...as most of us remember him
Griffith was a lot more than he appeared to be
By RON MILLER
Andy Griffith, who died last week at age 86, was an actor who took his profession seriously. He was no hayseed and there was nothing simple about him. But because he was such a good actor, he will always be remembered the way I think he probably wanted to be remembered--as the decent sort of down home fellow everyone wanted to have for a pal.
Most of you reading this probably first came to know Andy Griffith as the loveable Sheriff Andy Taylor on CBS' "The Andy Griffith Show," which had a phenomenally successful run from 1960-68 and became one of the most beloved television situation comedies of all time. CBS retired the show when it was still No. 1 in its time period and advertisers, eager to court younger viewers, wanted more sophisticated programming.
I remember Andy from way before that. In 1954, I think I first heard Andy on the radio with his immortal monologue called "What It Was Was Football." In that monologue, which was available as a phonograph record then and later became a short film, Andy played a country yokel trying to explain football from the point of view of somebody who sounded so rural that you might think he'd just fallen off a wagonful of turnips.
Left Above: ANDY GRIFFITH in "No Time For Sergeants". Right above: Griffith with Patricia Neal in Elia Kazan's 1957 movie "A Face in the Crowd."
This was an outgrowth of Andy's hilarious knack for pretending he was a hayseed, although, in real life, he was a bright, intelligent, worldly young man. His uncanny ability to take on that comic persona as a monologist and stand-up comic led him to be cast in Ira Levin's 1955 live TV play "No Time For Sergeants," based on the novel by Mac Hyman, which was telecast on the U.S. Steel Hour, then became a hit Broadway play and finally, in 1958, a popular movie, all starring Andy Griffith as Will Stockdale, a naive serviceman who didn't sound too smart, but was really as sharp as the proverbial tack.
In those days, most show business professionals who had anything to do with Griffith knew that he was just a novice actor playing a part based on his own observations of rural characters he saw while growing up in Mount Airy, North Carolina. In fact, if you could distill the very essence of Andy Griffith, it would be that he was a whole lot smarter than anybody he ever played on stage or screen. He made that the focus of virtually his entire career.
In the 1950s, my favorite filmmaker was director Elia Kazan, who had come from Broadway and the searing dramas of Tennessee Williams to make a series of truly great films, including my all-time favorite, "On the Waterfront," the 1954 winner of the Best Picture Academy Award. Kazan wanted to make another film with writer Budd Schulberg, who did "On the Waterfront," but he wanted it to resonate with contemporary issues as "Waterfront" had. Schulberg suggestsed they make a film of his earlier short story called "Your Arkansas Traveller," which was about a hayseed hobo who becomes a national sensation as a folksy philosopher, but is ultimately corrupted by his own fame and fortune.
Kazan loved the idea because both he and Schulberg felt the new medium of television was already showing its ability to deeply influence public opinion and seemed right for just such a character to rise up. The result was Kazan's 1957 classic "A Face in the Crowd." They immediately thought of casting the popular star of "No Time For Sergeants" as "Lonesome" Rhodes, the dark protagonist of "A Face in the Crowd."
Andy had not done any serious dramatic acting before, but Kazan, who had developed Marlon Brando into an Oscar-winning film star after first directing him in Broadway's "A Streetcar Named Desire," felt Griffith was perfect for the role. He worked closely with Griffith, who was eager to take on the challenge. Kazan even acted out some scenes for him to show Griffith how he wanted them done.
Andy later explained that he found it difficult to take on the darker aspects of the character and it's now well-known that Kazan even resorted to getting Andy drunk on bourbon to get him worked up enough to play some of his final scenes in which Rhodes begins to come apart at the seams.
Kazan really liked Andy Griffith and always respected him as an actor. If you ask anyone who knew Andy if he really had such a dark element in his personality, you're likely to get lots of denials. But in my own chat with Griffith in the 1980s over coffee at Enrico's in San Francisco's North Beach, Andy suggested Kazan somehow put him in touch with such feelings buried in his own persona--and surprised him with a shadowy side to himself that he later tapped to great effect in truly villainous roles.
Initially, though, filmmakers didn't leap at the chance to have Andy Griffith play heavies in spite of the good reviews he got for "A Face in the Crowd." The film was not a big commercial succes, so there was no impetus for Griffith to change directions in a career that was already heavily slanted toward comedy.
Above left: The "Andy Griffith Show" ensemble--top row Ronny Howard, Jim Nabors; bottom row, Andy Griffith, Don Knotts. Above right: Andy Griffith with Donny Howard, who went on to become an Oscar-winning film director.
By 1960, when "The Andy Griffith Show" began its eight-year run, Griffith had refined his image to the point that Andy Taylor was widely perceived as a smart and effective sheriff who just happened to talk in a folksy, down-to-earth manner. He was surrounded, though, by eccentrics, most notably Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts) and gas station pump jockey Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors). The primary focus in his new show was Andy as a decent family man, a widower who cared deeply about his son Opie (Ronny Howard) and his community, Mayberry, RFD.
Howard, who grew up to be one of Hollywood's most successful film directors, told me on several occasions that working as a child with Andy Griffith was a remarkable chapter in his life and he loved the man dearly.
In my role as a TV columnist, I had occasion to meet Andy Griffith a number of times after he became the iconic figure that "The Andy Griffith Show" eventually turned him into for most Americans. He was always very warm and likeable and straightforward about his work and his programs. He knew exactly what he was doing and, after his first hit show was history, where he wanted to go with his career. I believe Andy wanted to play a wider variety of roles, but didn't want to do anything that would sacrifice the carefully-nurtured image he had built as a nice guy from small town America.
In my opinion, the furthest out Andy ever went in a portrayal was in Aaron Spelling's made-for-TV movie "Savages" in 1974. In that film, still a pretty jolting bit of suspense drama, Andy plays a wealthy big city attorney who goes on a hunting trip and recklessly shoots and kills an old prospector, then attempts to cover it up by hunting down and killing his young guide (Sam Bottoms). That movie vividly demonstrates that Griffith had learned how to unleash the dark side of his persona and twist it to produce a frightening character.
Above left: The poster for the TV movie "SAVAGES," in which Andy Griffith plays a killer. Above right: Andy Griffith as "MATLOCL."
After "The Andy Griffith Show" left the air, Griffith starred in several TV series that attempted to rediscover the appeal of the Andy Taylor character, among them "The Headmaster" (1970-71) . "The New Andy Griffith Show" (1971) and "Salvage I" (1979). He also appeared in lots of TV movies and miniseries, including "Washington; Behind Closed Doors" (1977) and "Centennial" (1978-79).
But Andy finally found a role that fit him perfectly and gave him his second big hit series--"Matlock," which ran six seasons on NBC (1986-92), then moved to ABC for another few seasons (1993-95). Older, grayer, Griffith played Atlanta defense attorney Ben Matlock, who might have been what Sheriff Andy Taylor had become after going back to school and getting his law degree from Harvard. (Dear friend Don Knotts, who had been with Griffith since "No Time For Sergeants," also worked on "Matlock.")
Griffith e continued to work in films and TV shows and was especially good in one of his last big screen roles as an especially demanding, but warm-hearted and caring cafe customer for waitress Keri Russell in the wonderful film "Waitress" (2007).
in the 2007 feature
Far from being forgotten, Andy Griffith has remained prominent in the public's memory for more than 50 years. With his "Andy Griffith Show" now considered almost a perfect time capsule for preserving our notions of rural America, I'm betting he will be remembered for as long as there's a place to see his wonderful life's work.
©2012 by Ron Miller. This column first posted July 9, 2012.
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