Andy Griffith, who died today at the age of 86, was one of the great television stars of all time not because of his skill with a joke (though he was splendid as both comedian and straight man), nor because of his dramatic chops (though his performance in the 1957 movie “A Face in the Crowd” is seared in the memory of anyone who saw it), but simply because audiences found something innately decent and trustworthy about him. Whether as small-town sheriff Andy Taylor on “The Andy Griffith Show” or a crafty aging lawyer on “Matlock,” Griffith was someone viewers wanted on their side.
The North Carolina-born Griffith began his performing career as a monologist, a role that doesn’t offer any barriers between performer and audience. There are no co-stars, no costumes or sets, and even if you’re creating another character – as he did in his famous routine “What It Was, Was Football,” in which a country boy tried to make sense of what was happening in a football game – the performance rises and falls on how the audience responds to you, alone on that stage. And audiences very much liked the folksy Griffith, who used the success of the recorded version of “Football” to segue into a more traditional acting career, where his low-key charms were always front and center – even on the rare occasions when he wasn’t playing such a good guy.
He was a hit in TV, stage and film versions of “No Time for Sergeants,” as a country bumpkin who kept confounding his Air Force superiors. Legendary director Elia Kazan decided to play off of Griffith’s persona as good-hearted, deceptively-clever yokel by casting him in “A Face in the Crowd,” in which Griffith played Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a sweet country boy who becomes a first a local celebrity, than a national TV sensation, and even a player in presidential politics, with each step up the ladder making him privately colder, crueler and more arrogant than before. Critics and audiences were mixed on the film at the time – though everyone acknowledged the power and unexpected versatility of Griffith’s performance – but it’s now looked upon as a classic morality play about the corrupting influence of celebrity.
In 1960, veteran sitcom producer Sheldon Leonard decided to build a show around Griffith, and to use his current hit, “The Danny Thomas Show,” to launch it. The series did an episode where Thomas was stopped for speeding in a small town called Mayberry by local sheriff Andy Taylor, played by Griffith. Viewers enjoyed the culture clash between high-strung city slicker Thomas and the homespun Griffith, and “The Andy Griffith Show” premiered later that year.
It’s hard to imagine something like “The Andy Griffith Show” being made today. There was a lot of comedy wrung out of Andy’s interactions with panicky deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts, who had co-starred with Griffith in “No Time for Sergeants”) and colorful locals like Jim Nabors’ Gomer Pyle (who would later join the Marines in a spin-off very much in the vein of “No Time For Sergeants”), but for the most part it was a quiet, easygoing show, defined more by the warmth in the relationship between widowed single dad Andy and his son Opie (played by a young Ron Howard) than by the silliness of the town. The series’ famous opening title sequence shows father and son walking to the fishing hole, as the jaunty earworm of a theme song is whistled. This is a show, the credits promised, about a simple, peaceful place and a peaceful man who seemed simple but was really very wise and supremely comfortable in his own skin.
Though Griffith never got a writing credit, he seriously discussed each script with the writers, in the early sitcom tradition of stars as creative collaborators. And where some actors might have resented the instant popularity of Knotts as Barney and try to steal some of the laughs from him, Griffith was smart enough to realize the show was at its strongest when he was setting up Knotts for punchlines. It was a selfless creative decision: Knotts won multiple Emmys for the role, while Griffith was never even nominated for playing one of the more iconic characters in the history of the medium. There’s little glory in being the straight man, but Griffith understood that he was the man for the job, and that he could still wring laughs and smiles from the patient, understanding way Andy dealt with Barney, Floyd the barber, Ernest T. Bass and the rest of the citizens of Mayberry.
Griffith left the series in 1967 to try movies again (CBS in turn continued the show under the title “Mayberry, R.F.D.,” with new leading man Ken Berry and many of the supporting characters still in place), and though he worked steadily in film and television for the next two decades, he couldn’t find a role as memorable or popular as Andy Taylor.
In the mid-’80s, his hair gone grey, Griffith returned to his roots as a country fella smarter than anyone expected, this time as Atlanta defense lawyer Ben Matlock, whose folksy manner helped him win all his cases. The show was a big hit in an era when viewers under 50 weren’t yet the be-all, end-all they would later become, as older viewers enjoyed seeing a man their age (and whom they remembered so fondly from their younger years) continually outwit younger, slicker attorneys. (In early seasons of “The Simpsons,” it was a running gag that Grampa Simpson and his neighbors at the retirement home all revered “Matlock.”)
Griffith worked off and on for most of his life, sometimes playing against type, often in Andy Taylor mode. (In recent years, I was particularly fond of his small role in “Waitress” as the diner owner who so loved Keri Russell’s pies.) It was always reassuring to see him again, or even to hear joking references to him on other shows that were always laced with the respect the industry had for him. On an episode of “Arrested Development,” produced and narrated by Howard, the Bluths attempted to hire Griffith to appear in court with them dressed as Matlock, but they lost his services when he assumed they were making fun of him: solemnly, Howard’s voiceover insisted that no one here was attempting to make fun of Mr. Andy Griffith.
Griffith was enough of a sport, and had such obvious affection for Howard, Knotts and everyone else he worked with over the years, that I suspect he would have been just fine with Opie getting a few laughs at his expense.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org