What it was, was greatness (Updated)

Andy Griffith got his start with a comedy bit about college football. (CBS)

Andy Griffith got his start with a comedy bit about college football. (CBS)

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.

177 comments Add your comment

909

July 3rd, 2012
11:41 am

Andy Griffith was a HUGE Georgia Tech fan.

Top Row Dawg

July 3rd, 2012
11:41 am

sogadog

July 3rd, 2012
11:43 am

Dont forget to mention Odis. I am sure he is a Dawg fan given UGA’s recent recogition as the nation’s #1 party school.

Bill King

July 3rd, 2012
11:46 am

909:
Not unless Tech has moved to Chapel Hill and wears Carolina Blue.

Dbalcer

July 3rd, 2012
11:50 am

Jacket99

July 3rd, 2012
11:52 am

Nice article, Bill.

“You ain’t heard the last of Ernest T. Bass!”

I always thought Andy Griffith was a great dramatic actor, too. I enjoyed his John Wallace character in “Murder in Coweta County.” He was folksy evil in that.

Bama in Atlanta

July 3rd, 2012
11:54 am

Andy Taylor: When a man carries a gun all the time, the respect he thinks he’s getting might really be fear. So I don’t carry a gun because I don’t want the people of Mayberry to fear a gun. I’d rather they respect me.

I wish some kids (and some adults) still watched Andy Griffith….

SSIgator

July 3rd, 2012
11:56 am

“And my love for Andy, Barney and Opie is something I share with my family.”

And it has come back around with President Adams as Andy, Mark Richt as Barney and Mike Bobo as Opie.

Buckeye

July 3rd, 2012
12:05 pm

What does this have to do with The Annointed One II (crowell) and his legal problems?

Buckeye

July 3rd, 2012
12:07 pm

Kidding aside, Andy Griffith’s death signals the death of Mayberry in America. It’s now up to the 50% plus who pay no Federal income taxes to lead us to Eden on Earth.

Jacket99

July 3rd, 2012
12:07 pm

Buckeye

July 3rd, 2012
12:05 pm
What does this have to do with The Annointed One II (crowell) and his legal problems?
————————————————
Andy Taylor was in law enforcement?

dale

July 3rd, 2012
12:07 pm

No, Adams is Aunt Bee. McGarity is Andy.

Cuz

July 3rd, 2012
12:15 pm

“What this was was football” still makes me laugh. No telling how many times I have heard it in my life, the description and narration is classic.

I guess he is now sitting on that bench on the seashore “Waiting on a Woman”.

God Bless you Andy Griffith.

beachdog

July 3rd, 2012
12:19 pm

You forgot Andy Griffith’s musical genius.

Hank

July 3rd, 2012
12:20 pm

R.I.P., Andy Griffith.

Hank

July 3rd, 2012
12:24 pm

“Kidding aside, Andy Griffith’s death signals the death of Mayberry in America. It’s now up to the 50% plus who pay no Federal income taxes to lead us to Eden on Earth.”

Unfortunately, it looks like you’re right about that. Even without the Obamination in the White House, we’ve been heading down that road for years.

Joe

July 3rd, 2012
12:27 pm

Andy as Richt,,,maybe,,, but not Bobo as Opie….no way!!!! m

DawginLex

July 3rd, 2012
12:29 pm

SSI

Your classless comments never take a holiday

Hank

July 3rd, 2012
12:31 pm

A very nicely written tribute to Andy Griffith.

Holy Guacamole

July 3rd, 2012
12:37 pm

At the risk of being insensitive at this particular moment in time, I really liked Andy Griffith as well, or at least I did until he decided to become political. He then made the rest of us suffer with his political opinions on everything, much like the rest of the pinheads in Hollywood. Shoulda stopped at Andy in Mayberry or Matlock or some of the other great work he did. Somehow I think that it diminished my opinion of him.

Flo-Ri-Duh

July 3rd, 2012
12:40 pm

Andy Griffith had morals…. something seriously lacking in our leaders today.

Joey

July 3rd, 2012
12:42 pm

I liked Andy Griffith too, but watched my last rerun when he started those Obamacare ads.

Mark

July 3rd, 2012
12:43 pm

Still the funniest moment to me was when Barney pulls off in the motorcycle leaving Andy sitting in the sidecar in front of the courthouse. Great life lessons woven throughout that series.

Desert Fox

July 3rd, 2012
12:43 pm

I think the untold story here is when “we” lose one of our childhood icons (that includes family members as well) a part of us is lost and the innocence we associate w/them. Life is really short and the longer you’re around the more you appreciate those close to you and your own mortality. RIP Andy.

SSIgator

July 3rd, 2012
12:44 pm

Holy Guacamole -

Agree as well. Just like George Carlin, who was very good at what he did. Then he decided that that politics was to be his new calling and that was the last we heard of George. Sort of like bartenders that want to be football coaches.

Craig

July 3rd, 2012
12:50 pm

In addition to Opie and the Bully, the other two that always choke me up is the Christmas episode and Mr. McBeevey. When Andy doesn’t spank Opie and downstairs Barney asks “do you believe in Mr. McBeevey, he says no. But I do believe in Opie”. The timeliness of that message is incredible, particularly in an age we live in now. TV shows today don’t come close to not only being entertaining, but sending a lesson, as The Andy Griffith Show did.

