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

J.T. Keene

July 5th, 2012
9:45 am

I could be wrong and I know someone will correct me, but I think Ernest T. was in 5 episodes. One when he was called I think “Ralph”. He played a t.v. repairman, Andy & Helen were on a picnic and Helen left the key to the house under the mat and Barney brought him out and interrupted the picnic because Barney didn’t agree with what Ralph said needed to be done to fix the t.v.

AltamahaDawg

July 5th, 2012
10:13 am

“I don’t like John Wayne any less because he was a Republican.”

Well, obviously.

Crowell's bail bondsman

July 5th, 2012
11:27 am

Greatness… 1980 national championship. Best team ever. Alabama/Florida stink forever.

'94 UGA Alumnus

July 5th, 2012
11:53 am

Great post Bama in Atlanta.

Class of '98

July 5th, 2012
11:59 am

I too love Andy Griffith, but the advertisement he did a couple years ago in favor of Obamacare was very dissapointing.

BP85

July 5th, 2012
3:16 pm

TallaDawg-
The young lady’s name was Ramona, and Ernest T. pronounced it, “Romena.”
The cast of Mayberry will live on through us and future generations forever. The greatest show of all-time.

Frank

July 5th, 2012
5:28 pm

Enter your comments here
I went to boarding school in the North. The others make fun of me because of my southern accent. When they show came on the next year, Andy made me proud to have one. And in the face of that immature kidding, I chose to rise above it. And you know what, so did they. By the ninth grade everyone in my class could do a really good, dignified, southern accent. And the guy from Vermont did one of the best “Barneys” — ever.

However, my Floyd had no equal.

Frank

July 5th, 2012
5:51 pm

Ernest T was is six. He told me this back in the early 80’s when I hired him to direct a TV commercial.

David

July 5th, 2012
6:15 pm

One of my all time favorites was Barney’s Jinx breakers:

“Fly away buzzards, fly away crows, way down south where the winds don’t blow. Rub your nose and give two winks and rid us of this terrible jinx.”

I still use it today and it’s finally beginning to work against Florida a little!

Poor old Henry though had really bad luck…he pulled the hat size 7 3/8 out of the hat when they had rigged the drawing. If this doesn’t ring a bell, you haven’t watched enough Andy Griffith Shows.

I feel like I lost a family member.

Spanky

July 5th, 2012
7:02 pm

Earnet T Bass, LOL!! I smile when I think of the Georgraphy lesson he learned : “Pastific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Old-Man Chelsea’s Crick, Old-Man Chelsea’s Ocean!!”

FLA DAWG

July 5th, 2012
8:29 pm

Bill,

I absolutely loved the guy. He and Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show were often the best part of my day growing up.

I must admit his commercials a couple of years ago that tried to put the fears of the elderly at ease with Obama cutting about a half a trillion dollars from Medicare to pay for Obamacare disappointed me in the man at the end though.

Sam

July 5th, 2012
8:34 pm

I’m saving my Andy Griffith DVD’s because, when the going gets rough, I always want to be able to return to Mayberry. Of course, you want to go back before Barney left town. After that it wasn’t the same.

Sam

July 5th, 2012
8:36 pm

By the way, Bill, that comment about TV Land was right on target.

RED DOG 77

July 6th, 2012
1:05 am

I simply loved Andy’s acting and southern charm as stated earlier. To those who would disagree with me, that’s ok too, but our country is litterally on the brink. When government takes from one to give to another, that’s Socialism……………That has never worked in the history of man, and never will. When a man takes what he has earned and freely gives to those without, that is charity, or love………..and as the Bible says……….Is the greatest thing of all…………….God Bless……………RED

Hobnail Boot

July 6th, 2012
7:50 am

Nice article, Bill. Andy was indeed a great story teller. RIP Andy…

Jimmyraybillybob

July 6th, 2012
9:45 am

One of the best t.v. shows ever! You’re right, Andy made that show even though it seemed that others often got the punch lines. I too loved the father and son relationship that Andy and Opie had. And if you wonder about the show’s demographic appeal, a few years ago for an event held on our town square, I dressed up like Barney, complete with bullet in my pocket. At one point I even direccted traffic in typical Barney fashion. I was a rock star! Adults and children loved it b/c it was like Barney was there. That show added so muchto our pop culture, unlike today’s shows.

DawgStudent2013

July 6th, 2012
1:32 pm

I will never forget how my Dad taught me to whistle using the Andy Griffith theme song when I was a little boy. We used to watch it every weekend when he was home and we’d watch TAGS and I’d practice my whistling over and over. Great man.

FLA DAWG

July 6th, 2012
6:59 pm

An American Icon. A heck of a good / natural actor. Gave Jim Nabors his first shot. Gave our entire country something to remember about what we should be all about.
Pity he was hoodwinked by Democrats into doing commercials to ease the fears of seniors regarding obummers cutting of almost 500 billion from medicare.

The man has the right to voice his opinion. He has little right to present himself as an expert on obummercare when even the dems didn’t know what was fully in it.

Of course this is just my opinion.

FLA DAWG

July 6th, 2012
7:31 pm

I am not reposting.

Someone is reposting my earlier blog under my name.

FLA DAWG
Class of ‘79

FLA DAWG

July 6th, 2012
7:46 pm

He should’a married Ellie.

I mean, Hellen Crump!?

Sussex Club

July 7th, 2012
12:10 pm

My favorite line was Barney saying:

” Nip it in the bud “

THE Dixie Redcoat Band

July 7th, 2012
12:30 pm

We agree, the osama ben obama commercial was waaaaay toooo much.

The REAL sugarHillDawg

July 7th, 2012
12:46 pm

I woulda loved him even more if he hadn’t been a Obamacare HACK .

Reagan Democrat

July 7th, 2012
1:01 pm

George W. Bush ruined this country
with his socialistic ‘bail out’ of the crooked bankrupt corporations.

Corporate Welfare Socialism
thanks to the Bush/Cheney Administration.

Brainiac(Dawg/Richt fan for life)

July 7th, 2012
1:38 pm

Bill:

My math concludes that you are now 64 years old!!!!!!!!!!

Is that picture of you or your father/grandfather???

If it is you I believe you have a case against your photographer!!!!!!

I’m 73 and that picture looks consiserably older than me!!!!!!!

Just kidding!!!!!!!!!!!!

Keep up the great work and boot ALL the idiots that continue to claim CMR recruits thugs only. Most of said “thugs” were heavily recruited by many other prominent teams. CMR has to adhere to a lot of restrictions that would not cause a raised eyebrow at most other schools.

Bill King

July 7th, 2012
9:31 pm

Brainiac:
Your math is off. I graduated from UGA in 1974.

Vote Obama!

July 7th, 2012
9:33 pm

If you enjoy mediocrity! Romney probably won’t be much better, but it can’t get any worse.