Andy Griffith dies at age 86
Andy Griffith passed away today, July 3, 2012, at the age of 86. The American actor, director, producer, Grammy Award-winning Southern-gospel singer, and writer gained prominence in the starring role in director Elia Kazan’s epic film, A Face in the Crowd (1957) before he became better known for his television roles, playing the lead characters in the 1960–68 situation comedy, The Andy Griffith Show, and in the 1986–95 legal drama, Matlock. Not many people know it, but Griffith was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by U.S. President George W. Bush on November 9, 2005.
Griffith was born in Mount Airy, North Carolina, the only child of Geneva (née Nunn) and Carl Lee Griffith. At a very young age, Griffith had to live with relatives until his parents could afford to get a home of their own. Without a crib or a bed, he slept in drawers for a few months. In 1929, when Griffith was three years old, his father took a job working as a carpenter and was finally able to purchase a home in Mount Airy’s “blue-collar” southside.
Like his mother, Griffith grew up listening to music. His father instilled a sense of humor from old family stories. By the time he entered school, Griffith was well aware that he was from what many considered the “wrong side of the tracks.” He was a shy student, but once he found a way to make his peers laugh, he began to come out of his shell and come into his own.
As a student at Mount Airy High School, Griffith cultivated an interest in the arts, and he participated in the school’s drama program. A growing love of music, particularly swing, would change his life. Griffith was raised Baptist and looked up to Ed Mickey, a minister at Grace Moravian Church, who led the brass band and taught him to sing and play the trombone. Mickey nurtured Griffith’s talent throughout high school until graduation in 1944. Griffith was delighted when he was offered a role in The Lost Colony, a play still performed today on Roanoke Island. He performed as a cast member of the play for several years, playing a variety of roles, until he finally landed the role of Sir Walter Raleigh, the namesake of North Carolina’s capital.
He began college studying to be a Moravian preacher, but he changed his major to music and became a part of the school’s Carolina Play Makers. He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and graduated with a bachelor of music degree in 1949. At UNC he was president of the UNC Men’s Glee Club and a member of the Alpha Rho Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, America’s oldest fraternity for men in music. He also played roles in several student operettas, including The Chimes of Normandy (1946), and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers (1945), The Mikado (1948) and H.M.S. Pinafore (1949).
After graduation, he taught English for a few years at Goldsboro High School in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where he taught, among others, Carl Kasell.
Griffith’s early career was as a monologist, delivering long stories such as What it Was, Was Football, which is told from the point of view of a rural backwoodsman trying to figure out what was going on in a football game. Released as a single in 1953 on the Colonial label, the monologue was a hit for Griffith, reaching number nine on the charts in 1954.
On television, Griffith starred in a one-hour teleplay version of No Time for Sergeants (March 1955)—a story about a country boy in the US Air Force—on The United States Steel Hour, a high-rated television anthology series. He expanded that role in a full-length theatrical version of the same name (October 1955) on Broadway in New York City, New York. His Broadway career also included the title role in the 1957 musical, Destry Rides Again, co-starring Delores Gray. The show, with a score by Harold Rome, ran for more than a year.
Griffith later reprised his role for the film version (1958) of No Time for Sergeants; the film also featured Don Knotts, as a corporal in charge of manual-dexterity tests, marking the beginning of a life-long association between Griffith and Knotts. (No Time for Sergeants is considered the direct inspiration for the later television situation comedy Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.) He also portrayed a US Coast Guard sailor in the feature film Onionhead (1958); it was neither a critical nor a commercial success.
In 1957 Griffith made his film début, starring in the film A Face in the Crowd. Although he plays a “country boy”, this country boy is manipulative and power-hungry, a drifter who becomes a television host and uses his show as a gateway to political power. Co-starring Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Tony Franciosa, and Lee Remick (in her film début as well), the film was directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg.
A 2005 DVD reissue of A Face in the Crowd includes a mini-documentary on the film, with comments from Schulberg and surviving cast members Griffith, Franciosa, and Neal. In his interview, Griffith, revered for his wholesome image for decades, reveals a more complex side of himself. He recalls Kazan prepping him to shoot his first scene with Remick’s teenaged baton twirler, who captivates Griffith’s character on a trip to Arkansas. Griffith also expresses his belief that the film was far more popular and respected in more recent decades than it was when originally released.
In 1960, Griffith appeared as a county sheriff (who was also a justice of the peace and the editor of the local newspaper) in an episode of Make Room for Daddy, starring Danny Thomas (and yes, Sherry Jackson, the star of Make Room for Daddy will be attending the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention this August). This episode, in which Thomas’ character is stopped for speeding in a little town, served as a backdoor pilot for The Andy Griffith Show. Both shows were produced by Sheldon Leonard.
Beginning in 1960, Griffith starred as Sheriff Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show for the CBS television network. The show took place in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina, where Taylor, a widower, was the sheriff and town sage. The show was filmed at Desilu Studios, with exteriors filmed at Forty Acres in Culver City, CA.
From 1960 to 1965, the show co-starred character actor and comedian—and Griffith’s longtime friend—Don Knotts in the role of Deputy Barney Fife, Taylor’s best friend and partner. He was also Taylor’s cousin in the show. In the series première episode, in a conversation between the two, Fife calls Taylor “Cousin Andy”, and Taylor calls Fife “Cousin Barney”. The show also starred child actor Ron Howard (then known as Ronny Howard), who played Taylor’s only child, Opie Taylor.
It was an immediate hit. Although Griffith never received a writing credit for the show, he worked on the development of every script. While Knotts was frequently lauded and won multiple Emmy Awards for his comedic performances (as did Frances Bavier in 1967), Griffith was never nominated for an Emmy Award during the show’s run.
