Tuesday, 3 July 2012
The Late Great Andy Griffith
Andy Griffith was born on 1 June 1926 in Mount Airy, North Carolina (the real life town that provided the basis for Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show). It was after he had seen the movie Birth of the Blues (1941), which featured trombonist Jack Teargarden, that young Mr. Griffith bought a trombone from Sears & Roebuck. Mr. Griffith also took to acting while still young. He was cast in the yearly production of The Lost Colony, a play still performed to this day on Roanoke Island. He appeared in the play for many years running. Eventually he would move from playing trombone to singing. Mr. Griffith initially attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the intent of becoming a preacher, but switched his major to music. At the University of North Carolina he was president of the Men's Glee Club and a member of the music fraternity Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia. He appeared in various operettas at the university, including The Chimes of Normandy and H.M.S. Pinafore. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in music. He taught music and phonetics at a high school in Goldsboro, North Carolina for three years. Among his students was NPR newscaster Carl Kassell.
It was during this period that Andy Griffith and his wife Barbara put together an act in which Andy Griffith played the part of a comical preacher. The two performed at various civic clubs around North Carolina. It was in 1953 that Andy Griffith, in his role as the comical, backwood preacher, performed the monologue "What It Was, Was Football." "What Was, Was Football" was a first person account from the point of view of the backwoods preacher, who stumbled upon a football game and didn't quite understand what he was seeing. The monologue was recorded on the Colonial label in Raleigh, North Carolina. Around 50,000 copies were sold. Capitol Records bought the rights to the record from Colonial and released it the same year. In the end it sold 800,00 copies and launched Andy Griffith's career.
While Mr. Griffith had success on both Broadway and film, it would be television that would turn Andy Griffith not only into a superstar, but a legend. In 1958 he appeared in the Playhouse 90 adaptation of The Male Animal. His most famous guest appearance (and his most historic as well) would be on the episode of The Danny Thomas Show (also known as Make Room For Daddy) entitled "Danny Meets Andy" in 1960. The episode has Danny being pulled over for speeding in the small North Carolina town of Mayberry where Andy Taylor (played by Andy Griffith) is the local sheriff. It served as a backdoor pilot for The Andy Griffith Show, arguably the actor's most famous work. While the series originally centred on Sheriff Andy Taylor, it soon became a true ensemble show with episodes not only focusing on Andy's household, but the townspeople of Mayberry itself. The show ranked in the Nielsen ratings' annual top ten every year of its 8 year run and was the number one show in its final season, a feat accomplished by only two other shows (I Love Lucy and Seinfeld). The show ended only because Andy Griffith wanted to return to motion pictures. It would continue, after a fashion, without Andy Griffith as the spin off Mayberry R.F.D.
Unfortunately, Andy Griffith would not be able to recreate the film success he had in the late 1950's. In 1969 he appeared in the film Angel in My Pocket. Although fondly remembered by many, it performed very poorly at the box office and as a result may have seriously injured Mr. Griffith's film career. Andy Griffith then returned to television in 1970 in a new series, Headmaster. In the series Andy Griffith played a headmaster at a private school in California. Unlike The Andy Griffith Show, Headmaster was a drama that sought to explore the issues of the day in a way that Room 222 and The Mod Squad had. Unfortunately, Headmaster proved to be an absolute failure, ranking at the bottom of the ratings and lasting only 13 episodes. In an effort to salvage something from the ratings disaster of Headmaster, a new show was developed for Mr. Griffith. The New Andy Griffith Show was a situation comedy starring Andy Griffith as Andy Sawyer, who after returning to his hometown of Greenwood, North Carolina becomes the city's mayor pro tem. Unfortunately, The New Andy Griffith Show would prove only a little more successful in the ratings than Headmaster. It lasted 10 episodes.
The Eighties saw Andy Griffith once more play the leading role in a television show. Matlock debuted in 1986 and would run for nine seasons. In many respects it was merely a Southern version of Perry Mason. On the show Andy Griffith played defence attorney Ben Matlock, who each week must prove one of his clients is innocent of the crime of which he or she is accused. The show proved enormously popular, to the point that aside from Sheriff Taylor, Matlock is the role with which Andy Griffith is perhaps most identified. It is still seen widely in syndication to this day. In the Eighties Mr. Griffith also guest starred on various shows, including Saturday Night Live, Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and Hotel. He appeared in such TV movies as Murder in Texas, The Demon Murder Case, Fatal Vision, Crime of Innocence, and Under the Influence. A highlight of his career in the Eighties was a reunion of The Andy Griffith Show cast in the television movie Return to Mayberry. He also appeared in the film Rustlers' Rhapsody (1985).
