The image of a father and son walking towards their favorite fishing hole is one of the classic images of television. Andy Griffith, the actor who portrayed that father to Ronny Howard’s Opie, died Tuesday at 86 at his home in North Carolina.
The Andy Griffith Show placed Griffith in the fictional Mayberry, North Carolina, loosely based on Griffith’s hometown of Mt. Airy. His character, Sheriff Andy Taylor, presided over a cast of hilarious characters including Deputy Barney Fife, portrayed by Griffith’s real-life best friend, Don Knotts. The program began as an episode of The Danny Thomas Show in which Thomas is stopped for a moving violation and winds up pitting his wits against a small-town sheriff who’s also justice of the peace, newspaper editor and more. By the time the skit became its own series, Taylor’s roles in Mayberry were only two: sheriff and justice of the peace. But his impact on comedy and the golden age of television was legendary.
With Knotts, Griffith created one of the greatest and most beloved duos of all time, the male equivalent of Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance on I Love Lucy.
Griffith once told an interviewer that he quickly realized that he needed to play the straight man to Knotts’s nervous, overzealous Fife. In that capacity, Griffith was able to shine by letting his fellow actors get the laughs.
Two significant changes came in the sixth season of The Andy Griffith Show. As the story goes, Griffith unofficially planned to exit the show after five seasons; Knotts, therefore, signed a movie contract scheduled to kick in during what wound up being the program’s sixth season. With the deal already done, Knotts was forced to leave the show even after CBS persuaded Griffith to keep Mayberry alive. In addition to Knotts’s absence, there was the other big change: we could now see what Mayberry looked like in living color. But those two changes were too big to overcome; despite the show’s still-high ratings, most fans quickly acknowledge that without Knotts, the show was never as good.
Griffith once said that by the end of the eighth season, he felt that it was beginning to be just another sitcom. He stepped out of his on-camera role and the show became Mayberry, R.F.D., lasting until 1971.
Griffith continued working through the seventies, making television shows and movies. But it was another strong-willed, folksy southern character, attorney Ben Matlock, that brought him to ratings glory again. In Matlock, Griffith moved to drama, though it was drama with streaks of comedy throughout. He commanded the courtroom as he had previously commanded the courthouse.
He was also a singer and musician, obvious from the many musical moments on the old Griffith show. In the 1990s, he recorded an album of hymns that went platinum.
But it was as Sheriff Andy Taylor that Griffith touched so many.
My favorite episode of The Andy Griffith Show is “Man in a Hurry.” It told the story of a big-city businessman passing through Mayberry on a Sunday on his way to an important meeting. His car breaks down just outside of the town limits and he quickly realizes that on the Sabbath in sleepy Mayberry, North Carolina, it’s nearly impossible to get work done at all.
In one scene, the business man scoffs as Taylor demonstrates the feat of peeling an apple without breaking the skin into more than one long strip; by the end of the episode, in a scene often cut for time in syndicated reruns, the stranger has been completely overcome with the charm of the quiet, slow pace, and ends up dozing in a rocking chair on Andy’s porch, a partially-peeled apple and knife in hand.
It almost could have doubled as a humorous edition of The Twilight Zone, at least from the standpoint of the visitor. But that episode is played so beautifully, in fact, that the first time I saw the show in its original, unedited form on DVD, it literally brought tears to my eyes. No single episode could have epitomized the magic of Mayberry better.
Thanks, Andy, for all of those wonderful memories.
What was your favorite episode of The Andy Griffith Show?