Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Andy Griffith, R.I.P.

Mayberry--and the rest of America--is in mourning.

Andy Griffith, the iconic actor best known as a small-town sheriff on the sitcom that bore his name, died this morning at his home on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. He was 86. Cause of death was not disclosed, but Griffith suffered a heart attack (and quadruple by-pass surgery) in 2000. Griffith was laid to rest on the island about five hours after his death, in accordance with family wishes.

Despite a 60-year acting career that stretched from the Broadway stage to the silver screen, Griffith will be forever known as Sheriff Andy Taylor, the folksy lawman who kept the peace in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina.

It was a role that he seemed to play effortlessly and naturally. After all, Griffith was born and raised in the small North Carolina town of Mount Airy, a hamlet not unlike Mayberry during his boyhood in the 1920s and 1930s. He went on to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, earning a degree in music. While at UNC, he was active in campus theatrical productions, but after graduation, he took a job as a high school teacher in Goldsboro, about 80 miles east of Chapel Hill. Early in his tenure, Griffith and other teachers were invited to describe their courses at a school assembly. "Take my choral music class," he told the students, "it's hard to fail."

But performing was never far from his mind. Along with his first wife, Barbara, he developed an act, entertaining local civic clubs and church groups. In the late 1940s and early 50s, he also acted in "The Lost Colony," a drama about the first English colony along North Carolina's outer banks. Griffith eventually worked his way into the lead role of Sir Walter Raleigh, the English explorer who founded the settlement. Until the night of his death, Griffith's videotaped introduction provided a greeting for audiences attending the production.

Griffith also worked the club circuit along the "Redneck Riviera" in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, appearing alongside comedy legends like Brother Dave Gardner. Griffith soon realized that, as a monologist, his longer routines didn't always work in a club environment. He also found it frustrating that the stream-of-consciousness style used by Gardner (and other comedians) drew more laughs--and attention--than his material.

Records proved a better fit for Griffith and his story-telling approach. In 1953, he recorded "What it Was, Was Football," a backwoodsman's description of his first college football game. The record was a smash, reaching #9 on the Billboard charts in 1954, and creating new opportunities for Griffith. Within a year, he was starring in the U.S. Steel Hour production of the military comedy "No Time for Sergeants," a role he reprised on Broadway and in film. During the play's New York run, he became close friends with another cast member, Don Knotts, who shared a similar, small town background. For his work in "Sergeants," Griffith received a Tony nomination, and he picked up a second nod for a starring performance in the musical "Destry Rides Again."

Between his appearances on Broadway, Griffith earned his best film road, playing a vagabond-turned-megalomaniac-TV personality in Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd." While Griffith received good notices for his performance as Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, critical reaction to the production was mixed. As we observed in 2005, Hollywood politics of that era might be the reason the film--and Griffith's brilliant performance--were largely ignored:

"...Liberals often describe the film as a study of the manipulation of the media (and the public) by greedy performers and corporate interests. But from a conservative perspective, Kazan's film is also a cautionary tale about the unholy alliance between between politics, the media and celebrities, decades before Hollywood became a subsidiary of the Democratic Party. Whatever its intended message, the film ranks with the best of Kazan's work, and Griffith turns in a mesmerizing performance as the cold, calculating, yet cornpone Rhodes."

Whatever the reason, the film ignored by the Academy Awards and Griffith did not receive a nomination as Best Actor. Some have speculated that the actions of Kazan and screenwriter Budd Sberg may have prompted the slight. Both Kazan and Schulberg cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee in exposing communists in Hollywood.

Years later, Griffith told an interviewer that the film role "changed him," causing the actor to briefly take on some of Rhodes' unflattering traits. After his run in Destry, Griffith decided to try a TV series, and he struck pure gold. "The Andy Griffith Show" is widely considered one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, and some of us put the program at the top of the list. More than fiftyyears after its debut on CBS, the show holds up remarkably well, while many of the "hip" comedies that came after it have all-but-disappeared.

