Please pardon me if I depart from the usual subject here to reminisce a little bit about Andy Griffith, who died today at 86.
He was one of my all-time favorite actors, and I had the pleasure of interviewing him several times over the years and spending a few hours with him. He was a very nice man and a smart man and a great storyteller.
Ironically, the last time I saw him, I was riding an elevator in New York City with him and his wife Cindy, and since she was a Florida Gator and this was the mid-1980s, the subject of the 1980 Georgia-Florida game happened to come up. I got a real kick out of the fact that Andy, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a big booster of that school, teased his wife about how Georgia came from behind to take the win over Florida.
Of course, Griffith’s first big break in show business was with a comedy recording that provided a hillbilly satire on college football, “What It Was, Was Football.”
Update: My brother Jon heard from his friend Jack Murray, grandson of former UGA head coach Wally Butts, who remembers around 1954 Griffith came to Athens, stayed at Butts’ house and performed “What It Was, Was Football” at halftime of a UGA football game at Sanford Stadium. The crowd loved it, he says.
Griffith went on to star in “The Andy Griffith Show,” definitely one of the most popular TV comedies of all time, and later in the “Matlock” series. Here’s a piece I wrote a couple of years ago when the Griffith show marked its 50th anniversary:
I couldn’t begin to count the hundreds of times I’ve watched most of the eight seasons of episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” over the years. It’s my all-time favorite TV show.
And my love for Andy, Barney and Opie is something I share with my family. My brothers and I have incorporated treasured lines from the show into our everyday conversations for decades, and that tradition is now being carried on by another generation. Recently at a Grandparents Day luncheon at the assisted living place where my Dad lives, my daughter Olivia turned down another serving by echoing Griffith show character Briscoe Darling, who once declined a piece of pie by noting that three was his “high water mark.” After the server had turned away, my brother Tim shook his head in amusement, noting that Olivia was “talking Mayberry to a complete stranger.”
That’s how it is in our family. And yet when “The Andy Griffith Show” premiered on CBS at 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 3, 1960, I wasn’t watching.
I was only 8 years old, and it was past my bedtime!
I clearly remember, though, the next morning at breakfast, my Mom told us about this new show that had been on the previous night and how cute the little boy was, and my Southern born-and-bred Dad proceeded to tell us about the episode, much in the style of Griffith’s own storytelling.
I’m not sure when I finally got to see the Griffith show that first season, but I imagine it was over the holidays when there was no school and bedtime rules were relaxed somewhat. I’m pretty sure I was watching regularly by the time summer reruns arrived. And I’ve been enjoying the show ever since, throughout its prime time run, the “Andy of Mayberry” daytime repeats in the mid- to late ’60s that made a day off from school such a treat (paired with another favorite, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”), and on through many years of continuous syndicated reshowings on various TV outlets, including Ted Turner’s old Superstation and now TV Land (where the Griffith show is the only remaining reason to tune in to that devolving cable channel).
In the never-never land of reruns, folks are still dancing to Freddy Fleet and His Band With a Beat. Ernest T. Bass is chunking rocks through the town’s windows. Charlene Darling says, “That’n makes me cry” whenever Andy and her Pa and brothers crank up “Salty Dog.” Barney takes Thelma Lou up to the duck pond and gets his face slapped. Andy and Barney get accidentally locked in their own cells. Sarah the unseen operator handles all calls, no matter what time of day or night. Barn keeps that single bullet in his breast pocket because of what Andy calls his “greasy” trigger finger. Andy and Opie start many a day down at Myers’ Lake, the ole fishin’ hole. And for only 80 cents you can still get three Vienna sausages, heavy on the tomatoe puree, a slice of bread buttered on both sides and an ample serving of succotash at the Mayberry diner. Be sure to leave a tip for Olive the waitress. She’s a poor widow, you know.
Fans of the show continue to watch episodes of the Griffith show over and over long after they’ve practically memorized them (hence my family’s Mayberryspeak) in the same way lovers of great books like to re-read them. Walking down the hall a couple of weeks ago on my way to my Dad’s room, I heard him and Tim laughing out loud. I wasn’t the least bit surprised to find them watching one of TV Land’s Mayberry marathons.
Mention the Griffith show to a fan and they’re sure to recount a favorite bit. Like the time Barney was pretending to talk to another girl on the phone to make Thelma Lou jealous and the phone suddenly rang. “You wanna get that Barn,” Andy said with a grin, “you’re closer.” Or when the new kid in town who’s taught Opie about throwing tantrums to get your way is shown up as a hopeless brat in the end. “Is Arnold gonna get spanked?” Opie asks his dad. “Don’t you think he deserves it?” Andy replies. “I don’t wanna say,” the boy answers. “After all, he is one of my own kind.”
When you still laugh even though you know what’s coming, that’s the true mark of a comedy classic.
I think “TAGS” ranks as one of the top TV series ever. The writing was superb. The characters so fully developed that viewers knew them as well as they did their own friends. Don Knotts drew most of the plaudits for his unforgettable creation, Barney Fife, but I believe Griffith deserves the lion’s share of the credit. He not only was the personable “face” of the show, he was its guiding hand behind the scenes. Although he didn’t take a writing credit, he was involved in shaping almost every episode.
As laugh-out-loud funny as many episodes are, what really sets the Griffith show apart from most sitcoms of its era are the relationships, particularly that between Andy and Opie, which to my mind is still the BEST father-son portrayal I’ve ever seen. Andy wasn’t the typical bumbling father of ’60s sitcoms and Opie was far from the typical sitcom brat.
Those characters felt real and the love between them was undeniable. I know grown men who still choke up (and, yes, I’m one of them) whenever they see the scene where Andy tries to prepare Opie for a confrontation with a bully. Words fail him. So he just lifts his son up and hugs him close.
There used to be a bumper sticker you could buy that summed up part of the appeal of the show for many folks who revel in the loving respite from the hassles of daily life that they find in the idealized little North Carolina town created by Griffiith and company. “I’d rather be in Mayberry,” it declared.
My friend Jeff Cochran, who writes for the Like the Dew online magazine, sent me some questions recently for a piece he’s doing on the Griffith show and its place in the 1960s. He asked if I thought it was the producers’ intent from the beginning to make Mayberry “a pleasant isolated spot” away from the tumult of that decade.
I told him I don’t think Griffith and producer Sheldon Leonard set out to make Mayberry a place apart from contemporary life — just a place apart from big city America, as personified by New York City. Thus the fish-out-of-water pilot episode that aired on “The Danny Thomas Show” in which Danny gets pulled over by Andy for speeding in Mayberry and is amazed by how different everything is there. Especially at the start, Mayberry was drawn very broadly, as was Andy’s character. Both moderated as the years went past.
I do believe it was intentional, however, for the comedy to be timeless. Andy has said as much over the years. Just as he didn’t want the show to be about “jokes” so much as it was “characters,” he didn’t want it to be particularly topical. A wise decision. Topical shows don’t age that well.
Mayberry, on the other hand, is forever.
Feel free to share your own memories of Andy Griffth.