Cast & Crew
Luther Heggs, a meek, timid typesetter for a smalltown newspaper, envisions himself in his daydreams as a reporter worthy of winning the love of Alma Parker. His chance comes when he writes an article on the local "haunted house," where a gruesome murder and suicide took place 20 years earlier. The newspaper piece creates such a stir that Luther's editor, George Beckett, orders him to spend a night in the old house and do a followup story. During the long vigil, the terrified Luther discovers a hidden staircase, a bloodstained organ that plays by itself, and a portrait dripping blood. When his story is published, Luther is given a town picnic in honor of his courage. Nick Simmons, a descendant of the murdered couple and the current owner of the old house, sues Luther and his paper for libel. At the trial, the judge makes the jurors and all involved parties pay a visit to the deserted mansion. Although nothing is found, Luther accidentally tricks Mr. Simmons into revealing his own guilt in the 20-year-old killings, and Luther once again becomes the town hero.
J. Edward Mckinley
Earl N. Crain Sr.
John Mccarthy Jr.
Edward J. Montagne
Waldon O. Watson
Sam E. Waxman
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken
In his autobiography (Barney Fife and Other Characters I Have Known, with Robert Metz), Don Knotts describes in detail the circumstances that led to his motion picture contract with Universal Pictures. According to Knotts, Andy Griffith had maintained for some time that he would end his hit sitcom for CBS at the end of the fifth season. During the hiatus one year, Knotts had appeared in the film The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964) for Warner Bros. Amidst the fifth season of the Griffith show, he naturally began to look for other steady employment, "...and since I was pretty hot at the time, I started getting some pretty attractive television offers. Suddenly I landed an interview that really made me sit up and take notice. It was with Lew Wasserman at Universal, and he wanted to talk to me about a picture contract." Wasserman had screened the poor-performing Limpet, and felt that had it been produced and promoted by a studio with experience in family pictures (such as Disney Studios), it would have been a smash hit. Wasserman offered Knotts a five-year contract to make family comedies at Universal, with free rein to pick screenwriters and other key personnel. Knotts jumped at the opportunity, even though by that time Griffith had decided to continue his show for another three seasons. Knotts already had a verbal agreement for the picture deal, so he left Mayberry behind, except for a few guest shots in future seasons.
Recalling an episode of The Andy Griffith Show involving Barney in a haunted house, Knotts picked the same topic as the subject for his first Universal picture and had the studio hire writers Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum to take on the script. Fritzell and Greenbaum had been key writers on the Griffith show (penning 29 episodes between 1961 and 1964), and Knotts had actually known them since they worked together briefly on the Mr. Peepers (1952-1955) TV series. In a sign that Universal planned a low budget for the Knotts movies, television producer Edward Montagne was assigned to the film; Montagne was then producing the hit TV series McHale's Navy (1962-1966) at Universal. When confronted with the initial plot construction phase of the writing process, Knotts had an inspiration; "Remembering what a good story constructionist Andy Griffith is, I called Andy and asked if he would consider helping us put this story together. He said he'd be happy to. I called Ed Montagne and he arranged for Universal to pay Andy a token compensation for helping us."
In the story eventually developed, Luther Heggs (Don Knotts) is a typesetter for the small-town newspaper Rachel Courier Express in Rachel, Kansas. One night he sees the town drunk (Hal Smith) hit in a case of spousal battery, but Luther screams "Murder" all the way to the police station. The would-be homicide reporter is teased mercilessly for his mistake, in particular by the paper's hot-shot reporter, Ollie Weaver (Skip Homeier). Luther is obviously jealous of Ollie, including his relationship with pretty Alma Parker (Joan Staley), whom Luther secretly has a crush on. Mr. Kelsey (Liam Redmond), the janitor at the newspaper office, encourages Luther to run a short feature noting the twentieth anniversary of the Simmons Murder, the most notorious crime in the town's history. The story goes that Mr. Simmons had stabbed his wife in the neck with garden shears, and then madly played the organ in the house before throwing himself out of an upper window. George Beckett (Dick Sargent), the owner of the newspaper, decides that Luther can become a full-fledged reporter by spending the night in the supposedly haunted Simmons mansion, but this does not sit well with Nicholas Simmons (Philip Ober), nephew of the dead couple, who has returned to town to tear the old place down.
