On the occasion of what would have been his 97th birthday, we’re celebrating the star and his enduringly popular sitcom.
Andy Griffith — who was born on this date in 1926, in Mount Airy, North Carolina — often said he had an epiphany while filming the second episode of the classic sitcom that bore his name.
The Andy Griffith Show started out as the brainchild of producer Sheldon Leonard, who had been greatly impressed by the folksy charisma Griffith conveyed on Broadway during the 1950s while starring in the hit comedy No Time for Sergeants (later filmed with Griffith repeating his lead role) and a musical adaptation of Destry Rides Again. Leonard resolved to construct a sitcom around the rising star and filmed a backdoor pilot as an episode of The Danny Thomas Show, a top-rated series he already had running on CBS.
In the episode, Thomas – more or less playing himself as a combustible singer-comic with a New York attitude – is stopped for speeding while driving through the sleepy little town of Mayberry, North Carolina, and held in the local jail when he runs afoul of the easygoing, but not infinitely patient, Sheriff Andy Taylor.
Griffith was warmly accepted by viewers in the role of this drawling lawman, so Leonard had no trouble launching a spin-off series revolving around that character in the fall of 1960 (scheduled right after The Danny Thomas Show on Monday evenings).
Shortly before production began, however, comic actor Don Knotts – a TV variety show veteran and, more important, Griffith’s co-star in the stage and screen versions of No Times for Sergeants – telephoned Griffith to make a fateful suggestion. Sure, Knotts said, he really enjoyed the pilot. But wouldn’t the series be even funnier if Sheriff Andy had, you know, a deputy?
Griffith and Leonard found merit in the idea and invited Knotts to join the cast. Once Knotts was on board, however, Griffith saw that the basic dynamic of the sitcom had changed. And, surprisingly, he liked what he saw.
“I was supposed to have been the comic, the funny one,” Griffith told The Los Angeles Times during a 1993 interview. The Andy Griffith Show, he said, “might not have lasted even half a season that way. But when Don came on, I realized by the second episode Don should be funny, and I should play straight to him.”
All of which helps explain how Sheriff Andy Taylor evolved into one of television’s most iconic characters – a figure often referenced as “America’s Favorite Sheriff” – and why Andy Griffith, who passed away July 3, 2012, at age 86, has remained for well over a half-century one of the most beloved actors ever to loom large in prime time.
During his eight seasons in a dream-cast ensemble that also included Knotts as the eager but incompetent Barney Fife, Frances Bavier as the attentive Aunt Bee, Jim Nabors as country bumpkin, gas station attendant Gomer Pyle, and George Lindsey as the similarly unsophisticated Goober Pyle, Griffith seemed to embody all the best qualities of a loving father, a reliable friend, a folksy sage, a droll yet compassionate observer of human foibles, and a cool-headed, even-handed, politely authoritative peace officer.
Indeed, Griffith played Sheriff Andy so winningly and wonderfully that the line between actor and character were blurred, if not completely erased, before the end of the premiere episode. Maybe, just maybe, that’s because the line didn’t exist. That certainly seems to be the assumption of Ron Howard, the Oscar-winning actor-turned-director who shot to fame (as “Ronnie Howard”) playing Opie, the precocious young son of the widowed Mayberry lawman.
In a prepared statement released shortly after Griffith’s death, Howard recalled: “The spirit he created on the set of The Andy Griffith Show was joyful and professional all at once. It was an amazing environment. And I think it was a reflection of the way he felt about having the opportunity to create something that people could enjoy. It was always with respect and passion for the opportunity and really what it could offer people in a very unpretentious and earthy way. He felt he was always working in service of an audience he really respected and cared about.
“He was a great influence on me. His passing is sad. But he lived a great, rich life.”
Quite literally rich, as a matter of fact. If Andy Griffith ever regretted not being the one who got all the laughs on his eponymous sitcom, he could take some comfort in crying all the way to the bank.
Before trying his hand at weekly TV, Griffith had achieved considerable success as a stage, screen and recording artist. In addition to scoring with critics and ticket buyers in the movie version of Sergeants, he earned admiring reviews for his dead-serious performance as Lonesome Rhodes, a cunning entertainer who exploits his down-home appeal for political gain in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957). And he charted several comedy monologue records, including a best-seller for which he assumed the role of a small-town rube entirely befuddled by a phenomenon called football.
According to the Los Angeles Times’ showbiz industry analyst Joe Flint, Griffith took full advantage of his early fame to negotiate a sizeable stake in The Andy Griffith Show long before its 1960 debut. “A star having such control of his own show was rare then and would be unheard of today,” Flint wrote, adding that Griffith’s co-ownership of the series allowed him to maintain considerable artistic input and to pocket a humongous sum when he sold full rights to the much-syndicated reruns back to CBS.
Griffith continued adding notable credits to his resume long after The Andy Griffith Show ended its network run. He struck the perfect balance of poker-faced wit and desperate treachery as a ’30s western bit player in the cult-fave Hearts of the West (1975) and revealed an amusingly uninhibited side with his sly portrayal of a mincing bad guy in the spoofy Rustler’s Rhapsody (1985). He was an LBJ-style U.S. president profoundly distrustful of his Nixonian successor (Jason Robards) in the 1977 miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors, based on a novel by former Nixon confidant John Ehrlichman, and a smug millionaire who thinks he can get away with murder until a Columbo-like small-town lawman (Johnny Cash) brings him down in Murder in Coweta County (1983).
And, of course, he was Matlock, playing the crafty Atlanta attorney for a longer stretch (nine seasons, some of them while reunited with Don Knotts as a co-star) than he appeared in prime time as Sheriff Andy.
But even for folks whose parents weren’t yet born when the still-rerunning 1960-68 sitcom premiered, Andy Griffith remains, and always will be, Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry. In the minds of his millions of faithful fans, he’ll continue to wander down some rural back road, ambling to a cheerful whistling soundtrack, accompanied by Opie on a trek to a fishin’ hole for an afternoon of father-son bonding.
To paraphrase what the man himself used to say at the end of most episodes back in the day: We still appreciate you, and goodnight.