Don Knotts will forever be know as the comic sidekick “Barney Fife” on The Andy Griffith Show, as Mr. Furley on Three’s Company, and as the star of a series of funny family friendly ’60s films including The Incredible Mr. Limpet and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. His first TV series role, however, may not be that familiar. From 1953-54 he played Wilbur Peterson on the soap opera Search for Tomorrow (which ran from 1951-84). His mostly-mute character has a rare few lines in an episode that is currently posted on the Internet Archive, with Wilbur in a dream-filled delirium.
This rare episode also features series star Mary Stuart, plus Coe Norton and Cliff Hall (unfortunately, Lee Grant who played Knotts’ sister “Rose” on the soap doesn’t make an appearance in this one). At the end is a commercial for Cheer with spokesperson Irene Manning (1912-2004), who appeared in Yankee Doodle Dandy with James Cagney.
“It was the only serious role I ever played professionally. I haven’t played on since. Wilbur was a very neurotic guy who wouldn’t talk to anybody. Very shy. He would only talk to his sister… we had an actor named Les Damon on the show, and I was sweeping up one day, had a broom and I was sweeping and he was ranting and raving about something and I wasn’t allowed to talk because I was supposed to be afraid, and suddenly he went off and I couldn’t help it. He looked at me and I’m like, I can’t help you. And he was totally gone. So I heard him say, ‘What’s the line?’ And I think the stage manager was terrified. He couldn’t imagine anybody asking for a line now on live TV. He sort of whispered and I knew he couldn’t hear him because I couldn’t hear him. Finally Les said, ‘WHAT?’ I thought, geez, are we on, or is this rehearsal?”