The final script took three months to write, under the working title Running Scared. The story is a well thought out comedy-mystery, but the real selling point of the scenario is the opportunity for the same sort of gentle satire of small-town sensibilities that was in evidence on The Andy Griffith Show. For example, Luther finds some support in his story of supernatural goings-on from the daffy ladies of the "Psychic Occult Society" of Rachel (played by Florence Lake, Dorothy Love, and others), and delivers a riotous white-knuckled speech at a stereotypical town picnic in front of tolerant friends and local "dignitaries." The supporting cast is filled out by many faces familiar to TV viewers in the 1960s, such as Charles Lane (perfect as a sourpuss lawyer), Ellen Corby, Burt Mustin, Harry Hickox, Robert Cornthwaite, and many others.
The filming of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken was set at just 17 days, and typical for a low-budget feature produced at Universal during the period, took place on the backlot and on standing sets from various TV shows, redressed for the occasion. Knotts requested another Griffith Show veteran, Alan Rafkin, to direct. One running gag in the script required a legal clearance, and Knotts described the efforts to accomplish this prior to filming. "In the movie," Knotts wrote, "blood from a murderer's hands had been left on the keys of the pipe organ in the haunted house, and two delightful old ladies talk about it several times. One says, 'There's still blood on the organ keys. They haven't been able to get it off.' The other lady says, 'And they used Bon Ami.'" Producer Montagne left it to the Universal legal department to contact Bon Ami to get permission to use their product name in the movie. Weeks went by, and three days before filming was to begin, Knotts called the company president himself. Explaining the line, the executive replied "'Sounds terrific! Please use it.' Thus we saved the delightful 'Bon Ami' line and I learned a valuable lesson. Never wait for legal departments." Another one of the film's memorable running gags is the frequent exclamation "Atta boy, Luther!" yelled by an unseen gent in town; this bit was suggested by Andy Griffith.
Another of the enduring charms of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is the wildly inventive music score by Vic Mizzy. Mizzy also hailed from television, where he had written cues and scores for dozens of shows, and along the way had penned the unforgettable themes for The Addams Family (1964-1966) and Green Acres (1965-1971). Mizzy had scored only one previous feature at Universal, The Night Walker (1964), directed by William Castle. Mizzy's recognizable style playfully mixes unexpected instrumentation such as xylophone, fuzz guitar, and bass harmonica, and reveals ingenious variations on a single catchy theme. The score, which Mizzy wrote in a mere four days, also features the scary "Haunted Organ" theme which perfectly punctuates Luther's ordeal of seeing blood gush from the impaled neck of the portrait of Mrs. Simmons during his terrifying night in the mansion. No doubt there were many matinee-attending kids who found this sequence to be fairly nightmare-inducing stuff plopped in the middle of a family comedy.
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken proved to be a hit at the box-office and the Knotts movies at Universal continued to strike similar notes, with somewhat diminishing results, in The Reluctant Astronaut (1967), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968), The Love God? (1969), and How to Frame a Figg (1971).
Producers: Edward J. Montagne
Director: Alan Rafkin
Screenplay: James Fritzell, Everett Greenbaum (writers); Andy Griffith (uncredited)
Cinematography: William Margulies
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, George Webb
Music: Vic Mizzy
Film Editing: Sam E. Waxman
Cast: Don Knotts (Luther Heggs), Joan Staley (Alma Parker), Liam Redmond (Kelsey), Dick Sargent (George Beckett), Skip Homeier (Ollie Weaver), Reta Shaw (Mrs. Halcyon Maxwell), Lurene Tuttle (Mrs. Natalie Miller), Phil Ober (Nicholas Simmons), Harry Hickox (Police Chief Art Fuller), Charles Lane (Whitlow)
by John M. Miller
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken
Don Knotts: Reluctant Hero Pack
Knotts was a World War II army veteran who made tentative moves into acting before finally hitting the big time as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, a role that earned him five Emmys. It didn't take too long before movie studios realized that the goofy, somewhat delusional Fife character could be easily shifted into a variety of inexpensive genre films. The first was The Incredible Mr. Limpet, a Warner Brothers film available elsewhere on DVD. However, Universal made Knotts such an offer that he gave up Fife and left TV for the movies.
