Iconic actor Andy Griffith a pivotal figure of his time
The character who made Andy Griffith a fixture in American living rooms — Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry — radiated Southern main-street nobility at the time of ugly civil-rights turmoil.
You could argue that the defining issue in the culture and political wars that dominate American life isn't health care or big government or religion. It is whether small-town is smarter than urban, or vice versa.
And that makes Andy Griffith, who died Tuesday at 86, a pivotal figure in those wars.
Not for the man he was, but for the character who made him a fixture in American living rooms: Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry.
Mr. Griffith, who decades later experienced another round of TV popularity starring as a crafty Atlanta defense attorney on "Matlock," died at his home in Manteo, N.C. The cause was not immediately determined.
A former North Carolina high-school music teacher, Mr. 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."
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. A local record company recorded Mr. Griffith's "What It Was, Was Football" and it began receiving so much radio air play that Mr. 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."
Mr. 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. "The Andy Griffith Show" made its debut that fall with Ronny 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 Mr. Griffith had earlier starred in, suggested 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.
Considered the driving force behind the series, Mr. Griffith was heavily involved with the show's production and helped shape the scripts and characterizations.
The small-town atmosphere depicted in Mayberry wasn't far from Mr. Griffith's boyhood in Mount Airy, N.C., a small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he was born.
Sheriff Taylor, among the most popular and enduring characters television has produced, came along at a time, 1960, when things weren't looking so good for the rural-is-smarter argument, especially as it pertained to the South. News coverage was making the whole country aware of the ugliness of racism there, an impression that would only grow stronger over the next few years with clashes over school integration and the murder of civil-rights workers.
A stereotype defined by ignorance and bigotry was becoming codified in popular culture as well, especially in relation to Southern characters: the obvious miscarriage of justice in "To Kill a Mockingbird," published in 1960; Rod Steiger's good-ol'-boy police chief from "In the Heat of the Night" in 1967.
But hold it, as Andy was known to say. While the urbanites were ascendant, characters like Atticus Finch in "Mockingbird" and Sheriff Taylor of "The Andy Griffith Show" were keeping the flame of main-street nobility and wisdom alive.
Not just any actor could have created Andy Taylor and sold him to the public during the unsettled '60s, but Mr. Griffith made it look easy. He brought good looks and physical stature to the role, as well as a Southern accent that was strong enough to convey "country" but not so thick as to be off-putting. (It also helped that the show was scrupulously uncontroversial and that Mayberry was a very white town; no reminders of the gathering racial storm there.)
Eventually, the tumult of the decade pushed "The Andy Griffith Show" aside, but not the notion that the moral center of the country lives somewhere in a small town.
As the Harvard-educated lawyer on "Matlock," which had a nine-year run on NBC and ABC in the 1980s and '90s, Mr. Griffith maintained his down-home sensibility.
Over the decade, Mr. Griffith co-starred with Jeff Bridges in the movie comedy "Hearts of the West" and appeared in occasional TV movies and miniseries. But, as he later put it: "I fell out of fashion. The phone didn't ring much."
In 1983, Mr. Griffith was stricken with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. After six months of extensive physical therapy, however, he fully recovered and returned to acting — including a role in the 1984 miniseries "Fatal Vision" before launching "Matlock" in 1986.