Although Andy Griffith was a gifted actor, there is no doubt that his biggest successes came when he played characters that were very close to himself…an uncomplicated country boy from North Carolina. Griffith, who recently passed away at age 86, built his career 60 years ago on a Southern hick persona that he, with a few tweaks along the way, stayed with it the rest of his professional life. But despite countless film roles, television appearances, and several comedy albums, Andy Griffith will always best be known as Andy Taylor, the friendly, calm and wise sheriff featured on the long running “Andy Griffith Show.”
Griffith’s early career as a comedian brought about his first major success, as his signature monologue, “What it was, was Football” was captured on record in 1953, and went on the sell 800,000 copies through Capital Records. Griffith’s routine involved a puzzled country bumpkin attempting to describe the experience of witnessing his first football game. Listening to the bit today, one can find traces of some of Andy Griffith’s later characters, especially that of his first major acting role. “No Time for Sergeants,” a 1954 novel written by Mac Hyman, chronicles the misadventures of a backwoods lad, assigned to the U.S. Army Air Force. When the book was developed into a one hour teleplay, Griffith was considered perfect for the lead role of Will Stockdale. The broadcast was well received, resulting in “No Time for Sergeants” being expanded into a three-act Broadway play. “No Time for Sergeants, starring Andy Griffith, opened at the Alvin Theater on October 20, 1955, and enjoyed a two year, 796 performance run. Griffith reprised his role as Stockdale in a motion picture version of the story that premiered in 1958. Appearing with Griffith in “No Time for Sergeants,” in both the play and the movie was Don Knotts, whose association with Griffith would grow deeper during the following decade.
It was in 1957 that Andy Griffith made his film debut, playing Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes in the critically acclaimed “A Face in the Crowd.” Griffith’s character is, again, a Southern “country boy”, but with a major departure from Will Stockdale, or later Andy Taylor. Griffith’s Rhodes character is a television host, who becomes a power hungry egomaniac. Watching “A Face in the Crowd” today, I am totally amazed by Griffith’s performance, and also can’t get over how the film foreshadows what we see today on some of the various cable TV news channels.
“The Andy Griffith Show” had its origin on another television series, the popular “Make Room for Daddy,” which starred Danny Thomas on CBS. In the February 15, 1960 episode, Thomas’s character is caught speeding in the small North Carolina town of Mayberry, and its sheriff, Andy Taylor, seems determined to drain Danny of all of his cash, through a series of small fines. Ron Howard is introduced as his son, later known as Opie, while Francis Bavier also appears, but not as her later Aunt Bee character. Sheriff Taylor, although funny, does not become a sympathetic character until near the end of the episode, as viewers watch him interact with his motherless son. “The Andy Griffith Show” debuted in CBS on October 3, 1960, opening with its classic whistling theme (“The Fishin’ Hole) while Andy and his son are seen heading down a dirt road for a day of fishing. Rather than fashion Andy after Will Stockdale, Griffith and his producers decided to surround Sheriff Andy with a cast of bizarre people, led by his bumbling deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), the chatty Floyd the barber, and Otis, the very cooperative town drunk. It’s interesting to point out, that “The Andy Griffith Show” did a feature a character very similar to Griffith’s “No Time for Sergeants” role, as during the third season, viewers were introduced to Gomer Pyle, a simpleminded gas station operator. After two seasons, the Pyle character was spun-off into “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” which was very nearly the same as “No Time for Sergeants.”
“The Andy Griffith Show” became one of the most successful sitcoms in television history, ranking in the top10 all eight seasons. Its appeal is still easy to see. Mayberry was a wonderful place, and Andy Taylor was someone we all felt we knew. He was a Southern sheriff, but not a redneck. CBS was quick to notice how easily America took to a program with a rural atmosphere, and soon shows like “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Petticoat Junction,” and “Green Acres” began to appear throughout the CBS primetime schedule.
“The Andy Griffith Show” was still pulling monster ratings in 1968 when Andy decided to step down as its star. The program was renamed “Mayberry R.F.D,” and continued for three seasons with Ken Berry playing the lead role. Griffith was listed as executive producer of “Mayberry R.F.D.,” and made a handful of appearances, but the show was never the same without Andy as a regular. Andy Griffith started his own production company in 1972 which developed several television vehicles for him, none of which found much of an audience. In 1986, Griffith landed the lead role in “Matlock,” a legal drama which centered around a country lawyer…think of it as Andy Taylor meets Perry Mason. Although “Matlock” was highly successful, to me, it was just a TV show…Andy Taylor and Mayberry were real.
The whistling heard during in the “Andy Griffith Show’s” opening theme (The Fishin’ Hole) was performed by the tunes co-composer, Earl Hagen. The song, with its lyrics, performed by Andy himself, has been included with this story. Farewell, Andy.