Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Andy Griffith at 90

Many people do not realise that Andy Griffith and Marilyn Monroe were born on the exact same day. Today I have seen many articles celebrating the 90th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's birth, but not so many about Andy Griffith. I find that sad as for me Andy Griffith has always been the more significant of the two. I would not see my first Marilyn Monroe movie until I was nearly an adult. On the other hand, I grew up with Andy Griffith. In fact, I can't even remember a time when I didn't know who Andy Griffith was.

Like most people I first encountered Andy Griffith on The Andy Griffith Show. I have no idea when I first saw it, but its final seasons aired when I was an infant, toddler, and very small child. That having been said, I remember it best from syndicated reruns, of which there has never been any shortage. In fact, I dare say that at no point since it went off the air has there not been a time when one couldn't watch The Andy Griffith Show in mid-Missouri! The Andy Griffith Show appealed to me greatly as a child and it is still one of my all-time favourite shows. This should be little wonder. I grew up on a farm outside a small town that was and still is a lot like Mayberry. Furthermore, my father always reminded me quite a bit of Andy Taylor. Oh, he was a farmer rather than a sheriff, but like Andy Taylor he was gentle yet firm, and possessed of a mischievous sense of humour and a gift for telling stories. To me The Andy Griffith Show was always much more relevant than the so-called "relevance' shows that debuted in the early Seventies.

I was still a lad when I first saw Andy Griffith in both No Time for Sergeants (1958) and Onionhead (1958). I loved both movies then and I still love them now. Even though both characters were from the South, I always thought Will Stockdale of No Time for Sergeants was a very different character from Andy Taylor. Both had a rather playful sense of humour, but Andy was quite a bit brighter than Will, who would seem to be at least part of the inspiration for Gomer Pyle. The first time I watched No Time for Sergeants much of its subtle satire was lost on me, but I thought it was very funny regardless. Of course, as an adult I appreciate it that much more.  I really liked Onionhead as well, even though it is a very different film despite its military setting. Al Woods was a good deal brighter than Will Stockdale and probably more cultured than Andy Taylor (the movie begins with him quitting college), but he is still recognisable as the sort of character for which Andy Griffith was best known for playing: affable, friendly, and funny.

I would be a young adult before I saw what I consider Andy Griffith's greatest performance. In fact, A Face in the Crowd (1957) was a bit of a revelation for me. Before I had only seen Andy Griffith playing men who were kind, friendly, honest, and funny. Some might be brighter than others, but in every case they were definitely upstanding citizens. This was not the case with Lonesome Rhodes, who was about as far as Andy Taylor as one could get. Indeed, Lonesome Rhodes could be considered an outright sociopath. Initially the host of a local radio show and eventually a national TV show, Rhodes was selfish in the extreme and clearly an egomaniac. Unfortunately, he was also charismatic enough to gain a sizeable following. Andy Griffith gave a bravura performance as Lonesome Rhodes, so much it shocks me that Mr. Griffith was not nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor for the role. Indeed, he should have won. Sadly, A Face in the Crowd seems to have grown more timely with each passing year.

Of course, as both a child and a young adult I would see Andy Griffith in yet other roles. He starred in a short lived comedy-drama The Headmaster in 1970, which I barely remember. As a child I also remember seeing him in the movie Angel in My Pocket (1969), in which he played a role not too far removed from Sheriff Andy Taylor. I remember him very well as crusty B-Western extra Howard Pike in Hearts of the West (1975). I also remember him in the short lived TV show  Salvage 1, which ran briefly in 1979. Of course, all through my childhood Andy Griffith's comic monologue, "What It Was, Was Football" was always being played on the radio. It may well be my favourite comic monologue of all time.

Although best known for his amiable "good ol' boy" roles, Andy Griffith was nothing if not versatile. He did play villains beyond Lonesome Rhodes in his career. The 1974 TV movie Savages was sort of a modernised version of The Most Dangerous Game, with Andy Griffith playing a homicidal lawyer and amateur hunter determined to kill the only person who saw him accidentally shoot someone. In the spy parody Spy Hard (1996) Andy Griffith got to play a truly Bondian villain, General Rancor, who aims to take over the world. While Andy Griffith was good at playing villains, he could also be quite good roles that were different from both Andy Taylor and Lonesome Rhodes. He was excellent as curmudgeonly business owner Joe in the movie Waitress (2007)  and as ageing womaniser Grandpa Joe in the 2009 film Play the Game (not necessarily a good film, but Mr. Griffith is quite good in it).

Of course, for many Andy Griffith will always be Ben Matlock on the long running TV show Matlock The character of Matlock really wasn't that far removed from Andy Taylor, although Ben was always a good deal more cantankerous and perhaps a little less folksy. I rather suspect the show's lasting success is mostly due to Andy Griffith, whose charm is present in the role much as it was when he was playing Andy Taylor. It runs in syndication to this day. 

As I said earlier, over the years I have never known a time when I did not know who Andy Griffith was. He has been a part of my life far longer than many actors and other performers. Not surprisingly, Andy Griffith has had an enormous impact on my life and remains one of my favourite actors of all time. Indeed, to this day when I stop to think of the right thing to do in any given situation, it often occurs to me, "What would Andy Taylor do?" I am sure I am not alone in my high regard for Andy Griffith and the impact he had on my life. Indeed, with The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock still in reruns to this day, I am sure there are many others like me.

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