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Andy Griffith: An Underrated Actor

Features
by Leonard Maltin
July 3, 2012 6:04 PM
5 Comments
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Griffith in 'A Face in the Crowd' (1957)

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!)

'No Time for Sergeants' (1958)

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. 

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5 Comments

  • Jim Reinecke | July 9, 2012 6:12 PMReply

    Mr. Griffith's electrifying performance as Lonesome Rhodes in A FACE IN THE CROWD is one of the the great creations in American films of the 1950's. Given a superb, biting script by Budd Schulberg, first-rate direction by Elia Kazan (say whatever you want to about Kazan's testimony in front of HUAC, but the man was a superb director of actors. . .Brando gave his best performances in Kazan films and Griffith's characterization is every bit as powerful as Stanley Kowalski or Terry Malloy. . .proving, once again, that Brando, personal opinion here, should be a definite candidate for the "Academy of the Overrated" that Diane Keaton and Michael Murphy speak about in Woody Allen's MANHATTAN) and a great supporting cast like Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau and Lee Remick make that one a winner all the way. I know that writer Danny Peary in his book "Alternate Oscars" gives Griffith his version of the Academy Award as '57's best actor over Alec Guiness in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and I agree wholeheartedly. In addition, Spike Lee has spoken of his admiration of this film and Wilder's ACE IN THE HOLE as two of his favorite movies of the fifties, and great examples of Hollywood's depiction of the media, a depiction that is still surprisingly timely. Sure, I enjoyed NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS and regularly watched The Andy Griffith Show, but to me, Lonesome Rhodes will always be Mr. Griffith's crowning achievement.

  • Walt Mitchell | July 9, 2012 5:56 PMReply

    Re Andy's breakout hit comedy record: As a historian in the field of 78 rpm records, I discovered the source of "What It Was, Was Football." National distribution by Capitol Records did indeed make Andy a comedy star in 1954, but the performance itself was not *recorded* by Capitol! It was recorded by Andy (as "Deacon Andy Griffith") for a small North Carolina record label called "Colonial" in 1953. As the true story goes, a Capitol Records executive happened to be driving in North Carolina one day. He had his car radio on, and the deejay was playing that record. The exec was so taken by how funny the routine was, that he immediately changed course and tracked down the radio station, the record company, and Andy himself! Andy was subsequently signed to Capitol Records, while at the same time, Capitol bought the masters to the two-part monologue from Colonial and gave that performance the national exposure it deserved! I have the original pressing, which has master numbers with the year hidden in them in a code which I recognized as 1953. In addition to that, I found a song lyrics magazine of the day in which the entire monologue was printed, and at the bottom of it was the 1953 copyright date!

    I had hoped somehow to meet Andy Griffith someday and ask him to autogaph the original release for me, but it was never to be. He made millions of people happy! May he rest in peace.

  • Norm | July 7, 2012 4:54 AMReply

    Andy Griffith's early stepping stones in films sent him on a path inextrciably linked with country types, right or wrong. His crowning TV acheivement as Sheriff Andy Taylor cemented it. Even as a somewhat country lawyer Ben Matlock was not completely free from comparison.. But Griffiths charm and professionalism set him apart from many actors. With the exception of Warren Ferguson(Jack Burns) , I can't think of anyone who did not benefit from his association. Griffiths entry into the film world of the 1950's is somewhat extraordinary, due to the limited number of parts and venues. His successes and occasional setbacks were better than that of the average actor, and his legacy as the amiable Sheriff Taylor still leaves us with that warm friendly feeling that it is always good to return to Mayberry, where you are always welcome..that is Special, just like the Man...

  • rob | July 4, 2012 12:57 PMReply

    Good article! It seems he took on the roles that fit him best, whether under rated or not, who knows. Everyone loved his work and down to earth image.

  • Tony Caruana | July 3, 2012 8:19 PMReply

    Will Stockdale PLO

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