Yet, as many fans know, the program that became a TV classic was slightly different than what Griffith and producers Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas originally envisioned. Sheriff Andy Taylor made his debut on an episode of Thomas's long-running "Make Room for Daddy," which served as a back-door pilot for the Griffith show. As the actor told a reporter in 1993, "I was supposed to be the funny one," and that's evident in the pilot, with Andy Taylor (who doubles as the local justice of the peace and newspaper editor) milking Thomas's "arrest" on speeding charges for maximum comedic value. Compared to the series that followed, the laughs in the pilot seem forced and a bit stilted. Griffith later observed that if the program had followed the original template, it might have been cancelled in a few weeks.

Enter Don Knotts. After early success on Broadway (and as a member of Steve Allen's comedy troupe), Knotts career had cooled in the late 1950s. Hearing that his friend would soon launch a new series, Knotts called Griffith and told him "I guess you'll be needing a deputy." Griffith agreed and Knotts signed on the perfectly flappable Barney Fife. While he began as a relatively minor figure, the high-strung, calamity-prone deputy became one of TV's first breakout characters, with many of the plots revolving around Barney and his antics. Griffith wisely took on the role of straight man, confident in his own talent and cognizant that Knotts was a major factor in the show's success.

The Andy Griffith show ran for eight years, still ranked #1 in the Nielsen ratings when it left the air in 1968. Many fans believe the series slipped a bit (in terms of quality) when Don Knotts left and the episodes were filmed in color. The series popularity--during its original airing on CBS and in thousands of re-runs since--was a testament to Griffith's popularity as a performer and his insistence on quality. While he never claimed a writer's credit on the show, Griffith was heavily involved in script development and refinement. One former associate remembered him as one of the best script doctors in the business and he valued input from all cast members--even a seven-year-old Ron Howard, as recounted in yesterday's Los Angeles Times.

After "The Andy Griffith Show" left the airwaves, its star made a few feature films, appeared in scores of made-for-TV movies, and tried three television series in the 1970s, two on CBS and one for ABC. He finally hit ratings pay-dirt with Matlock, playing a criminal defense lawyer who specialized in high-profile murder cases. The show ran for nine seasons, first on NBC and later, on ABC. Griffith brought the same exacting standards to that program, and won a new generation of fans.

He acted sporadically over the last years of his life, with a notable appearance in "Waitress" the 2007 film starring Keri Russell. Griffith also taped a campaign video for Barack Obama and commercials touting health care reform. A life-long Democrat, Griffith was an active donor to the party and filmed endorsements for a number of candidates. However, unlike many younger celebrities, Griffith was never obnoxious about his party affiliation, or expressed open contempt for the GOP. And ironically enough, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from a Republican president, George W. Bush, in 2005.

Despite his impressive body of work, Griffith received surprisingly little professional recognition for his work. He was never nominated for an Emmy on "The Andy Griffith Show" (Don Knotts won five times in a row for Best Supporting Actor), and didn't get his first nomination until 1980, for a role in a TV movie. He later received a lifetime achievement award from the television academy. Griffith won a Grammy for a 1996 gospel music album, I Love to Tell the Story.

There were personal setbacks along the way; a bout with Guillian-Barre syndrome left his legs paralyzed for seven months in 1983; his first two marriages ended in divorce, and his son Sam died in 1996 after a long struggle with drugs and alcohol. In one of his last interviews, a reporter asked Griffith what he would change about his life. "Everything," he replied, speaking as someone who had experienced triumph and tragedy along the way.

Of course, Andy Griffith will be forever linked with his counterpart from Mayberry, Andy Taylor. And that's a fitting tribute; creating one of TV's most enduring characters and imbuing him with your own virtues is no mean feat. As more than one critic has noted, Mayberry was--and is--a refuge for us, even if you weren't lucky enough to grow up in a small town, and regardless of how you got along with your father. That's why so many of us will pause and watch "Opie the Birdman" or "The Pickle Story" for the 100th time. It connects us with a better place and time, even if it only existed in our minds.

A former writer for the Raleigh News and Observer said it best, in a column that appeared more than 25 years ago: "Every day at 5 o'clock [when re-runs of "The Andy Griffith Show aired on WRAL-TV], I go home." And thanks to Andy Griffith, we can keep making that journey.



jms said...

That was a really nice tribute.

James said...

Don't forget Ernest T. and Otis. True role model titans.

SwampWoman said...

When we heard the news of Andy Griffith's death, we found Mayberry RFD on Netflix for the grandkids. I have to admit that the husband and I enjoyed it just as much as ever!