TV And NC Icon Andy Griffith Dead At 86

Jul 3, 2012

Andy Griffith has died. The legendary TV and film actor passed away this morning at his home in Manteo. He was 86. The Dare County Sheriff's Office confirmed the death; no cause was released.

For many, Griffith was North Carolina. He was born in Mount Airy, spent his college days at UNC-Chapel Hill, acted at the Lost Colony in Manteo, and even taught theater in Goldsboro. He introduced the world to the iconic character of a small-town North Carolina sheriff.

Dave DeWitt: Andy Samuel Griffith was born on June 1st, 1926 in Mount Airy, Not Andrew, but Andy, and it was that informality and accessibility that millions of fans would later come to know and appreciate.

He was an only child… the son of a father who ran a band saw at the local furniture plant and a mother who loved music… and it was from her that he inherited his love of performing.

When he was a teenager, he worked a summer job at the high school to save up for a trombone… in a 1998 interview with the Archive of American Television, Griffith that as a turning point…

Andy Griffith: We didn't have money, I was not athletic and I was not a good student, so I was sort of a  nobody. So when I started all of this music I became a little somebody then. I started to gradually, though you never really climb out of your second class feeling, I started to gradually climb out of it.

He left Mount Airy after high school, intending to become a Moravian Minster. Instead, he enrolled at U-N-C Chapel Hill and pursued music and then acting. He took any performing job he could… at the Lost Colony in Manteo, and then at civic clubs throughout the state. He also taught theater at Goldsboro High School for three years before leaving to try to make a career as an actor. He performed one-person shows across the south and perfected several comedy monologues, including one about a naïve country boy watching football for the first time…

Andy Griffith: They would run at one another and kick one another and throw one another down and stomp on one another and grin their feet in one another and I don't know what all and just as fast as one of 'em would get hurt they'd tote him off and run another one on.

“What It Was, Was Football” eventually became a record that sold more than a million copies… and became the catalyst for his career. Griffith went to New York and signed with the William Morris Agency. He worked local nightclubs like the Blue Angel, hoping his act would appeal to a broader audience. One of his first acting parts was in a play called No Time For Sergeants. It was a hit on Broadway, and landed him a major film role. A Face In The Crowd featured Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes. The character was a country drifter who becomes a corrupt television personality and political kingmaker.

I'm not just an entertainer. I'm an influence, a wheeler of opinion. A force, a force.

Dale Pollock: When lonesome rhodes finally figures it out, there's a certain shrewdness in his eyes and that was always in Andy Griffith.

Dale Pollock is a film professor at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He says the film still holds up as a stark look at media manipulation…

Dale Pollock: And it holds up because of Elia Kazan's direction and Bud Schullberg's script but more than anything it holds because of Andy Griffith's performance and how real and raw and nasty it is.

But the film was not a popular success and Griffith’s movie career never quite got off the ground. A few years later, a producer named Sheldon Leonard had an idea for a show about a small-town sheriff.

The Andy Griffith Show started in 1960. It mixed colorful characters and morality lessons into funny stories. The success of the program hinged on Griffith’s willingness to play a straight man, Sheriff Andy Taylor, surrounded by over-the-top comic characters like Barney Fife and Otis, the town drunk:

"Barney's in jail, nip it! nip it! nip it! nip it! nip it! All right, all right, all right. All right. Now just quiet down both of ya and go to sleep. I don't want to hear any more fussin' you understand?"

But the show wasn’t all chaos and slapstick. Quiet, poignant scenes set the show apart from other sitcoms of the era… like this episode in which Opie accidentally kills a bird and raises its young:

"But what if they can't fly away? Maybe I didn't do all the right things. On account of I wasn't really their Ma. Nah, you did all the right things. I expect they'll be able to fly"

The Andy Griffith show would go on to become one of the truly classic T-V programs. It made stars of Griffith, Don Knotts, and the town of Mayberry, a fictional town in North Carolina that regularly referred to real places like Raleigh and Asheville. Ron Howard’s career also began on the show. He played Opie and is sow a major film director. In an Archive of American Television interview, Howard said the show was ahead of its time, even as it evoked the 1930s.

Ron Howard: None of the characters in the show have a traditional family, and it's thought of as one of the ultimate family shows. Ironically what it's really saying is a community can be a family. The town of Mayberry is a big family. There's never ever been a show like it.

The show aired from 1960 until 1968, the height of the civil rights era. But the show almost never included a person of color, let alone hint at the violence and chaos taking place on the real main streets in the south.

Film professor Dale Pollock.

Dale Pollock: And for me growing up in Ohio i didn't know anybody from the south. Andy Griffith was the South to me and I think he was to a whole generation of people and that South was in a great contrast to the Civil Rights Movement. I think he really balanced out the portrayal of an entire region for much of America in a critical time in American cultural and political history.

Andy Griffith left the program in 1968 while it was still number one in the ratings. He again tried films and other television shows, but typecasting stalled his career. It wasn’t until 1986 that he hit on another successful formula. This time, a smart country lawyer who always won the big case:

"You took the sheet off his body, picked up the knife, planted the gun at Spencer's house then you had to do something about the blood on your leg, hack at you for something. Then, you could go to the hospital and do something about the two-inch gash on your leg. How'm I doing?"

Matlock gave Andy Griffith another long run on television. In the middle of that run, the show’s production was moved to Wilmington, so Griffith could be closer to his home in Manteo.

When the Matlock series ended in 1995, Griffith could afford to be selective about his projects. He made a couple music CDs, appeared in a few TV movies and independent films, and generally enjoyed semi-retirement with his third wife Cindy. He also became a highly sought-after political endorsement. Griffith, a lifelong democrat, appeared in ads for Mike Easley and Bev Perdue:

"Now let's all get behind Bev's positive campaign. Thanks, Andy I appreciate it. Oh, you're going to be a good governor."

Ron Howard also asked Griffith to briefly re-create his role as sheriff Andy Taylor in a humorous endorsement Howard made for Barack Obama:

"When I'm a grown up I'd sure like to vote for somebody like Mr. Obama. Well, if you stay really healthy and strong, avoid any felonies and stay away from the butterfly ballot, I bet you'll get a chance."

The Andy Griffith endorsement meant something because the image he created was so appealing… solid, hard-working, and entertaining. The real Andy was also ambitious, a quality that could sometimes get lost in the mild-mannered smile and easygoing drawl. It was an ambition that Griffith learned along the way.

Andy Griffith: I always hoped I'd stand out. I never knew that I would. When I first started I said I don't ever want to be a star I just want to be a good supporting actor, and after my first night at the Blue Angel when I scored I said, forget that supporting act business, I want to be the headliner.

Reruns will keep Andy Griffith alive as a headliner for many, many years. In 2004 the cable network TV Land put statues of the fictional Sheriff Andy Taylor and his son Opie in Raleigh and Mount Airy. There, they’ll stroll forever along the banks of the fishing hole, and how many of us get to pass into eternity whistling our own theme song?