Andy Griffith (1926-2012)
In 1979, veteran radio producers Fletcher Markle and Elliott Lewis made an attempt to resurrect the lost art of radio drama with The Sears Radio Theater, a program that followed in the footsteps of such 70s offerings as Zero Hour, Earplay and The CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Five nights a week, offerings of comedy, drama, horror and even westerns were presented on participating CBS Radio stations, with each night a different “theme” hosted by celebrities such as Lorne Greene, Cicely Tyson and radio “Saint” Vincent Price. Tuesday nights were reserved for comedy plays, and the host of that hour was television favorite Andy Griffith.
The Sears Radio Theater (which was later renamed The Mutual Radio Theater when the program moved to another network) constitutes the major radio contribution of actor-comedian Griffith, who passed away July 3rd at the age of 86. Andy appeared on a few shows broadcast over AFRTS in the late 50s/early 60s, but for the most part he was a creature of TV, movies and the live stage. And yet, it would be unseemly not to recognize his passing here in this space…because The Andy Griffith Show, his singular sitcom achievement, was in many ways a visual embodiment of some of radio’s long-running favorites from the past. The tranquil town of Summerfield, the setting for radio’s The Great Gildersleeve, could have been a “sister city” to the fictional Mayberry of Griffith’s series (with many of the writers on TAGS veteran radio scribes). The lovable eccentrics of shows like Lum ‘n’ Abner and Vic and Sade could have relocated to Mayberry…and no one would have batted an eyelash.
Andrew Samuel Griffith was born on June 1, 1926 in the small North Carolina town of Mount Airy…and though Griffith never specifically came right out and admitted it, many have fervently believed that Mount Airy was the model for what would later become America’s favorite television small town. He showed an interest in the arts at a young age, getting involved with the music and drama departments at his high school. His pursuit of music may have even been responsible for his deciding to change his major in college (he had originally planned to become a minister), and he graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a music degree in 1949. He put his aspirations on temporary hold while he taught English at a high school in Goldsboro…but he also used his leisure time to write comedy monologues, many in the style of one of his idols, Will Rogers. An amusing recitation about a young man’s first encounter with a football game, entitled “What it Was, Was Football,” was recorded by Andy for a small record label in 1954…and the record soon became a national Top Ten hit.
Flush with the success of “Football,” Griffith became a fixture on television variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show, and he also flexed his thespic muscles on a telecast of The U.S. Steel Hour playing a small-town innocent in “No Time for Sergeants.” “Sergeants” was later adapted as a stage play, and a movie adaptation was released in 1958. It was not Griffith’s first feature film, however; director Elia Kazan cast him as a hobo-turned-demagogue in his 1957 political satire A Face in the Crowd…a role that failed to win Andy anything remotely resembling an Oscar nomination, despite the fact that a majority of movie buffs feel it was his finest hour onscreen. Griffith continued his television appearances, and a guest shot on the popular Danny Thomas Show would result in changing his fortunes overnight. In “Danny Meets Andy Griffith,” Andy played a small-town sheriff who caught series star Danny Thomas (as entertainer Danny Williams) running a stop sign and made him a guest of his jail until Danny agreed to pay the fine. After that episode, General Foods expressed interest in sponsoring a series based around Griffith’s bucolic sheriff (who was also justice of the peace and the newspaper editor), and under the supervision of radio second banana-turned-producer Sheldon Leonard, The Andy Griffith Show came to TV screens in the fall of 1960, where it became that season’s newest hit.
On TAGS, Griffith continued as the duly constituted arm of law enforcement in the town of Mayberry; a widower who was raising his young son Opie (played by future film director Ron Howard) with the help of his aunt, Beatrice “Aunt Bee” Taylor (Frances Bavier). Both Howard and Bavier had been on the Danny Thomas pilot (though Bavier played a different character, townswoman Henrietta Perkins). On the regular series, Andy was also joined by comic actor Don Knotts. Knotts, who had become a friend of Griffith’s when they both worked in the stage production of “No Time for Sergeants,” had suggested that Andy’s character on the show needed a deputy…and Andy assigned that responsibility to Don. With the hiring of his friend, the pieces were in place for one of television’s most durable and endearing sitcoms.
