It was announced today that Andy Griffith (1926-2012) had passed away. Tributes that come too late are kind of sad, but it’s important to discuss what a multi-talented, beloved and influential performer he was for over 57 years. Very few entertainers are talented enough and fortunate enough to have success in one category, much less many. Andy (it just feels right to call him that) had success in comedy, with music, on Broadway, in movies, and of course, on TV.
Thanks to syndication, most everyone recognizes him as Mayberry Sheriff Andy Taylor in “The Andy Griffith Show”, which ran from 1960-68. Not only was the theme song iconic … you are probably whistling it now … but Andy taught life lessons to many of us through his folksy, down home wisdom. He was a surrogate father for us as he taught his son Opie (played by Ron Howard, the successful movie director) right from wrong, and how to treat people. Andy also recognized the comic greatness of Don Knotts’ Deputy Barney Fife (one of TV’s best ever characters), so he made the artistic decision to play the straight man as Knotts received the accolades. The show (itself a spin-off from “Make Room for Daddy”) was responsible for numerous spin-offs and Griffith remained lifelong friends with both Howard and Knotts. Howard is one of the few surviving actors from the show, along with Betty Lynn (Thelma Lou), Jim Nabors (Gomer), and Clint Howard (Ron’s brother).
The other TV show many know Andy from is “Matlock”, which ran from 1986-95. He played the titular character, who was a colorful, folksy, frumpy old time attorney who had an amazing ability to win cases against all odds … all while sporting a wrinkled, sky-blue seersucker suit. The ratings were huge as viewers embraced the man who seemed to have a knack for justice … doing the right thing. Sound familiar? This persona is why Griffith was always so popular. He made us believe we knew the real him … that’s an audience connection most performers never experience.
What many don’t know is that Andy got his start with music and stand-up comedy on early TV shows like “The Steve Allen Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show”. His comic routine “What it was, was Football” was an early comedy classic and had success on the charts. He also was a Tony nominated performer on Broadway for “No Time for Sergeants”. He later reprised his role for the film version, and on the set is where he first met Don Knotts. Griffith’s film debut was for A Face in the Crowd (1957, pictured left), directed by Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden). Many who see this film for the first time are stunned at the Griffith performance. The familiar folksy style that we immediately recognize, actually hides a power-mongering personality that was used to highlight the power and danger of TV, when used by the wrong people (still an issue all these years later). I believe TCM will include this film in its day of tribute to Andy Griffith later this month, so if you haven’t seen it, please give it a look.
Andy Griffith once said that Sheriff Andy Taylor was “a better man than I am”. This humble statement sells himself and his influence quite short. Most of his career was spent playing characters whom we could trust and learn from. We trusted him so much that when he told us everything tastes great on a Ritz cracker, we believed him… and sales spiked. The ultimate test of a man is his loyalty to his friends. Despite his own personal challenges, Griffith found his way clear across the country for one last visit with his friend Don Knotts, before Knotts passed away in 2006. While it’s an unfair burden to place on anyone, I will remember Griffith as a very talented performer, but more importantly, as one who taught me some basic tenets in being a better man.
There were just too many classic scenes to choose from, so will close with this: