Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Andy Griffith Show Turns 50

It was on this day on October 3, 1960 that The Andy Griffith Show debuted. Since that day the series has never left the air, lasting for eight years in its first run and ever since in syndication. To this day it airs somewhere in the United States, not simply on cable channels such as TV Land, but on many local stations as well. It is quite possible that no other show, not even I Love Lucy, has been as successful as The Andy Griffith Show has been.

The seed for what would become The Andy Griffith Show originated in the mind of Sheldon Leonard. Perhaps best known for his role as Nick the bartender on It's a Wonderful Life and a succession of heavies in various movies, in the late Fifties Mr. Leonard had established himself as a television producer, producing the hit series Make Room for Daddy (AKA The Danny Thomas Show). At the time Mr. Leonard had the idea for a show which would centre on a newspaper editor, justice of the peace, and sheriff in a small rural town. In mind for the lead Sheldon Leonard had a young, Southern actor who had already made a name for himself throughout the Fifties: Andy Griffith.

Andy Griffith was a comedian with a flair for fast delivery and Southern charm who had a hit with "What It Was, Was Football," a monologue which was a hit single in 1953. He garnered more attention when he starred in the telefilm "No Time for Sergeants" on The U.S. Steel Hour in 1955. The teleplay was successful enough to be expanded and spun off into a Broadway play. He would also appear on Broadway in the 1957 musical Destry Rides Again. In 1957 he also appeared in the role of Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd, a role unlike any Mr. Griffith would play before or since. He received sterling marks from critics for his role as the self serving Rhodes. In 1958 he reprised his role as Will Stockdale in the movie version of No Time for Sergeants. A hot commodity at the time, Andy Griffith signed with the William Morris Agency. It was then that Sheldon Leonard met with the agency to discuss the possibility of the show with Andy Griffith. Mr. Griffith approved of the show.

Aware of the expense of shooting a pilot episode, Sheldon Leonard conceived of a means of saving money while still being able to shoot a pilot. Quite simply, Mr. Leonard thought of an episode of Make Room for Daddy which would also serve as a backdoor pilot for the new series. Written by Arthur Stander, in the episode Danny is pulled over for speeding in the small North Carolina town of Mayberry by Sheriff and Justice of the Peace Andy Taylor. The episode not only introduced Andy Griffith as Andy Taylor, but Ron Howard as his son Opie. Frances Bavier also appeared in the episode, although as a wholly different character from Aunt Bea. The episode garnered high ratings and proved so successful that General Foods signed on immediately as a sponsor for The Andy Griffith Show.

Of course, while only Andy and Opie appeared in the backdoor pilot, "Danny Meets Andy Griffith", the show would naturally include many more characters. To a small degree Andy Griffith was responsible for the creation of one of them. Very sensibly, Mr. Griffith suggested Sheriff Taylor needed a deputy. He had in mind a friend with whom he had worked on No Time for Sergeants in all of its incarnations, Don Knotts. In the teleplay, play, and movie, Mr. Knotts had played an Air Force psychiatrist, but he was perhaps best known for the high-strung, nervous Mr. Morrison in the "man on the streets" interviews on The Steve Allen Show.It would be the character of Mr. Morrison who would provide the basis for Mr. Knotts' character on The Andy Griffith Show, Deputy Barney P. Fife.

 As Aunt Bee, Andy's aunt and live in housekeeper, Fraces Bavier was cast. Miss Bavier was a New York actress who had performed on Broadway and appeared in such films as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Bad Seed. While Aunt Bee was easy going and affable, Miss Bavier was the one member of the cast who did not always get along with everyone, this in a cast which generally got along very well. Both cast and crew often described working with her as "walking on eggshells." Indeed, she regularly fought with lead Andy Griffith on the show.

Once the series had begun, yet other townsfolk from Mayberry would be added to the cast. The character of Floyd Lawson, Mayberry's talkative and sometimes absent minded barber, was originally played by actor Walter Baldwin in the twelfth episode of the first season. It was in this first episode that the running joke of Floyd being unable to cut sideburns evenly was established. For whatever reason, the role would thereafter be assumed by veteran radio actor Howard McNear. Mr. McNear had appeared in such radio shows as Calling All Cars, Suspense, and The Adventures of Nero Wolfe. He originated the role of Doc on the radio version of Gunsmoke. Mr. McNear would take Floyd from a secondary character to one of the major characters on the show.

Town drunk Otis Campbell was another character introduced in the first season who would become a major character. The idea of a drunk who locks himself up when he had too much was originated in the pilot. In the pilot Frank Cady (later of Petticoat Junction and Green Acres) played drunkard  Will Hoople, who locks himself in a jail cell much as Otis did. Otis would be played by Hal Smith, a veteran actor of radio and television. Like Floyd, Otis would go from being a secondary character to a major character. Although very convincing as Otis, in truth Hal Smith had never had a drink in his life.

Another character would actually be spun off into his own show. Gomer Pyle was a kind hearted, but none too bright country boy who worked as a filling station attendant at Wally's Filling Station. The character was meant to appear in only one episode, but would go onto become major character. Gomer Pyle was cast after Andy Griffith discovered actor Jim Nabors performing at The Horn, a nightclub in Santa Monica, California. He was introduced in the show's third season. The character proved popular enough that he was spun off into his own show, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. was introduced in a backdoor pilot, much as The Andy Griffith Show had been, in the fourth season Andy Griffith Show episode "Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C."

Gomer's place on the show would be taken by his cousin Goober. References to Goober Pyle would be made as early as the third season episode "Man in a Hurry," but he would not appear until the fourth season episode "Fun Girls," which was also the only episode in which he appeared with Gomer. George Lindsey, who had nearly won the part of Gomer, was cast as Goober. Goober Pyle was very similar to his cousin Gomer. He was none too bright, but very good natured. Unlike Gomer he was a skilled mechanic, and this was reflected in his clothes. He wore a beanie with a scalloped, upturned brim, a workshirt whose pockets were filled with pencils and tyre gagues, and blue Dickies pants with work boots. In late seasons he actually bought Wally's Filling Station.

The Andy Griffith Show would debut to very good ratings. Despite this success, the show would undergo a change in its first season. Originally it had been planned that Sheriff Andy Taylor would be a buffoonish, but not stupid character, with Deputy Barney Fife playing his straight man. As a result Andy Griffith played Andy Taylor with the same delivery he had used in "What It Was, Was Football," and with the same wide grin of Will Stockdale of No Time for Sergeants. As the season progressed, however, it soon became apparent to Andy Griffith and the producers that the show might be funnier if Sheriff Taylor played the straight man to the comic characters around him. This would have the ultimate result of shifting much of the focus of the series from Sheriff Taylor to Mayberry itself. It would also result in Barney Fife evolving into one of the greatest comic characters of television history. From his "Man on the Street" character of The Steve Allen Show Barney inherited a nervous, high strung disposition, but to it Mr. Knotts added touches of pretentiousness, false bravado, and a tendency to be over analytical and alarmist in any given situation.

Just as Andy Taylor became a more serious character, The Andy Griffith Show became a show where the comedy grew out of the characters, not one liners or jokes. For this reason the series became much more of an ensemble comedy. Episodes did not simply centre on the core characters of Andy, Opie, Aunt Bee, and Barney, but came to centre on Floyd, Otis, Gomer, Goober, and even the occasional guest star.

The evolution of the show during its first season hardly hurt its ratings. Rated #4 in its first season, it did slip to #7 for its second season, but it rose back in the ratings by its third season. In fact, The Andy Griffith Show was one of the few television series in the history of the medium to rank in the top ten highest rated shows for the season according to the Nielsens every single year it was on. Indeed, it never ranked lower than #7.

Much of this was due to the fact that The Andy Griffith Show benefited from some of the best writers on television at the time. It also benefited from the talents of its guest stars, many of whose characters would become recurring characters on the show. Howard Morris, not only directed many episodes of the show, but appeared as one of its most memorable characters. Ernest T. Bass was a madcap hillbilly notorious for throwing rocks and often pressing his affections, almost always unwanted, on women. He remains one of the show's best known characters, despite appearing only five times. Bernard Fox, best known as Dr. Bombay on Bewitched, also guest starred on The Andy Griffith Show. He played Malcolm Merriweather, a British man bicycling through the United States. After his first appearance, Mr. Merriweather would appearer two more times on the show. Denver Pyle guest starred as Bricoe Darling Jr., the patriarch of the hillbilly Darling clan. A bit gruff, sometimes ill mannered, very superstitious, but ultimately soft hearted, Briscoe Darling and his family appeared six times on the show.

As the show progressed other characters would be added. Betty Lynn played Thelma Lou, Barney's steady girlfriend. While their relationship sometimes seemed unstable (and given Barney's flirtations with Juanita, the waitress at the Bluebird Diner it is little wonder), Thelma Lou was extremely loyal to Barney despite his faults. After several attempts on the part of the writers to introduce a girlfriend into Andy's life, one was finally found by accident in the form of teacher Helen Crump.  Played by Aneta Corsaut, Helen was one of the few characters who was not a native of Mayberry County. She originally came from Kansas. Later in the run county clerk Howard Sprague was introduced. A bit of a mama's boy, Mr. Sprague was actually very intelligent and actually quite good at such  sports as angling and bowling. He was played by Broadway actor Jack Dodson. Handyman Emmett Clark was also introduced later in the show's run. Emmett's shop became the place where the men of Mayberry hung out after Floyd's shop closed. He was played by veteran actor Paul Hartman.

As The Andy Griffith Show progressed through the years, it underwent various changes. Gomer Pyle left for the Marines and his own show. Perhaps the biggest change in the show came at the end of the fifth season. Don Knotts was under the impression from various comments from the producers over the years that The Andy Griffith Show would end after five seasons. He then sought out other work and signed a contract with Universal Pictures. By the time he learned there would be a sixth season, it was too late. Barney was written out of the show by having him join the Raleigh Police Department's detective unit. Mr. Knotts would make several more guest appearances on The Andy Griffith Show until the end of its run. It was also at the end of the fifth season that the show made the change to colour.

Another change would come as a result of Howard McNear's health. It was during the third season that Mr. McNear suffered a stroke which did not affect his speech, but left him unable to walk. As a result, Floyd did not appear on the show for nearly a year and a half. Andy Griffith believed that Floyd was absolutely necessary to the show's success and so he talked Mr. McNear into returning to the series. Initially Floyd would be shown sitting, although the crew eventually figured out a way around Mr. McNear being unable to use his legs. They made a stand for him which allowed Floyd to appear to be standing while he cut hair. In one episode, through some clever camera work, it was even made to appear that Floyd was walking. Unfortunately, Mr. McNear's health would decline further, so that he had to leave the show entirely in 1967.

While Don Knotts left due to an error and Howard McNear left due to health, Hal Smith would leave the show for different reasons. By the sixth season concerns had arisen regarding the portrayal of heavy drinking. This meant that Otis Campbell could no longer appear on the show. Unlike Barney and Gomer, it was not explained why Otis no longer regularly locked himself in the jail. One can only assume he finally sobered up.

It is generally agreed by fans of the show and even Andy Griffith that The Andy Griffith Show declined in quality after its fifth season. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Don Knotts had left the show. Barney had provided so much of the show's comedy and so much a part of the show's dynamic that his absence was noticeable. The character of Otis Campbell also ceasing to appear would be another blow to the show. Although not so central to the show to Barney, Otis was a source of much of the series' humour. Finally, the loss of Howard McNear as Floyd was another event which would hurt the series. Like Barney, Floyd was one of the central characters, and one who provided much comedy for the show. Indeed, a seasoned professional like Don Knotts found it hard to do scenes with Mr McNear because he would start to laugh once Mr. McNear started playing Floyd. Another thing which may have hurt the series after its sixth season was the fact that many of its original writers had since moved onto other things through the years. The writers who came onto the show later in its seasons did not have quite as good a grasp on the special brand of character comedy intrinsic to The Andy Griffith Show.

Although The Andy Griffith Show was a very good show, it was a very unrealistic one in in one regard. Mayberry County had to be the only county in the South devoid of any African Americans. The reasons for this in the beginning were simple. The American television broadcast networks were very nervous about including black characters on shows for fears of offending audiences in the South. While there were those, according to Howard Morris in a retrospective on the series, who wanted to include African American characters, it was always vetoed. It must be stressed that The Andy Griffith Show was in no way unusual in this respect. The list of shows which aired in the Fifties and Sixties which included no African American characters is sadly a long one.  It must be noted that Sheldon Leonard, executive producer of The Andy Griffith Show, would later produce I Spy, on which Bill Cosby played the first African American lead on a drama series. It must also be noted that there would be African American characters on the continuation of The Andy Griffith Show, Mayberry R.F.D.

While The Andy Grifffith Show did decline in quality in its later years, it never declined so much that it was no longer still a good show. This was reflected in its ratings, which actually rose in its later years. In its penultimate season, The Andy Griffith Show ranked #3 in the Nielsen top twenty five for the year. In its final year the series ranked #1 for the 1967-1968 season. Along with I Love Lucy and Seinfeld, The Andy Griffith Show is one of only three shows which went off the air in the #1 spot.

