fish bowl. How he would gaze in tenderness at his dull-eyed, worm-eaten goldfish, floating upside down around the plastic castle in the shit-strewn water. How he would croon in mournful longing. Frankly, after the 2004 election, it’s hard not to empathize.
Jung tells us that to return to the ocean, the Great Mother, is an archetypical yearning of the collective unconscious. Though I’ve myself never longed to be a fish or sea mammal, I’ve oft dreamt of becoming a street-wise, cane-swinging, tap-dancing Louisiana crawdaddy—kind of a freshwater-crustacean blend of Sammy Davis Junior and Mr. Peanut. My best friend, Yak, for his part, fantasizes about becoming one of those weimaraners they dress up as flappers and saloon girls on all the greeting cards and calendars. His attempts to realize that whimsy have not been pretty, or even legal, but one has to salute the courage to follow one's dreams. Frankly, he's got a lot of issues and given the option, I’d trade a thousand Yaks for just one bosom amigo of Wilson’s caliber. Why couldn’t it have been Yak who bobbed away over that wave into the void?
In the East, they believe that men can be reborn as rodents, snakes, toads and chimpanzees (and still end up working for Rupert Murdoch). The mystic-mathematician, Pythagoras, was so convinced of our reincarnation into the fetal-shaped kidney bean that he stopped eating chile con carne, til then a staple of the ancient world menu. And Castaneda’s enigmatic brujo, Don Juan, abandoned our human universe for that of the biscuit weevil, as did one of my seventies’ girlfriends after a triple hit of bad blotter. She seems sincerely happier now, and I can’t help begrudging the peace and the sense of community, as well as the reduced housing expenses, she and her husband have attained as a result.
But, of course, it’s not always that simple. Indeed, at the very moment Mr. Knotts tumbles into the refuse-laden waters off Coney Island to metamorphize into an animated porpoise, a Greek Muzak chorus in the background sings “Be careful what you wish for,” a dark reminder that on the flip side of our dreams of freedom, lies…the tuna net, the tartar sauce and the Bush administration hood-hose-and-electrode chat room. Without giving away the movie’s magnificently Wagnerian ending (Limpett's pince-nez slide off his bottle nose at a critical moment in the war on Nazi U-Boats), I will admit that the dreamy-liberal, surrender-monkey-Democrat side of me yet cherishes the hope that Limpet the porpoise and Wilson the volleyball, two solitary misfits who deserved so much better, ultimately met on the edges of those watery wastes...fell in love...became a world-famous act at Marine World and ultimately exchanged marriage vows at San Francisco's City Hall. (Which was condemned by the Mormons.)
(Alternatively, the mixed-race, homoerotic action-buddy thing—a la Mel Gibson & Danny Glover or Owen Wilson & Jackie Chan—might be kind of fun, if done tastefully.)
Except for the French (who made Mr. Knotts a 5-star Duc of their Legion d'honneur and feted him during an extravagant week-long national holiday), the critics ignored “Limpet” and its sequels, the southern-fried "Porpoise on a Hot Tin Roof" and the gritty, urban tale "Reservoir Porpoises." Indeed, the long-deserved recognition of Mr. Knotts’ talents would only come years later, after his lesser film, “The Ghost & Mr. Chicken”, went on to become Ronald Reagan’s favorite, avidly watched during every cabinet meeting of the last five years of his presidency. For those with continuing interest in the premier cartoon-fish and idiot-deputy* of our times, I strongly recommend Mr. Knotts’ heartbreaking autobiography, “Under Andy’s Heel, Aunt Bea’s Thumb & Opie’s Shadow: A Melancholy Fella Called Barney Fife.”
* Note: By calling Mr. Knotts the premier idiot-deputy of our times, I do not mean to belittle the enormous contributions of Gunsmoke's Festus Haggen and F Troop's Corporal Agarn to this most difficult metier of the thespian's craft.
Henry E. Panky
Grab a Club, Dear Friend,
& Dance with Me Around the Mysterious Space Obelisk