Homespun TV legend Andy Griffith, 86, dies
Music teacher turned natural strengths into stardom
Andy Griffith, whose folksy portrayal of the wise and good-humored sheriff of Mayberry in the classic 1960s situation comedy “The Andy Griffith Show” made him one of television’s most beloved stars, has died. He was 86.
Griffith, who decades later experienced another round of TV popularity starring as a crafty Atlanta defense attorney on “Matlock,” died Tuesday morning at his home in Manteo, N.C. The cause was not immediately determined.
A former North Carolina high school music teacher, Griffith launched his career as an entertainer in the early 1950s by writing and performing comic monologues for civic clubs that he delivered in an exaggerated Southern drawl that was once described as “sounding like three yards out on a Carolina swamp.”
As the Harvard-educated lawyer on “Matlock,” which had a nine-year run on NBC and ABC in the 1980s and ’90s, Griffith maintained his down-home sensibility. As an actor, he learned early on to play to his strengths.
“Anytime I try to play anything that doesn’t come natural, I’m just plain bad,” he once told TV Guide.
As Sheriff Andy Taylor, his most famous role, he was just plain good.
Griffith was starring in the Broadway musical “Destry Rides Again” in 1959 when he told his agent that he was ready to try a TV series.
Sheldon Leonard, the producer of “The Danny Thomas Show,” teamed with a writer to develop an idea for a series that would exploit Griffith’s homespun image: having him play the small-town sheriff of a mythical North Carolina town called Mayberry.
“The Andy Griffith Show” made its debut that fall with Ron Howard as the widowed Taylor’s young son, Opie; and Frances Bavier as his matronly Aunt Bee. The series quickly became one of the decade’s most popular shows and ran for eight seasons.
Comic actor Don Knotts, who had played a supporting role in the Broadway and film versions of “No Time for Sergeants” that Griffith had earlier starred in, called after seeing the series’ pilot to suggest that Andy Taylor should have a deputy. The addition of Knotts as the incompetent but full-of-bravado Barney Fife quickly shifted the balance of the show.
“I was supposed to have been the comic, the funny one,” Griffith told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. The series, he said, “might not have lasted even half a season that way, but when Don came on I realized by the second episode Don should be funny and I should play straight to him.”
The unflappable Andy and the all-too-excitable Barney became one of television’s greatest comedy duos.
Considered the driving force behind the series, Griffith was heavily involved with the show’s production and helped shape the scripts and characterizations.
George Lindsey, who joined the series in 1965 as Goober, told the Times in 1993: “He is probably the best script constructionist that ever was.” Griffith, he added, “made you operate at 110 percent because you brought yourself up to his level.”
Ron Howard, who grew up to become one of Hollywood’s top directors, considered Griffith to be “like a wonderful uncle to me.”
Howard told People magazine in 1986 that Griffith “created an atmosphere of hard work and fun that I try to bring to my movies.”
The small-town atmosphere depicted in Mayberry wasn’t far from Griffith’s own boyhood in Mount Airy, N.C., a small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he was born on June 1, 1926.
An only child, Griffith grew up singing and playing guitar with his mother. He learned to tell funny stories from his father, who earned a modest living at the Mount Airy Furniture Co.
Griffith majored in music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and dreamed of becoming a professional singer on stage. On a whim, he auditioned for a campus production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers.”
“I loved it,” Griffith recalled in a 1996 National Public Radio interview. “I had two songs, two solos. I got good reviews. It said I had good timing and so I played the comedy leads in all the Gilbert and Sullivans they did while I was there.”
After graduating in 1949, Griffith taught music at a high school in Goldsboro, N.C. But he and his first wife, Barbara, a singer and musician who had been a member of the university drama group, continued acting in North Carolina’s famous annual outdoor drama, “The Lost Colony,” on Roanoke Island.
Plying the “Rotary Club circuit” as an entertainer with his wife, Griffith began doing humorous monologues on “Romeo and Juliet,” the opera “Carmen” and the ballet “Swan Lake.”
But he earned some of his biggest laughs with his football spoof in which a country preacher sees his first football game but has no idea what he’s watching:
“And I think that it’s some kind of a contest where they see which bunch full of them men can take that pumpkin and run from one end of that cow pasture to the other without either getting knocked down or stepping in something.”
A local record company recorded Griffith’s “What It Was, Was Football” and it began receiving so much radio air play that Capitol Records’ New York promotion man Richard O. Linke flew to North Carolina to buy the master recording and sign Griffith to a personal-management contract.
“I dealt with a lot of record personalities,” Linke told TV Guide in 1960, “but I just had a feeling that this Griffith kid had a lot more on the ball than most. Fortunately, I was right.”
Griffith went on to star on Broadway as a country-bumpkin draftee in the 1955 hit comedy “No Time for Sergeants.”
He reprised his Tony-nominated role in the 1958 movie version of the play, a year after making his film debut playing a folksy-yet-cunning Arkansas vagabond singer who becomes a power-hungry national TV sensation in “A Face in the Crowd.”
“The Andy Griffith Show” was in the Nielsen Top 10 all eight seasons, and when its star voluntarily left the show in 1968 it was ranked No. 1.
He starred in only one post-TV series film – “Angel in My Pocket,” a 1969 family comedy that bombed – before attempting to re-establish himself as a TV star.
In 1983, two years after receiving an Emmy nomination for his supporting role in the TV movie “Murder in Texas,” Griffith was stricken with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system.
“In a matter of hours, my legs were paralyzed,” he later told People magazine.
After six months of extensive physical therapy, however, he fully recovered and returned to acting.
“Matlock” launched in 1986.
Griffith, who was inducted into the TV Academy Hall of Fame in 1992, received a 1997 Grammy for his album “I Love to Tell The Story – 25 Timeless Hymns.”
When Griffith received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civil award, at a White House ceremony in 2005, President George W. Bush thanked him for being “such a friendly and beloved presence in our American life.”