Before the show's eight and final season, Andy Griffith wanted to leave the show to return to movies. Neither CBS nor General Foods was eager to lose a show that was #1 in the ratings. It was then decided to essentially continue The Andy Griffitih Show without Andy Griffith. Ken Berry was introduced as Sam Jones, a widower with a young son like Andy, who was elected as the head of the Mayberry city council. Several episodes during the final season centred on Sam and his young son. Andy and Helen got engaged and would marry in the first episode of the new series, and then move away from Mayberry. Most of the cast of The Andy Griffith Show made the transition to the new show, Mayberry R.F.D. Indeed, Goober, Howard, and Emmett continued to play the same roles in Sam's life as they had in Andy's life. Aunt Bee also continued to appear on the new series, taking on a job as Sam's housekeeper. As to Mayberry R.F.D., it proved to be a hit. It was cancelled in 1971 not because of its ratings (it was #15 for the year), but as part of CBS' rural purge.

Although The Andy Griffith Show went off the air in 1968, it would continue to be popular in syndication, so much so that a reunion movie aired in 1986. Return to Mayberry. Most of the original cast returned, including Ron Howard as Opie (by then a successful movie director). The telefilm received high ratings, so much so the series might have been revived had Andy Griffith not already been committed to Matlock.

Regardless, The Andy Griffith Show has continued in syndication ever since then. Indeed, when its initial network run and syndication run are considered, it could possibly the most successful show of all time. During its network run The Andy Griffith Show never ranked below #7 for the year in the Nielsens. Its syndication run would be phenomenally successful. The show has not only aired on local stations across the United States, but on cable channels ranging from TBS to TV Land. It still airs on local stations across the nation. Indeed, it airs on at last two local stations on my cable system--KZOU in Columbia and KPLR in St. Louis. It is quite possible that The Andy Griffith Show has finally surpassed Gilligan's Island and I Love Lucy in the sheer number of times it has been repeated. The show has also produced a slough of merchandise and has an active fandom to this day.

As might be expected The Andy Griffith Show has had a huge impact on pop culture. Both C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation and The Andy Griffith Show were parodied on Mad TV in the skit "C.S.I.: Mayberry." Hal Smith would appear in Mothers Against Drunk Driving adverts as Otis Campbell. The series was parodied on SCTV in the skit "The Merv Griffith Show" and Eugene Levy appeared as Floyd in several other skits. The show itself has been referenced in TV series ranging from The X-Files to Animaniacs, and in movies ranging from White Sands (1992) to Seven (1995).

Naturally the question is why The Andy Griffith Show has stood the test of time while other long time successes in syndication, such as Gilligan's Island and I Love Lucy, have all but faded from local stations. The answer might lie in the nature of the show itself. Unlike many other shows, The Andy Griffith Show is not simply about a character or a family, but is centred on the entire town of Mayberry. Despite claims that the United States is an urbanised country, I suspect the exact opposite is true. Most Americans probably live in moderately sized towns and even small towns, towns very much like Mayberry. While not every small town might have a lunatic like Ernest T. Bass running around, I rather suspect most small towns have their own casts of unusual characters. Every town probably has a Barney Fife (even if he isn't a deputy), a Floyd Lawson, and even an Otis Campbell (although he probably isn't allowed to lock himself up in jail). Just as The Andy Griffith Show featured characters typical of most small towns, so too did it deal with small town problems: organising band concerts, disagreements between townsfolk, putting on school plays, and so on.

It then seems to me that the average American can probably more easily identify with the rural residents of Mayberry than the more urban residents of New York City in Seinfeld or even 30 Rock. It is the fact that The Andy Griffith Show is about a small town which has probably allowed it to outlast fellow classics such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and even the show that sired it, Make Room for Daddy. Although a great show, The Andy Griffith Show is not necessarily better than these shows, each of which is great in its own right. It is simply the case that the average American, even if he is not from the South, can more readily identify with the citizens of Mayberry.

Speaking as someone who grew up in the country and lives in a small Southern town (not unlike Mayberry), I always have enjoyed The Andy Griffith Show. I will not say it is my favourite sitcom of all time (that would be The Monkees) nor even the one I consider the best written (that would be The Dick Van Dyke Show), but it is the series with whose characters I can most identify. I know people like Floyd, Barney, and even Otis. The vibe, for lack of a better term,  I get from the Mayberry is the same vibe I get from my hometown, that of a quiet, friendly place where one can feel safe and secure. I suspect that many Americans also love The Andy Griffith Show  as I do. It is for that reason I hope it runs another fifty years.

1 comment:

J. Marquis said...

Truly one of the best t.v. shows ever. At least while Griffith and Knotts were still on it.