If Andy Griffith had left show business after creating the role of Will Stockdale in No Time for Sergeants, on stage and screen, and “Lonesome” Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd, he would have earned his stripes, before gaining TV immortality as Sheriff Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show. Instead, all most people are thinking and talking about today, upon hearing of his death at age 86, is that indelible half-hour TV series set in Mayberry, U.S.A. and patterned after Griffith’s real-life home town of Mount Airy, North Carolina.
I suspect that viewers thought Andy Griffith was Andy Taylor, which isn’t true. Yes, the sheriff and single father reflected Griffith’s values and sensibilities, but it was still a character, not a self-portrait. Even the dim-bulb, good-ole-boy persona he adopted for his hilarious, best-selling 1954 comedy record “What It Was, Was Football,” was an invention. This was his gift. (I first encountered this wonderful monologue when Mad magazine reprinted it, several years later, in illustrated form. Yes, Andy Griffith was, at least once, a contributor to Mad magazine!)
Watch his performance in A Face in the Crowd (1957), the prescient Elia Kazan film about a much-loved television personality written by Budd Schulberg, or his supporting parts years later in Hearts of the West (1975) with Jeff Bridges and Waitress (2007) with Keri Russell, and you’ll see what kind of career he might have had if he hadn’t won the hearts of Americans as that sensible sheriff. We would all be the poorer for not having had The Andy Griffith Show in our lives, but we might have seen a gallery of colorful and interesting portrayals.
Griffith walked away from his series in order to pursue a movie career; the failure of the mediocre Angel in My Pocket (1969) put an end to that dream. He never starred in a theatrical feature again, but with the passing of years he was able to find interesting character roles now and then. He hit pay dirt again on television as the homespun attorney Matlock.
It is nice to know that he and Don Knotts and Ronny Howard really did like each other and remained friends over the years. It makes us feel as if our emotional investment in The Andy Griffith Show wasn’t misplaced. And it wasn’t. He may not have soared to the heights he once dreamed of in the world of film, but he certainly made a lasting impression on our popular culture.