Where do I start with the life of Andy Griffith? He defined American culture for decades. He was the Hollywood star that everyone liked, the man we hoped to meet someday on a trip North Carolina, where he made his home. He was “our” Andy, a quintessential American TV and film star who never let his fame go to his head. And boy did he define the character of America with “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-1968). The show featured Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor and included a cast of characters that we all could identify with as part of our own family or home towns. We all know someone like the bumbling, can’t shoot straight Barney Fife. We all have an Aunt Bee in our life, or wish we did. Who doesn’t know a sweet little boy like Opie, played by the now famous Hollywood director, Ron Howard. The show, shot in Hollywood, was set in the fictional Mayberry, North Carolina, small-town USA, modeled on Andy Griffith’s home town of Mount Airy, North Carolina.
Why did a show that featured two police officers in a town with practically no crime win America’s hearts? Griffith said on CNN in 2003: “The basic theme of our show was love. All the characters loved each other. And all the actors loved each other, too.” You can see this love in the many YouTube episodes, including one of my favorites, Aunt Bee’s kerosene pickles.
In looking back at the shows, critics today say that the cast was too white (true), overly sentimental, and not reflective of the times. Television has always functioned as an escape hatch for the American psyche, just as it also at times serves as a mirror to reflect our lesser selves onto us (Roots, All in the Family.)
Griffith represented an America we thought might never change. He was the American we all wanted to be: good-humored, friendly, optimistic, decisive, a problem-solver with a can-do spirit. Mayberry, North Carolina took us away from all the changes in the 1960s, the battles over race, the war in Vietnam, the rise of Rock and Roll and protest songs. Sometimes we wanted to forget about the way things really were and take a trip to a small town where problems got solved in less than 30 minutes. The New York Times‘ obituary on Andy Griffith is a great tribute. Read some of the comments posted by the readers. You’ll see why we are going to miss him. For us Baby Boomer types, we all know Andy Griffith’s entire career and can whistle “The Andy Griffith Show” theme song.
Griffith would star in another show, “Matlock,” where once again he scored a big hit in the 1980s and 1990s, this time as a clever Atlanta-based lawyer who always got the bad guy and always seemed to wear the same suit. Andy Griffith as Matlock reminds me of my mom and dad sitting in their side-by-side easy chairs in our family den in Birmingham, Alabama. They never missed an episode and it warms my heart to think of the years my dad had in retirement watching not only “Matlock” but also “The Andy Griffith Show” in reruns on TV Land, the cable network that caters to the nostalgic who likes quality.
Andy Griffith died one day before our most patriotic holiday, Fourth of July. How fitting, for he was America’s favorite son, father, sheriff, and lawyer. He died in the early morning and was buried on his beloved Roanoke Island before noon.
If you want to see Andy Griffith’s acting range, then watch the 1957 film Elia Kazan directed, “A Face in the Crowd,” where Griffith plays an everyman turned demagogue named Lonesome Rhodes. I love to show clips in class whenever I lecture on American propaganda and persuasion. This film was a warning to America that we are easily duped, not only by the charismatic common man like Rhodes, but also by advertising and celebrity. I’m afraid that we’re ever more like the Andy in “A Face in the Crowd” than we are like the Andy in “The Andy Griffith Show.”