From the Nineties into the Naughts, Andy Griffith appeared in the films Spy Hard (1996), Daddy and Them (2001), Waitress (2007), and Play the Game (2009). He guest starred on the shows Diagnosis Murder (as Ben Matlock), Family Law, and Dawson's Creek. He appeared in the television movies Gramps and A Holiday Romance. In 1996 he narrated and wrote a short film based on What It Was, Was Football.
Although best known as Sheriff Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show, Andy Griffith was an immensely talented and versatile actor who could play a wide variety of roles. Indeed, his best known film role is a far cry from the gentle county sheriff on the popular sitcom. Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd is manipulative, conniving, self serving, power hungry, and probably a bit mad. Andy Griffith played him convincingly in a performance that should have received an Oscar nomination, if not won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Lead Role. What many don't realise is that Lonesome Rhodes was not the only despicable character Andy Griffith ever played. In the television movie Savages from 1974 Andy Griffith played a homicidal lawyer and amateur hunter determined to kill the only person who saw him accidentally shoot someone (in may ways it was a Seventies version of The Most Dangerous Game). In another television movie, Murder in Coweta County, Andy Griffith played a powerful and murderous landowner whom the local sheriff (played by Johnny Cash) is determined to bring down. The 1974 television movie Pray for the Wildcats saw Andy Griffith play a sociopath and businessman who turns a dirt bike race into a blood sport. Andy Griffith also played the villain in the Leslie Nielsen spy parody Spy Hard. Although best known as Sheriff Taylor and Ben Matlock, Andy Griffith could play villains so convincingly that he could have easily made a career of it.
Of course, most of Andy Griffith's roles were not villains, although many of them were not Andy Taylor or Ben Matlock either. Even though both were from the country, Will Stockdale in No Time for Sergeants is a far cry from the wise and wily Sheriff Taylor--in fact, he seems like a prototype for Gomer Pyle (but even less bright)! Harry Broderick of Salvage 1 was also a very different role from Andy Taylor. Although basically a good man at heart, Harry also had a touch of con man about him, a trait necessary for a man who salvages anything and everything for a living. In Play the Game Andy Griffith played Grandpa Joe, whose grandson turns into him into an elderly Casanova after he teaches him his tricks for picking up women. Over a career that spanned nearly sixty years, Andy Griffith played a wide variety of roles and many of them were quite different from his best known roles as Sheriff Andy Taylor and Ben Matlock.
That having been said, I suspect most of us will remember Andy Griffith best as Sheriff Andy Taylor. I know I will. If The Andy Griffith Show has proven to be one of the most successful sitcoms (perhaps the most successful) in American television history, it is perhaps because it resonates with the American people in a way many other sitcoms have not. Despite what the broadcast networks apparently believe, I suspect most Americans have more experience with small towns similar to Mayberry than either New York City or Los Angeles. Indeed, many of us grew up in small towns like Mayberry. For myself The Andy Griffith Show seemed more relevant and more realistic than All in the Family ever did. The simple reason is that it related much more to my own life. Except for the mysterious absence of African Americans (something on which CBS insisted), Mayberry could almost pass for my own hometown. I could even relate to Sheriff Andy Taylor in a way that I never could Archie Bunker. The simple fact is that Andy Taylor reminded me very much of my own father. Just as Andy could be firm with his son Opie (a young Ron Howard), so could my father be firm with me. At the same time, just as Andy could be fair, so could my father. Both were capable of admitting when they were wrong, even to their own children. What is more, both of them had a mischievous streak a mile long. Like Andy Taylor, my father liked to kid his friends and family. I rather doubt I am alone in having had a father like Andy Taylor. I suspect many people did, and not just Southerners. Regardless, I grew up with Andy Griffith and Mayberry and I have never deserted them, not simply out of nostalgia, but because they seem much more a part of my life than Friends or Everybody Loves Raymond.
In the end Andy Griffith was an actor who played one of the most iconic roles on one of the most iconic television shows in American history. At the same time he was a very capable actor who played a wide diversity of roles in both television and film. While Andy Griffith played Sheriff Andy Taylor and Ben Matlock, he also played Lonesome Rhodes, Will Stockdale, and many, many more.