Raleigh: Andy Griffith’s gift to the show that bore his name wasn’t just the homespun wisdom of the plain-spoken sheriff he played. It was the place he created: a small town where all foibles are forgiven and friendships are forever, full of characters who felt like family.
Mayberry, a fictional North Carolina village said to be modelled on Griffith’s own hometown of Mount Airy, was so beloved that it practically became a synonym for any community that was too innocent and trusting for real life. After all, Griffith’s Mayberry was a place where the sheriff didn’t carry a gun, the local drunk locked himself in jail and even the villains who passed through were changed by their stay.
On The Andy Griffith Show, he created an endearing portrait of a place where few people grew up but many wished they did.
Griffith, who died on Tuesday at 86 at his North Carolina home, played a sage widower named Andy Taylor who offered gentle guidance to son Opie, played by little Ron Howard, who grew up to become an Oscar-winning director. Griffith inhabited the sheriff’s “aw, shucks” persona so completely that viewers easily believed the character and the man were one.
“What made The Andy Griffith Show work was Andy Griffith himself — the fact that he was of this dirt and had such deep respect for the people and places of his childhood,” said Craig Fincannon, who runs a casting agency in Wilmington and met Griffith in 1974.
A character on the show “might be broadly eccentric, but the character had an ethical and moral base that allowed us to laugh with them and not at them”, he said. “And Andy Griffith’s the reason for that.”
Don Knotts, who died in 2006, was the goofy Deputy Barney Fife, while Jim Nabors joined the show as Gomer Pyle, the cornpone gas pumper. George Lindsey, who died in May, was the beanie-wearing Goober. The sheriff’s loving Aunt Bee was played by the late Frances Bavier.
The show initially aired from 1960 to 1968 and never really left television, living on for decades in reruns. Almost 20 years later, a reunion movie titled Return to Mayberry was the top-rated TV movie of the 1985-86 season.
The series became one of only three in TV history to bow out at the top of the ratings (The others were I Love Lucy and Seinfeld). Griffith said he decided to end it “because I thought it was slipping, and I didn’t want it to go down further”.
In a 2007 interview, Griffith said he wasn’t as wise as the sheriff or as nice. He described himself as having the qualities of one of his last roles, that of the cranky diner owner in Waitress, and also of his most manipulative character, from the 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd.
“But I guess you could say I created Andy Taylor,” he said. “Andy Taylor’s the best part of my mind. The best part of me.”
Griffith’s skill at playing a lovable rube was first established on a comedic monologue titled “What It Was, Was Football,” about a bumpkin attending a college football game.
That led to his first national television exposure on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1954 and the stage and screen versions of “No Time for Sergeants,” a production that cast Griffith as Will Stockdale, an over-eager young hillbilly who, as a draftee in the Air Force, overwhelms the military with his rosy attitude.
His television career slowed down in the 1970s but resumed in 1986 with Matlock, a light-hearted legal drama in which Griffith played a cagey Harvard-educated, Southern-bred attorney with a leisurely law practice in Atlanta.
Decked out in his seersucker suit in a steamy courtroom (air conditioning would have spoiled the mood), Matlock could toy with a witness and tease out a confession like a folksy Perry Mason.
This new character — law-abiding, fatherly and lovable — was like a latter-day homage to Sheriff Andy Taylor, updated with silver hair. The show aired though 1995.
Griffith was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts Hall of Fame in 1992. In 2005, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the country’s highest civilian honours.
In a statement on Tuesday, President Barack Obama said Griffith’s characters “warmed the hearts of Americans everywhere.”
Griffith’s signature role “put heavy pressure on him because everyone felt like he was their best friend,” Fincannon said. “With great grace, he handled the constant barrage of people wanting to talk to Andy Taylor.”
In the coastal town of Manteo, Griffith protected his privacy with help from a circle of friends who revealed little to nothing about him.
Strangers who asked where Griffith lived would receive circular directions that took them to the beach, said William Ivey Long, the Tony Award-winning costume designer whose parents were friends with Griffith and his first wife, Barbara.
Griffith and Knotts had become friends while performing in “No Time for Sergeants” and remained so until Knotts’ death at 81.
Knotts’ widow, Francey Yarborough Knotts, said Griffith was in good spirits when she spoke with him on June 1, his birthday.
“Don and I loved Andy very much,” she said in a statement. “Andy and Don had a great friendship and a great creative partnership. Throughout their lives, they continued to have fun together and discuss the art of comedy and acting.”
Asked in 2007 to name his favourite episodes, Griffith cited those that emphasised Knotts’ character.
“The second episode that we shot I knew Don should be funny and I should play straight for him,” Griffith said. “That opened up the whole series because I could play straight for everybody else. And I didn’t have to be funny. I just let them be funny.”
Griffith’s generosity toward his castmates paid off richly for those fellow actors, particularly Knotts.
Sheriff Taylor was ever-indulgent with the twitchy, bug-eyed Deputy Fife and loved joshing with him just for sport. The result was five supporting-actor Emmys for Knotts.
“What are the state police gonna think when they get here and find we got an empty jail?” rants Barney in one episode, worried about appearances, as always. “They’re gonna think this is just a hick town where nothing ever happens!”
“Well, now,” Taylor says calmly, “you got to admit that’s about the size of it.”
In the 1957 drama “A Face in the Crowd,” Griffith starred as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a local jailbird and amateur singer who becomes a philosopher on national television. As his influence rises, his drinking, womanising and lust for power are hidden by his handlers.
“Mr. Griffith plays him with thunderous vigor,” The New York Times wrote. The Washington Post said Griffith “seems to have one of those personalities that sets film blazing.”
Griffith said Kazan led him through his role, and it was all a bit overwhelming for someone with, as he put it, just “one little acting course in college.”
More recently, Griffith won a Grammy in 1997 for his album of gospel music “I Love to Tell the Story - 25 Timeless Hymns.”
In 2007, he appeared in a critically acclaimed independent film, “Waitress,” playing Joe, the boss at the diner. The next year, he appeared in Brad Paisley’s awarding-winning music video “Waitin’ on a Woman.”
Paisley said Griffith was “an actor who never looked like he was acting, a moral compass who saved as many souls as most preachers and an entertainer who put smiles on more faces than almost anyone.”
Griffith also dappled in Democratic politics, appearing in 2008 in an Obama campaign video directed by Howard and featuring the former child star chatting with Griffith and other former TV colleagues. Two years later, he made a commercial praising the president’s health care legislation.
Griffith was born on June 1, 1926, and as a child sang and played slide trombone in the band at Grace Moravian Church. He studied at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and for a time contemplated a career in the ministry. But he eventually got a job teaching high school music in Goldsboro.
He and his first wife, Barbara Edwards, had two children: Sam, who died in 1996, and Dixie. His second wife was Solica Cassuto. Both marriages ended in divorce. He married third wife Cindi Knight Griffith in 1983.
Griffith also suffered from Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that can cause sudden paralysis. He suffered a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 2000.