Andy Griffith passed away this morning at his home on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, less than 300 miles from where he began his life in 1926 in the town of Mount Airy on the North Carolina/Virginia border. It is presumed that he died of natural causes, as no other information has been released, and Griffith has been suffering from a series of medical issues for years. Growing up hard-scrabble poor, Griffith was blessed with supportive parents and a mentor in minister Ed Mickey of Grace Moravian Church who encouraged his interest in the arts, his participation in music and drama in school. In 1944, Griffith was offered a role in The Lost Colony, a play performed every year on Roanoke Island that tells the story of the mystery of the lost colonists. Before completing college, Griffith was given the leading role of Sir Walter Raleigh, founder of North Carolina and namesake of its capital city.
Griffith graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a bachelor’s in music in 1949, participating in operettas and a member of the prestigious Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, America’s oldest fraternity for music students. While teaching English at Goldsboro High School he began his writing career, which led to his acting career. A television play called No Time for Sergeants (March 1855) morphed into a Broadway play and then a feature film in 1958. During that period he appeared on Broadway in the 1957 musical Destry Rides Again. The film of No Time for Sergeants brought Griffith together with Don Knotts and began a lifetime friendship and professional association. It also served as the inspiration for the spin-off Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
Also in 1957, Griffith made his film debut in the political and media classic A Face In The Crowd. Directed by Elia Kazan, it told the story of a venal, amoral drifter who parlays a stint as a television host into political power. Keith Olbermann used the name of Griffith’s character “Lonesome” Rhodes, to describe Glenn Beck. Reflecting on the film for its 2005 DVD release, Griffith opined that it is more popular today than it was when released. That is probably because it previewed the world we live in now, the world of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Fox News, far more than it reflected the world of 1957.
In 1960, Griffith did a single episode of Make Room for Daddy, playing a small town sheriff. It served as the pilot for The Andy Griffith Show.
The rest is television history.
For the past six years, there has been a show on SyFy that is a quiet homage to Andy Griffith. Eureka is the story of a hidden town of super-intelligent government scientists and the less-than-genius sheriff who tries to maintain order in the perpetual chaos of experiments gone wild. Colin Ferguson’s Sheriff Jack Carter is very much Mayberry’s Sheriff Andy Taylor, smarter than anyone gives him credit for, intuitive and curious, understanding and compassionate, loving and giving and protective of his friends and family, with an attraction to seemingly smarter ladies. And, like Sheriff Taylor, Jack Carter was blessed with two deputies Don Knotts would have loved – the hyper-militaristic, by-the-books-at-all-costs Deputy Josephina Lupo (Erica Cerra) whose guns are way more impressive than Deputy Barney Fife’s, and “Deputy Andy” (Kavan Smith) an android whose fresh-faced eagerness has always reminded me of Mayberry. Okay, so Aunt Bee was replaced with a smart house named Sarah (who is having an affair with Deputy Andy) and Opie is a very grown-up, sexy college student named Zoe (Jordan Hinson), but the feeling of Eureka has always reminded me of Mayberry, small, close-knit, filled with eccentric people who manage to get along in large part because of the influence of their sheriff. Though Eureka has complex government and spy plotlines and awesome sci-fi ideas, the real stories are the personal and intimate ones. The resemblance was more than helped along by the fact that Carter, Lupo and Andy wear the same color and style uniforms that Andy and Barney wore forty years ago.
Aside from Mayberry’s population of unforgettable characters and talented performers, The Andy Griffith Show, and Griffith himself, gave us the highly successful director Ron Howard. That cuter-than-cute little boy with the fishing pole over his shoulder grew up to be the man who gave us the DaVinci Code, Angels and Demons, Frost/Nixon, Cinderella Man, The Missing, A Beautiful Mind, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Apollo 13, Far and Away, Backdraft, Willow, Cocoon, so far 32 incredible films. Howard came from an acting family, and he credits both his real family and Griffith with keeping him sane and focused and able to make the difficult transition from child star to mature professional that so many of his peers did not make.
Griffith’s personal modesty was widely known in Hollywood. He was involved in the writing of every episode, but was never credited as a writer. He was never nominated for an Emmy for the show, though both Don Knotts and Frances Bavier won Emmys as Barney Fife and Aunt Bee. In 1967, Sheriff Andy Taylor left Mayberry with new bride Helen Crump and the show was reset as Mayberry R.F.D. starring Ken Berry and retaining many of the town’s familiar inhabitants. Griffith served as an executive producer and according to him, went in once a week to review the script and give them the benefit of his wisdom. He also guested several times. There were three reunion shows in 1986, 1993 and 2003.
Griffith made five unsuccessful series between 1970 and 1980, and numerous movies, but it was only after being in rehabilitation for leg paralysis from Guillain-Barré syndrome in 1986, that Griffith found the same level of ratings and popularity he had known as Andy Taylor. He took on the role of Atlanta attorney Ben Matlock, drawling, rumpled, country lawyer who always won his cases. The show ran until 1995, and was nominated for four Emmy awards. Again, Griffith himself was not nominated.
Ever notice how many idiots on-line adopt avatars of movie and television characters, often in complete contradiction to the real political philosophies of the actors whose faces they are borrowing? Well, anyone who uses Andy Taylor to depict a Southern Republican social conservative is dead wrong. Andy Griffith was a Democrat who made campaign ads for North Carolina Governors Mike Easley and Bev Purdue. He spoke at both their inaugurations. He also made ads for Medicare in 2010.
Griffith was married from 1949 to 1972 to Barbara Brav Edwards. They adopted a son, Andrew Samuel, Jr., and a daughter Dixie Nan. Sam died in 1996. In 1983, Griffith married Cindi Knight, whom he met while making the TV movie Murder in Coweta County.
In addition to his bout of Guillain-Barré syndrome in 1986, which paralyzed him for seven months, Griffith underwent a quadruple heart-bypass in 2000, and had hip surgery in 2007. His last acting credit was 2009′s Play the Game with Paul Campbell and Doris Roberts, playing a widowed grandfather being taught modern dating by his grandson. The film co-starred Ron Howard’s younger brother Clint and father, Rance, who is two years younger than Griffith and still very active.
Though Griffith never won that Emmy, he has been honored in more substantive ways. The city of Mount Airy, North Carolina, celebrates Mayberry Days every year and erected a statue of Griffith and Ron Howard as they were seen in the credits of the show, coming and going to the fishing hole. There is an Andy Griffith Playhouse in Mount Airy. Eleven miles of U. S. Highway 52 through Mount Airy is named Andy Griffith Parkway. The C.F. Martin & Company guitar manufacturers have an Andy Griffith signature model, limited edition in 2004 with only 311 produced. It was a replica of Griffith’s beloved 1956 C.F. Martin model D-18. Griffith recorded several country and gospel albums as well as storytelling albums, and was inducted into the Country Gospel Hall of Fame in 1999, and in 2007 was inducted into the Christian Music Hall of Fame. But his greatest honor came on November 9, 2005, when President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, honoring his work and his timeless image, the way he came to personify a certain spirit of small town America.
Performers give us moments of exquisite humanity in all our facets and manifestations, expressions of our complex talents and ambitions, and the cinematographer and recording engineers give those moments immortality. That is the achievement of the 20st century – true immortality for those whose abilities touch our lives. Sometime today, on a cable channel, one will be able to find Andy Griffith at some point in his long and illustrious career and touch that which makes his immortality assured, and thank him for his gifts to us.