The initial film under that contract was The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) which features Knotts as a small-town typesetter (there's a job that will increasingly need explanation) who really wants to move up to journalist. He's also smitten with the local hottie Alma (Joan Staley, Playboy's Miss November 1958) while being tormented by the hotshot reporter (Skip Homeier, a veteran of Boetticher and Fuller films). Knotts ends up spending a night in a supposedly haunted house while trying to maintain his dignity. Though there are a few predictable double-takes, the film is also genuinely funny at times. In particular, Knotts' clumsy public speech is nearly a minor masterpiece and other bits are brought off with speed and energy. Overall The Ghost and Mr. Chicken may be Knotts' best work.
The Reluctant Astronaut (1967), however, shows the limitations of the formula. Knotts plays a carnival employee who thinks he's chosen to be an astronaut but becomes instead--the mix-up never explained--a space center janitor. Though he tries to set the record straight, Knotts ends up pretending to be an astronaut to avoid disappointing his overbearing father and fawning small town neighbors. A few clever gags stick out (including a janitorial training session) but overall the film ends up intermittently amusing instead of humorous. Leslie Nielsen plays an upstanding but still warmly human astronaut and it's too bad he and Knotts didn't have more scenes exploiting their odd-couple contrast.
There's better to be found in The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968) where for once Knott's character isn't from a small town. Instead, he's a graduate of a Philadelphia dentist school who admittedly does head out West to bring proper oral hygiene to the denizens of, well, a small town. There he gets mixed up with a female bandit who's now secretly working for the government to track down gunrunners. Toss in saloons, a wagon train, Indians, gunfighters and you have a story just involved enough that it doesn't slip from attention but still gives scope to comic situations such as Knott's flustered dental exam and clumsy encounters with stock Western figures.
1969's The Love God? is a peculiar attempt to update Knotts to the anything-goes mood of the 60s. It's certainly the only film where a key plot point depends on whether his character is a virgin, which both sums up the modernization attempt and suggests that perhaps Knotts (or at least his typical film character) wasn't an entirely appropriate choice. He plays the editor of a bird-watching magazine who's used by a gangster as a front for a girlie magazine, only that gangster gets tangled with an even bigger Runyon-esque gangster who brings in a legitimate woman editor (Forbidden Planet's Anne Francis) for a bit of upscale, high falutin' class. Eventually Knotts ends up as a parodic Hugh Hefner figure, perhaps a few years too late and perhaps a bit redundantly given Hefner's own unwitting self-parody. With its topical satire and involved plot, The Love God? is in some ways the most substantial film of these four though it relies so much on the essential innocence of the Knotts character to make its point that it's hard not to feel the mix was a bit too spotty. (Just imagine what Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis could have done with it.) Perhaps either Knotts or Hollywood felt his character had run its course; it would be two years until his next film and since then he's mostly worked in TV and Disney supporting roles.
Knotts may be the selling point in Don Knotts: Reluctant Hero Pack but the set is also something of a tribute to composer Vic Mizzy, whose work graces all four films. Though perhaps best known for the music for Green Acres and The Addams Family, Mizzy brought to the Knotts films a jaunty good nature that captures the intended effect perfectly. The mix of horns, xylophone and electric guitar was clever and distinctive enough to be memorable without overwhelming the films. Mizzy's reputation is still fairly cultish but he can count one fan in Sam Raimi who recently chose Mizzy to contribute special music to the Spider-Man 2 DVD.
To order Don Knotts: Reluctant Hero Pack, go to TCM Shopping.
by Lang Thompson
Don Knotts: Reluctant Hero Pack
You know why you thought you saw a murder out there, Luther? 'Cause that's a murder house.- Kelsey
That's right, karate... made my whole body a weapon.- Luther Heggs
Oh, I-I-I-I'm so sorry that I'm late, but we had a seance at the house last night and it ran on until all hours.- Milo Maxwell
Calm? Do 'murder' and 'calm' go together? Calm and murder? Murder?- Luther Heggs
You don't seem to realize the cosmic importance of this.- Halcyon Maxwell
According to Don Knotts' autobiography, the off-screen voice yelling, "Attaboy, Luther!" belongs to screenwriter Everett Greenbaum.
This film inspired a short-lived craze for yelling out "Attaboy, (name)" during speeches and other situations. This came from a running gag used in this film.
Released in the U.S. in mid-summer 1966, this film was frequently double-billed with the similarly themed Munster, Go Home (1966)
The exterior street scenes in the opening credits were filmed at in the Universal Studios backlot. The Mansion shown is the Munsters' house without the mock extensions, smoking chimney and add-on facades as seen on the house in "Munsters, The" (1964).
The working title of this film is Running Scared.
Released in United States 1966
Released in United States 1966