In 1967, Griffith was under contract with CBS to do one more season of the show. However, he decided to quit the show to pursue a movie career and other projects. The series continued as Mayberry R.F.D., with Ken Berry starring as a widower farmer and many of the regular characters recurring, some regularly and some as guest appearances. Griffith served as executive producer (according to Griffith, he came in once a week to review the week’s scripts and give input) and guest starred in five episodes (the pilot episode involved his marriage to Helen Crump). He made final appearances as Taylor in the 1986 reunion television film, Return to Mayberry, and in two reunion specials in 1993 and 2003.
After spending time in rehabilitation for leg paralysis from Guillain–Barré syndrome in 1986, Griffith returned to television as the title character, Ben Matlock, in the legal drama Matlock (1986–1995) on NBC and ABC. Matlock was a country lawyer in Atlanta, Georgia, who was known for his Southern drawl and for always winning his cases. Matlock also starred unfamiliar actors (both of whom were childhood fans of Andy Griffith) Nancy Stafford as Michelle Thomas (1987–1992) and Clarence Gilyard Jr. as Conrad McMasters (1989–1993). By the end of its first season it was a ratings powerhouse on Tuesday nights. Although the show was nominated for four Emmy Awards, Griffith once again was never nominated. He did, however, win a People’s Choice Award in 1987 for his work as Matlock. During the series’ sixth season, he served as unofficial director, executive producer and writer of the show.
Other Television Appearances
Griffith has also made other character appearances through the years on Playhouse 90, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., The Mod Squad, Hawaii Five-O, The Doris Day Show, Here’s Lucy, The Bionic Woman, Fantasy Island, among many others. He also reprised his role as Ben Matlock on Diagnosis: Murder in 1997, and his most recent guest-starring role was in 2001 in an episode of Dawson’s Creek.
Films (including television films)
For most of the 1970s, Griffith starred or appeared in many television films including The Strangers In 7A (1972), Go Ask Alice (1973), Winter Kill (1974), and Pray for the Wildcats (1974), which marked his first villainous role. Griffith appeared again as a villain in Savages (1974), a television film based on the novel Deathwatch (1972) by Robb White. Griffith received his only Primetime Emmy Award nomination as Outstanding Supporting Actor – Miniseries or a Movie for his role as the father of a murder victim in the television film Murder In Texas (1981) and won further acclaim for his role as a homicidal villain in the television film Murder in Coweta County (1983), co-starring music legend Johnny Cash as the sheriff. He also proved to be a good character actor and appeared in several television mini-series, including the television version of From Here to Eternity (1979), Roots: The Next Generations (1979), Centennial (1978), and the Watergate scandal-inspired Washington: Behind Closed Doors (1977), playing a former president loosely based on Lyndon B. Johnson.
Most of the TV movies Griffith starred in were also attempts to launch a new series. 1974′s Winter Kill launched the short lived Adams of Eagle Lake which was canceled after only two episodes in 1975. A year later, he starred as a New York City attorney for the DA’s office in Street Killing which also failed to launch a new series. Two television films for NBC in 1977, The Girl in The Empty Grave and Deadly Game, were attempts for Griffith to launch a new series featuring him as Police Chief Abel Marsh, a more hard-edged version of Andy Taylor; despite strong ratings for both films, both were unsuccessful.
While appearing in television films and guest roles on television series over the next 10 years, Griffith also appeared in two feature films, both of which flopped at the box office. He co-starred with Jeff Bridges as a crusty old 1930s western actor in the comedy Hearts of the West (1975), and he appeared alongside Tom Berenger as a gay villainous colonel and cattle baron in the western comedy spoof Rustlers’ Rhapsody (1985).
He also appeared as an attorney in the NBC mini-series Fatal Vision in 1984, which is considered a precursor to his role in Matlock.
Singing and Recording Career
We cannot do this extended coverage without acknowledging Griffith’s Christian albums. Griffith sang as part of some of his acting roles, most notably in A Face In The Crowd and in many episodes of both The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock. In addition to his recordings of comic monologues in the 1950s, he made an album of upbeat country and gospel tunes during the run of The Andy Griffith Show, which included a version of the show’s theme sung by Griffith under the title “The Fishin’ Hole”. In recent years, he has recorded successful albums of classic Christian hymns for Sparrow Records. His most successful was the 1996 release I Love to Tell the Story: 25 Timeless Hymns, which was certified platinum by the RIAA.
Griffith appeared in country singer Brad Paisley’s music video “Waitin’ on a Woman” (2008).
Recent News: The Name Dispute
William Harold Fenrick of Platteville, Wisconsin, legally changed his name to Andrew Jackson Griffith and ran unsuccessfully for sheriff of Grant County in November 2006. Subsequently, actor Griffith filed a lawsuit against Griffith/Fenrick, asserting that he violated trademark, copyright, and privacy laws by changing his name for the “sole purpose of taking advantage of Griffith’s notoriety in an attempt to gain votes”. On May 4, 2007, US District Court Judge John C. Shabaz ruled that Griffith/Fenrick did not violate federal trademark law because he did not use the Griffith name in a commercial transaction but instead strove “to seek elective office, fundamental First Amendment protected speech.”
It’s a darn shame that Andy Griffith was not able to venture out more to meet and greet fans at conventions. Offers were made but Griffith turned them all down. “It’s not my style to profit from signing my name on photographs,” he explained. “If a fan wants my autograph, they can have it. I am so appreciative that they remember me and think highly of my success.” Andy Griffith died today at the age of 86. I suspect TV Land will play an Andy Griffith Show marathon in recognition. We can only hope Turner Classic Movies considers playing some of his classics, including Angel in My Pocket.