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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Andy Griffith (1926-2012)


ANDY GRIFFITH (1926-2012)


Andy Griffith, who died at 86 on Tuesday, would have been celebrating his last Fourth of July today. I’m sad about that. And what makes me even sadder is the fact that he just missed it — because there are some people you always want to be around somewhere, somehow, and Andy Griffith was one of them: a real American guy on a real American holiday like the Fourth of July, with flags and barbecues and patriotic speeches and families gathered together in the sweltering heat — or together in the cool night air to watch the fireworks go pop-pop-pop-pop-Yaaaayyy!!!


There were few movie and TV actors more specifically, joyously American than Andy, this hugely talented small town North Carolina guy who could so aptly play both sides of the street — who could impersonate, perfectly, the falsely folksy, brutally evil and reactionary TV commentator Lonesome Rhodes in Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s devastating A Face in the Crowd, and yet also bring to life, perfectly, the beneficent. good, unfailingly funny or touching and unfailingly kind Sheriff Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show — which was probably the best TV sitcom of all time.


Sorry, Lucy and Ricky. Sorry Bunker family. Sorry Dick Van Dyke. Sorry “Cheers.” Sorry “Taxi.” Sorry, Honeymooners. Sorry Seinfeld. But there’s only one “best,” and I know I‘m right on this one — even though, truth to tell, I’ve only really followed a handful of sitcoms in my life, and I missed most of the last half of the Griffith show‘s run, after Barney left as a regular. But, if there really is a better TV sitcom than “The Andy Griffith Show” — a more human, delightful, beautifully done, wiser, wittier and flat-out funnier show, I’m delighted. Think of all we have to look forward to.


Andy’s great series ran for eight years from 1960 to ’68, after Griffith’s movie star career had stalled a little. (We tend to forget that the now classic 1957 Face in the Crowd was neither a commercial nor critical hit at first.) But the TV show has been re-run continuously ever since, and most probably it will run forever. The Griffith show began with a sprightly, whistled theme song, and a view of Andy and his tiny young son Opie, walking a sunlit path to go fishing together, with Opie finally skipping a stone into the lake — and that unforgettable opening set the mood for the whole show: gentle, robust, casual, a little Huck-Finnish, happy, human. (The opening credits sequence was shot in the Franklin Canyon park off Mulholland Drive. I’ve been there — it’s pretty overgrown now, but still recognizable — and I skipped a stone into the lake.)The program that followed was all about Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, and his family, friends and neighbors in Mayberry, North Carolina — which was modeled on Griffith’s own North Carolina home town, Mt. Airy. And, as in any great sitcom, we got to know them all, to welcome their company, laugh at and treasure their eccentricities.


There was Andy’s son Opie (played by Ronny Howard, who was then the best child actor on the planet). And Barney Fife, Andy’s short, skinny nervous cousin and deputy, who was only allowed one bullet for his mostly unloaded gun and who, in contrast to the even-tempered Andy, always seemed on the edge of hysteria or just past it (Don Knotts, of course). And Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier), the matronliest of matrons who took care of the Taylor household and often seemed to have a pie or two in the oven. (I can almost taste them now.)


And then there were the laughably oddball Mayberry citizens who wandered in and out of Sheriff Taylor’s peaceful, though sometimes slightly troubled bailiwick: Floyd the barber (the sublimely dotty Howard McNear), Otis the town drunk (Hal Smith), who was such a habituee of the Mayberry town jail that he was allowed to check himself in and out of his cell, and county clerk Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson). and the addled gas station attendant Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) and his clownish cousin Goober (George Lindsey). As for the love interest, Andy was a widower, and his Mayberry girlfriends were more rational and sensible than the rest of the often goofy citizenry: Elinor Donahue (of “Father Knows Best”) as Ellie in the first season, and later Aneta Corsaut as Helen Crump. ( I wasn’t watching the show regularly in Helen’s heyday.) Lady friend or no, Andy always seemed eminently comfortable in his roles of single fatherhood and guardianship of the town and its zanies.


