Andy Griffith passed away today. His persona, the homespun, down-to-earth, country boy, is as American as hot dogs and baseball, just quintesssentially American. He was a genial man, a loyal friend, a celebrity without scandal, a gospel singer and comedian in addition to starring in two of the most beloved TV series of all time, The Andy Griffith show (with that wonderful whistled theme song) and Matlock. I also remember a comedy routine he wrote and perfected, in which he plays a dumb hick trying to figure out the nuances of football: What it was, was football. I think it still holds up pretty well.
What most people don’t realize: he was a terrific actor, a remarkable actor, with range and charisma; a great screen presence. His film debut, in fact, was in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), where he plays this vicious, amoral drifter and conman, who becomes a huge TV celebrity and political figure. Here’s a clip. He played villains on several occasions.
He left behind a successful stage career (2 Tony nominations), to create The Andy Griffith Show. Although he was never credited as a writer, he was involved with the writing of every episode; he’d been a high school English teacher, and was a fine writer. I’m trying to imagine a show like that one today, a sit-com about a Sheriff who does not carry a gun, who deals on a weekly basis with a particularly idiotic deputy. Barney Fife–Griffith’s life-long friend, Don Knotts–kind of dominated the show. Year after year, Knotts would be nominated for the Emmy for best comedy actor–he won five of them–and Griffith was never so much as nominated. He doesn’t seem to have cared–he knew his strengths. He projected a kind of wise masculine decency, a perfect foil for Knotts’ antics.
I watched the show a lot when I was a kid. I loved it. I wanted to be Opie Taylor, though I did think my Dad was as cool as his. But I watched for another reason too. What fascinated me was this kind of fictional universe for ’60’s sitcoms, in which the characters on Andy Griffith, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres all seemed to know each other or be related in some way–actors from one show would appear on the other ones or read letters from the other characters or interact in all sorts of interesting ways. I couldn’t get enough of it.
(That was weird in other ways, though. Andy Taylor (Griffith), epitomized rural family values. The Beverly Hillbillies sort of did too, in a way–they were American rural innocents trying to make sense of Hollywood. Green Acres went the opposite route–city folk, dealing with the absurdity of rural ways. And then there was Petticoat Junction, the least known of all those shows, and my favorite. (I was thirteen, don’t judge me). Premise: a single Mom raising three nubile daughters, Betty Jo, Billie Jo, and Bobbi Jo, who mostly wore tank tops and cut-off jean shorts, and ran a hotel and did things like bathe together in the town’s water tank, to the obvious leering delight of old Uncle Joe, an alcoholic old lech who helped run the place. I mean, the town was called Hooterville. Not a subtle show.)
I never watched Matlock. My grandparents watched every episode, but I don’t think that’s unusual; everyone’s grandparents watched every episode. What I do remember from Griffith’s late career was his small-but-unforgettable role in Waitress, an independent film I adore.
Griffith was a life-long moderate Democrat. He fought the networks for the entire run of The Andy Griffith show, trying to include African-American characters. Even with his clout, he couldn’t make it happen. I remember some small kerfluffle when North Carolina Democrats wanted him to run against the horrible incumbent, Senator Jesse Helms. Griffith, however, wasn’t in great health, and finally decided not to.
A family man, a religious man, a wonderful talent and a generous and loyal friend. Rest in Peace, Sheriff Andy.