DawginLex

July 3rd, 2012
12:55 pm

Sort of like an idiot gator who has been disowned by her own fanbase and thinks we care or find it surprising that you hate UGA’s football coach.

DP

July 3rd, 2012
12:55 pm

Bill, that is a superb remembrance.

piermontdawgny

July 3rd, 2012
12:56 pm

loved this show along with Sanford and Son…”Ester, you are so ugly i could take your face and shove it in some dough and make gorilla cookies!….Watch it, sucker!!

DP

July 3rd, 2012
12:57 pm

Has there ever been another show for which so many people can quote so many lines from memory?

SSIgator

July 3rd, 2012
12:57 pm

Give it a rest Nancy.

TallaDawg

July 3rd, 2012
12:58 pm

If you have never seen the movie “No Time For Seargents” buy, rent, or download it. It is truly hilarious, and it is the movie during the production of which Andy met Don Knotts. Without NTFS there may never have been The Andy Griffith Show.

My favorite quote from TAGS:
Young Lady (I forget her name at the moment) – “That was some rain we had the other night.”
Earnest T Bass (dressed up by Andy and Barney for courtin’) – “Yep, I was right out there in it.”

DP

July 3rd, 2012
12:58 pm

Holy Guacomole, that says more about you than about Andy Griffith.

Rob

July 3rd, 2012
1:00 pm

Nice non sports piece! Ignore these other bumbling idiots who cannot respect that.

RCB

July 3rd, 2012
1:01 pm

Obamacare is today and a huge issue. He should never have done that commercial.

bubba4dawgs

July 3rd, 2012
1:02 pm

My fond memories of Andy Griffith have lasted a lifetime. I had the pleasure of watching him perform at halftime in Athens at the Georgia Spring game. He of course did his story of “What it was was football” and delighted everyone with laughter. A train came by at one end of the stadium and blew its whistle just as he finished and he responded with “Thanke, Thanke”! Of course, everyone probably best remembers him on Mayberry which I still enjoy watching! How wonderful it is to see how far Ron Howard has come since his start with Andy! Thank You, Andy for all your memorable years of entertainment and thank you for giving Ron his start as well!! God Bless!!

bubba4dawgs

July 3rd, 2012
1:03 pm

Bill, I failed to say thank you for this marvelous article about Andy! I enjoyed it very much!!

TallaDawg

July 3rd, 2012
1:04 pm

Sure, it is absolutely your choice to hold his more recent politics against him, but that really is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The show was excellent and is still timeless.

We must get to where we can disagree on some topics (a single topic, possibly) and still find the common ground to endeavor and succeed as a society and a country. Instead, we currently spew hatred and vitriol at anyone who disagrees with us on a single point of contention.

Kevin

July 3rd, 2012
1:06 pm

Finally, something I can agree on with a Georgia fan. I appreciate your thoughts. I am sharing the Andy Griffith show with my sons as well.

Reba

July 3rd, 2012
1:07 pm

this is so sad—All the celebs in a basket together could not be what this man was to each of us!

Foxandhound

July 3rd, 2012
1:16 pm

You didn’t just visit Mayberry…you kinda lived there. Even today.

DawginLex

July 3rd, 2012
1:16 pm

SSI

You give it a rest elvira

You are the moron who comes on a blog about Andy Griffith dying and uses it as a forum to take shots at Richt

Go screw yourself Elvira

Ernest T Bass

July 3rd, 2012
1:18 pm

Old Aunt Moriah, jumped in the fire
Fire too hot jumped in the pot
Pot too black, jumped in the crack
Crack too wide, jumped in the sky
Sky too blue, jumped in the canoe
Canoe too shallow, jumped in the tallow
Tallow too soft, jumped in the loft
Loft too rotten, jumped in the cotton
Cotton so white, she stayed there all night!

Now you want to hear me sing “Eatin Goober Peas”?

DawginLex

July 3rd, 2012
1:20 pm

How could you not like Andy and Barney? Ernest T Bass was only in 4 episodes yet he is remembered like he was a regular.

Anybody ever go to Mt Airy for Mayberry Days?

When they were alive, the actors would come. Great stuff.

Big Time???? Not!

July 3rd, 2012
1:22 pm

Great story. I used Andy to help teach my boys (now 20 and 18) how to treat people. Always a great moral compass

nobody

July 3rd, 2012
1:29 pm

incomparable….

Spanky

July 3rd, 2012
1:35 pm

RIP, Andy! No Time for Seargants is also a pretty funny movie! When he snaps to attention in the latrine and the toilet seats fly up,…priceless!!

GAFan

July 3rd, 2012
1:37 pm

As Raschal Flats sings, “I Miss Mayberry” found remberance of a time we probably all wish we could live in today. Andy Griffith will be ranked right up there with Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Jackie Gleason for being a pioneer. I still watch the show today that was funny, simple and had meaning. Yep, I miss Mayberry and will miss Andy Griffith. RIP!

2georgiadawgs

July 3rd, 2012
1:38 pm

Years ago I read a book about the Show. One thing I have always wondered is where the opening was shot when he and Opie where walking down the dirt road with the fishing poles, and Opie skips a rock in the lake?

(something on a crisp Ritz cracker, ummmmmmmm good!)

Dirty Dawg

July 3rd, 2012
1:38 pm

So many memories…from What It Was….to No Time For Sergeants (from the book by Cordele native Mac Hyman)…to Mayberry…to Matlock…how could you not love the man. Thanks for doing this, Bill.