Griffith, who first intended to go into music or preaching, had started out his show bunsiness career as a bit of a rustic zany himself, first as a cornpone stand-up comic (“What it Was, Was Football”) and then playing Will Stockdale, the Gomer Pyle-ish army draftee in the teleplay and stage play and movie adaptations of Mac Hyman’s comic novel “No Time for Sergeants,“ scripted by Ira Levin. But, on his own show, he chose largely to be the straight man for everybody else, particularly Knotts — which may be part of the reason why Griffith famously never won (or was even nominated for ) an Emmy for his finest achievement as Andy Taylor, while Knotts won four.


It’s not that Andy wasn’t as funny. Great straight men like George Burns and Oliver Hardy and Dean Martin , can get plenty of laughs on their own, and so could Andy. But his self-created role on the show was usually to direct attention to everybody else, to serve as Mayberry’s main observer and conscience and benevolent cop, judge, jury, sheriff and jailer — as long as Otis hadn’t comandeered the key.


It was his show and his creation, indubitably. He had final say on the scripts, he worked on all of them, and he didn’t allow anything through that didn’t feel right to him. Andy Griffith had good writers (notably Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum and Jack Elinson and Harvey Bullock), good directors (primarily Bob Sweeney and Lee Phillips, but also occasionally Don Weis, Howard Morris, Theodore J. Flicker and Richard Crenna) and a good producer (Aaron Ruben, plus executive producer Sheldon Leonard, a.k.a. Nick the bartender from It’s a Wonderful Life) and a good composer (Earle Hagen, who even did the whistling himself). Andy had a great cinematographer (Warner Brothers ace Sid Hickox, who also photographed classic film noirs like Hawks’ To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep and Walsh’s The Man I Love and White Heat, as well as all of “The Andy Griffith Show” and three years of the spin-off, “Mayberry RFD”). Andy had those wonderful supporting casts, dozens and dozens of marvelous character actors, including the promising young fellow who played Marvin Jackson in two shows: Jack Nicholson. (Never let it be said Jack couldn’t play a rustic zany with the best of them.) But the true essential auteur of the program has to be Andy: few TV shows ever carried such a personal stamp. Few ever will.


One mystery remains about “The Andy Griffith Show.” Why was Andy Griffith never even nominated for an Emmy for his finest, best-loved creation — something that should have gotten him a few actual Emmies? Well partly because, as we said, he made himself the straight man. But also probably because Griffith was so good, so completely convincing, that the voters maybe unconsciously decided he was just playing himself, just playing Andy, no sweat. You can tell Don Knotts is acting up a storm: as Barney; he’s brilliant and crazy and unforgettable, and Andy unselfishly gives him scene after scene to steal. But I think most of us accepted Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy. a real father, a real man, even a real sheriff. You don’t give a prize to a guy for just playing himself and making it real. Or do you? Should you?


Here’s the funny thing. Andy Griffith was a great TV actor who never got an Emmy. But he was also a great movie actor, who maybe should have gotten an Oscar. As Lonesome Rhodes, the laughing demagogue of Face in the Crowd, he gives a titanic performance — an explosive, mesmerizing rendition of pure homespun brutality and guile. “My actor had the first part of the movie in him, but not the second,” director Elia Kazan once said of Griffith in Crowd, but I don’t agree. I think he has the whole show, the whole awful man. I think he understands Lonesome Rhodes as fully as he understood Andy Taylor.


And understanding them both, he grasps fully both sides of our reality, both sides of his country, his people. (He was politically partisan: A lifelong Democrat, Griffith recorded, with Ron Howard, a Barack Obama tape for the last election.) Andy played other roles — sleuth Ben Matlock, Billy Pueblo, Howard Pike the cowboy star in Hearts of the West, Ash Robinson in Murder in Texas, recently Old Joe in Adrienne Shelley’s Waitress — and he was good to great in all of them. But I will always prefer him as Lonesome and as Andy Taylor, just as I will always believe that A Face in the Crowd is a great film and a great performance that hasn’t gotten its due, and that the best of “The Andy Griffith Show” is something so damned wonderful that TV might have been invented for it (and not the other way around).


