He was a vocalist, an actor, a stand-up comic, a producer and once even a schoolteacher, but we knew him best for creating the mythic Mayberry, a Camelot in bib overalls where home-spun wisdom reigned.
He was Andrew Samuel Griffith, but we knew him best as “Andy.” He died Tuesday at age 86 in Manteo.
Hollywood director Ron Howard, whose formative years were spent on the set of “The Andy Griffith Show” as Opie, the precocious son of the small-town sheriff Andy Taylor.
In the landmark series about family values that entertained millions in the 1960s and thrives five decades later in syndication, their father-son relationship was one of the few that wasn’t played just for laughs.
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In an unusually serious episode that stretched the dramatic range of television comedy in 1963, Opie killed a mother bird with a slingshot and was forced by his father to listen the cries of her hungry chicks.
Opie then raised the birds himself and, at episode’s end, let them fly off, leading to an epilogue emblematic of the show’s fundamental optimism.
“Cage sure seems awful empty, don’t it Pa?” observed Opie.
“Yes son, it sure does,” replied sheriff Taylor. “But don’t the trees seem nice and full?”
Deep Tar Heel roots
Griffith was born in Mount Airy on June 1, 1926, son of Carl and Geneva Griffith. He took a liking to music and learned to play the trombone at 16.
Despite a so-so academic record, he was industrious, earning enough money sweeping the high school after classes to buy a bass horn and guitar.
He went on to UNC Chapel Hill and majored in music, taking five years to get his degree in 1949. He taught school for three years in Goldsboro.
Lanky and handsome, his head thick with wavy black hair, he found summer work at the outdoor drama “The Lost Colony” in Manteo. Griffith played Sir Walter Raleigh from 1949 to 1953 and also appeared on the dinner club circuit as comedian and singer.
Motoring one evening down the then-pastoral N.C. 54 from Chapel Hill to a 1953 appearance in Raleigh, Griffith was struck by an inspiration that would ignite his career.
He dreamed up a comic monologue about a country bumpkin mystified by a game “where you try to run across a cow pasture without getting hit or stepping in something.”
It got big laughs and Griffith spun to fame on a phonograph needle.
“What It Was Was Football” sold a million copies. It got him on Ed Sullivan. And it established Griffith as a southern comedic voice, leading to a role as the hillbilly recruit in the TV production of “No Time for Sergeants” and then the same role on Broadway, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award.
And on to Hollywood
Griffith followed that with a dramatic role as a vagrant-turned-signing idol in “A Face in the Crowd” with Patricia Neal.
The 1957 film was a box office disappointment but critics lauded Griffith’s portrayal of an Arkansas hobo propelled to hollow fame.
“No Time for Sergeants” was turned into a movie the following year and, with comic relish, Griffith reprised his role of Air Force recruit Will Stockdale, a naive rustic plucked from the Georgia backwoods.
“I think that I would rather live in the rottenest pigsty in Tennessee or Alabama than the fanciest mansion in all of Georgia,” says a needling major played by James Millhollin. “How about that?”
Griffith, as the drawling Stockdale: “Well, sir. I think where you wanna live is your business.”
A hit is born
“Sergeants” also starred an up-and-coming comedian named Don Knotts. Two years later, Knotts heard Griffith was putting together a comedy based on a small-town sheriff. Knotts called to ask, “You got a deputy?”
“The Andy Griffith Show” debuted on CBS on Oct. 3, 1960, attracting weak reviews and strong ratings.
It was the fourth highest-rated program of 1960 and throughout its eight-year run was never out of the top 10. In its final year, 1968, it finished as the No. 1 show on TV. The series spun off “Gomer Pyle USMC” and “Mayberry RFD.”
Even 50 years later, “The Andy Griffith Show” performs well in reruns despite its many black and white episodes, its dated Ford Galaxie patrol car and its operator-assisted phone system, all relics of an ancient technological age.
“Matlock” his favorite role
Griffith became a producer in 1972 and acted occasionally until 1983 when he was stricken with Guillain-Barre syndrome. He recovered and in 1986 produced the legal series, “Matlock.”
Through clever questioning and courtroom theatrics, Benjamin Matlock yanked innocent clients from the precipice of prison for six years on NBC, then moved to ABC for three more.
When Griffith won the People’s Choice Award for “Matlock” in 1987, he said the role of the folksy Atlanta attorney was his favorite. It offered the most range, he said.
“Ben Matlock was very vain, very bright, very cheap,” Griffith said in a 2003 interview. “He was a lot different from Andy Taylor.”
Griffith’s last screen appearance came in the senior romantic comedy “Play the Game,” released in August 2009.
Three wives and politics
He married UNC classmate Barbara Edwards in 1949 and their union lasted 23 years. They adopted two children, Andy and Dixie. His son died of alcoholism in 1996.
In 1973, he married Solica Cassuto; they divorced in 1981. He wed Cindi Knight in 1983. They spent his retirement near Manteo on Roanoke Island.
Griffith occasionally dabbled in North Carolina politics. In 1968, he was presented with a brotherhood award from Gov. Dan Moore, who praised him as a great citizen.
Griffith stood to accept the honor and drawled, “I kinda wish I’d voted for you now.”
In 1968, he recorded a 30-second commercial supporting Gov. Jim Hunt, who was in a fierce battle against incumbent Jesse Helms for a Senate seat.
“Do you know what a North Carolina Democrat is?” Griffith said on the ad. “It’s somebody that sometimes votes Democratic and sometimes votes Republican – but always votes for the best man.”
It was a time of shifting political loyalties, the end of the Democratic stranglehold on North Carolina politics. A third of Democratic voters were suddenly – and consistently – voting Republican. Despite Griffith’s plea, they returned Helms to Washington.
Griffith read a poem at the inauguration of Gov. Mike Easley in January 2005 and in one of his last public appearances, read another at the inauguration of Bev Purdue in January 2009.
A product of the ’60s
Though contemporary viewers still cherish “The Andy Griffith Show” for its rural values, the show’s Americana themes belied the social upheaval and racial revolution of the turbulent ‘60s.
Though the show was set in the rural South, it had no African Americans in regular roles, a situation that Griffith later said he regretted.
“We tried in every way to get that to happen and we were just unable. At that time black people didn’t want to play subservient roles, to do maids and butlers and all that, and we were unable to make it so people would rush into a black doctor’s office,” he said in a 2003 interview with the Observer. “And I’m sorry about it, too.”
Despite his comedy background, Griffith said he realized early on that his talents were best expended playing the straight man to the eccentric cast of supporting actors, including Knotts as his bug-eyed, ever-bumbling deputy.
“Originally, I was supposed to be funny. I noticed on the second episode that Don was funny and I should be straight. That set it up and I played straight to the rest.
“And I never regretted it,” Griffith added. “The straight man has the best part. He gets to be in the show and see it too.”
Knotts, who died in 2006 at age 81 of lung cancer, won five Emmys as Barney Fife. Griffith never won one.
Themes of family, love, respect
Griffith said he had several favorites among the show’s 249 episodes: The time Barney bought a lemon as his first car from a con lady, the time escapees from the Women’s Prison made hostages of Barney and town barber Floyd, and “Opie the Birdman” among them.
Though Mayberry’s boundaries were thick with oddballs – a town drunk who practiced self-incarceration, “fun girls” from Mount Pilot materializing for crusades of mischief, a dottering aunt who produced a hazardous waste problem known as “kerosene cucumbers” – there was a fundamental nobility about the hamlet and its natives.
There was dignity in the drunk, integrity in the moonshiners, comeuppance awaiting every bully. Mayberry’s psyche was rigorously, religiously, unabashedly Southern.
“In a way, that drinking does a good service for the town,” Sheriff Taylor once observed of the town sot. “Otis laps it up so fast that the other folks can’t get to it.”
In repeats, “The Andy Griffith Show” has proven to be one of the most durable shows in television history, an American Gothic painted in flickering electrons.
“Our basic theme was love,” Griffith once said. “And understanding one another. And hoping the best for one another. Love.”