In the early episodes of TAGS, Griffith’s character of Andy Taylor wasn’t too far removed from the grinning-from-ear-to-ear Will Stockdale he played in “Sergeants”…but gradually, Andy and the show’s writers realized that Sheriff Taylor functioned best as a straight man, reacting to the zanies around him. The atmosphere of Mayberry was so idyllic that crime was at a relative minimum, something Deputy Barney Fife never seemed to understand, as he was always in favor of ramping up police efforts—even when it involved incarcerating town drunk Otis Campbell (Hal Smith), who was so harmless Sheriff Taylor left the cell keys within reach so Otis could go home when his time was up. Other characters on TAGS included befuddled barber Floyd Lawson (Howard McNear), constantly reacting to the world around him with a mixture of awe and wonderment, and Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), the sweetly naïve gas station mechanic whose heart was a teensy bit bigger than his gray matter. (When actor Nabors left TAGS after a year-and-a-half for a successful spin-off entitled Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., George Lindsey replaced him as cousin Goober, who was just as dumb and just as lovable.)
Throughout it all, Griffith’s Andy Taylor was the rock on which the other characters leaned. He didn’t even carry a gun, preferring to tamp down crime in Mayberry with country logic and down-home common sense. And as both father and mother to son Opie, he would become a model parent for many younger viewers who watched the series during its original run over CBS-TV and in reruns afterward. He was stern but loving, firm but forgiving. The show’s opening credits, with Andy and Opie heading out for a bit of angling at their favorite fishing hole, spoke volumes about the relationship between father and son on TAGS.
The Andy Griffith Show had a remarkable eight-season run on CBS…even in its final season, the series ranked #1 in the Nielsens, and the network would have been only too happy to have Griffith continue to police Mayberry. But Andy wanted to follow in his friend Don Knotts’ footsteps (Knotts left the show after five seasons to become a success in motion pictures), and said “no mas” when his contract was up. His post-TAGS feature film, Angel in My Pocket (1969), was a critical and financial flop—so Andy went back to what had been good to him in the past, TV. He tried a pair of sitcom follow-ups, Headmaster and The New Andy Griffith Show (titled to distinguish it from the old one), but both shows ultimately fizzled despite initially strong starts.
In the 1970s, Griffith continued to be a TV presence, appearing in such TV-movies as Go Ask Alice (1973) and Savages (1974)—a couple of these made-for-TV features even led to short-lived series like Adams of Eagle Lake (from the 1974 movie Winter Kill) and Salvage I (from 1979’s Salvage). He continued to receive critical plaudits for roles in miniseries like Washington: Behind Closed Doors (1977) and Roots: The Next Generation (1979), and further extended his range playing villainous types in productions like Murder in Coweta County (1983) and Crime of Innocence (1985). An appearance in the 1984 TV-movie Fatal Vision, in which he was cast as an attorney, can be said to have inspired his second successful weekly TV venture beginning in the fall of 1985: Matlock. As Atlanta, GA lawyer Ben Matlock, Andy played a “Perry Mason” for the modern generation in a series that many often mocked for its appeal to the geriatric crowd. Matlock ran on NBC-TV from 1986 to 1992, and then jumped ship to ABC for three more seasons, ending in 1995.
Andy Griffith never completely abandoned his ambition to establish himself in feature films; among the films he graced were Hearts of the West (1975), Rustlers’ Rhapsody (1986), Spy Hard (1996), Daddy and Them (2001) and Play the Game (2009). His performance in 2007’s independent fave Waitress earned him more than a few critical kudos as he played a crusty, philosophical businessman who takes a shine to the titular server. In addition to TV and movies, Griffith would often perform live in concert, with a mixture of comedy and gospel singing—he recorded several gospel albums in the 1990s for Sparrow Records, including the platinum album I Love to Tell the Story: 25 Timeless Hymns.
Andy Griffith was a television icon. His 1960-68 self-titled sitcom, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary two years ago in October, continues to be a classic rerun staple…even outside the normal cable outlets like TVLand and Me-TV (we have a local station here in Atlanta that runs it every night, the only black-and-white show on their schedule). He was responsible for creating a small town that everyone wishes they had grown up in…but for those of us who did grow up in such places, we recognize many of the people and much of the laid-back, peaceful atmosphere that surrounds the fictional Mayberry in our hometowns as well. R.I.P., Andy. You will most definitely be missed.