I come from a small town too, only 1,114 citizens when I was there, and only 28 boys and girls in my high school graduating class. In high school, I used to write and do longish TV show parodies for the morning P. A. announcements, and I once did an unusually long Andy Griffith Show parody in which Barney accidentally shot and killed Andy with his one bullet, and because actors were in short supply, I played both Andy and Barney.


So I appreciated them then. In a lifetime of watching movies and TV I‘ve seen very few make-believe towns I believed in so much as Mayberry, North Carolina when Andy and Barney lived there, or a show that got so many things so right about small town life and the people who live there and what they say and do and why they are what they are. (The Waltons maybe, but they don’t make you laugh.) It all feels right, even if it’s comically exaggerated. (Comical exaggeration after all, is the point of comedy.) And I‘m sure that that rightness was bought with a lot of hard and dedicated and very smart and loving work by the filmmakers and actors — as Ron Howard described it in his recent L. A. Times testimonial to his TV dad. Anyway, even though the series got sort of bad at the end after Barney and Gomer left and Andy seemed to lose some interest, I don’t bother watching the later shows, so I still love it. Back in Williams Bay, I did Andy better than I did Barney.


“I ‘preciate it and good night”: That was the signature phrase Andy Griffith always used, just as Jimmy Durante’s show-closer was always “Good Night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” And that’s what Andy made us believe. He appreciated us, and his fellow actors, his audience, his fellow citizens, small town or big city. He appreciated life, and especially life as it’s lived in Mt. Airy and all its sister towns all across the country, America…


Yeah, it would have been nice to have shared one more Fourth of July when there was an Andy Griffith in the world. Nice to have thought of him and Opie again, the sunlight, their fishing poles, Earle’s whistle. But, sentimentality aside, jokes aside, we do know that, no matter what, we’ll never lose him, or the rest of Mayberry, not while there’s a film or a DVD or a TV set to see them on again. We’ll never lose Lonesome Rhodes either — in fact his counterparts seem to be taking over our economy and our politics right now — but that’s another story, a darker story.


The other story, the better one, the sunlit tale of a boy and his dad and a lake full of fish, and all their friends and happy summers: that’s the one I’ll be thinking of tonight when the fireworks and the crowd go pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-Yaaayyyy! So, goodbye Andy. Goodbye Opie. Goodbye, Barn. Goodpie Aunt Bee. (Sorry.)  Goodbye Ellie and Helen. Goodbye Floyd and  Otis. Goodbye Gomer, you doofus. Goodbye, Post Cereals, which brings you this program. Goodbye Mt. Airy. Goodbye, America.


We appreciated you, Andy — and good night.





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8 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: Andy Griffith (1926-2012)”

  1. tiffaney says:

    We will miss you R.I.P Mr. Matlock

  2. morty62 says:

    Very nice piece on an iconic, underappreciated entertainer. We all know that no town such as Mayberry, so complete in its perfection, ever existed. Unlike the actual world, there was no ugliness there, and no problem too big that it couldn’t be solved by the sherriff, whose plain decency and oracular wisdom were a match for whatever bind Mayberry’s citizens found themselves in. But even though it never existed in the external world, The Andy Griffith Show got under your skin, taking on a reality that at one time or other may have manifested itself in the world through your deeds or words, becoming truly real in that moment of spiritual transubstantiation. By creating a loving, decent program Griffith showed us how the world could be if we all treated each other as brothers and sisters, the way another humble, decent, wise man once asked us to do. Thanks Andy. You did a good thing.

  3. Jimbo Seay says:

    I have learned that friendship makes life and means more that money and fame. It has always been harder to lose a real friend than a relative other than a child. Andy was a close friend I never met, but my life has been so much brighter thanks to not only the morals but just plain old joy he bought into my life. He is the first movie star , actor or famous person whose passing bought a tear to my eye.. May peace be with you old friend.

  4. Rebecca says:

    R.I.P. Sheriff Taylor ..

  5. Marcy Mikeska says:

    RIP Andy. I watched every show you ever did. You were great in them all.

  6. like losing a friend

  7. Alvaro says:

    So sad we lost another legend,R.I.P Andy

  8. Bugdog says:

    beautifully, and skillfully, written.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon