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`Pleasantville' cast thrilled to work with Barney Fife

One by one, Don Knotts' co-stars in "Pleasantville" line up to laud the man who gave the world the gifts of Barney Fife and Mr. Furley.

The consensus: Oh, my."Oh, my, can you believe it? I was aquiver, meeting him, and I'm not kidding you," says William H. Macy, best known for his Oscar-nominated turn as the scheming car salesman in "Fargo." "I met Captain Kangaroo one time. That also tore me up."

"I love him," says Joan Allen, a two-time Academy Award nominee for "The Crucible" and "Nixon." "I didn't get to do any work with him, but I was on the set with him. He had a break, and he was sitting down. I said, `I have to introduce myself to you. I love you so much!' "

Says Tobey Maguire, at 23 a veteran of films like "The Ice Storm" and "Deconstructing Harry": "Everybody was thrilled that I was working with Don Knotts. I told 10 people about the film, that I'm working with so-and-so, Bill Macy and Reese (Witherspoon) and Joan (Allen) and Don Knotts, and everybody's like, `Don Knotts! No way! Can I come down to the set when he's working?' "

Before "The Andy Griffith Show," Knotts spent four years on "The Steve Allen Show" (1956-60); after, he pratfell for five years as Mr. Furley on "Three's Company" (1979-84). Along the way, he starred in lighthearted cinematic romps like "The Apple Dumpling Gang," "Hot Lead and Cold Feet," "The Shakiest Gun in the West" and "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," which is being remade with Jim Carrey in Knotts' title role.

In "Pleasantville," Knotts plays a magical, godlike TV repairman who zaps two unhappy '90s teen-agers - played by Maguire and Witherspoon - into the drab but very peaceful black-and-white world of a 1950s sitcom, called - what else? - "Pleasantville."

While in that strange universe, the teens muck things up and change them around, causing a minirevolution among the characters of the mild-mannered sitcom - much to the irritation of Knotts' character, who speaks to the kids through TV screens.

"He's been looking for someone who loves the show as much as he does, and then he gets frustrated when they begin to make changes," Knotts says of the character, who proves to be a bit on the cantankerous side. "I don't think he thinks they'll make changes. He said, `You're a big fan of this show, I'll put you right in it.' "

The casting of Knotts adds a post-modern dimension to the story. After all, Knotts' Barney Fife is one of the most beloved characters from the bygone TV era "Pleasantville" represents.

"I'd always been a big fan," says Gary Ross, who wrote and directed "Pleasantville" after writing the hits "Big" and "Dave." "He's a little bit random and kind of nuts, sort of this evil pixie. He's mercurial, unpredictable. He could go off on a moment's notice. And there's a combustible quality to Don. Remember in the old `Mayberry' shows, there was that tremendously combustible quality, where we wouldn't know quite what was going to happen . . . What can you say? He can still act so well."

Knotts' recent acting has been mostly confined to regional theater throughout North America. He's toured with productions of "Harvey," "You Can't Take It With You" and "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers" (his co-star was another '60s TV icon, Barbara Eden). This winter, he'll do "On Golden Pond."

As for the old Mayberry gang, well, Knotts is still in touch with Griffith. And every once in a while they run into Opie, who's now a big-shot Hollywood filmmaker.

Knotts says he looks back with fondness on his Mayberry days.

"Barney Fife was my favorite role," Knotts says. "It was a chance to do so many different kinds of things. I had total freedom to build anything into that character I wanted to.

"It was fun in the sense that he was kind of like a little kid, you know."