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Remembering Andy Griffith, ‘America’s Favorite Sheriff,’ 1926-2012

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CBS via Getty Images

Andy Griffth on the set of The Andy Griffith Show in 1966

I was on vacation when I saw the news: Andy Griffith had died July 3 at his home in North Carolina at age 86. As usual, I had scheduled a few blog posts to go up in my absence, and because it was the day before Independence Day, Tuesday’s was about which TV shows best shaped and defined America. The first one that came to mind, well before the news, was The Andy Griffith Show.

America is too big and diverse, of course, for any one person or TV show to define it. But Griffith — through Andy Taylor and his other memorable characters — did something different: his was one of those authentic voices that, by being so specific, appealed to something broader.

The Andy Griffith Show aired before my time, from 1960 to 1968, so I knew it as nostalgia TV. (A spin-off/continuation, Mayberry RFD, kept the show’s small-town setting alive through 1971.) But the show was a kind of work of nostalgia even as it originally aired. Its laconic voice and rural setting were a contrast with the urban settings and wisecracking pace of much of 1950s TV comedy. And even while it depicted a small Southern town, largely isolated from the world’s troubles but for the occasional argument and passing city slicker, the news of the civil rights era was already showing a different picture of small-town America in real life.

(MORE: Andy Griffith, Famed Television Sheriff, Dies at 86)

As Sheriff Taylor, Griffith was reassuring for the same reason he was funny. In contrast to previous big-voiced sitcom stars — Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason — he let his co-stars, like Don Knotts, take the comic lead. Sheriff Taylor was the calm, imperturbable sounding board and problem solver. A single dad, and by extension a paternal figure to all of Mayberry, Taylor was a lawman who showed that patience and good humor could be the most effective weapons. At least in this half-hour of TV, there was no problem that couldn’t be solved with plain talk, and maybe some of Aunt Bee’s biscuits.

Part of what made this work was that, like many great sitcom stars, Griffith (also a producer of the show) built a character that worked with, not against, his voice. He didn’t do wacky and he didn’t force it. Instead, his sheriff was wry and bemused, his understatement and reactions serving as a kind of force multiplier for the show’s jokes. Though the show was often lumped in with the “rural” comedy trend of the 1960s, Griffith’s comedy added sophistication to the sitcom, expanding its possibilities with comedy that came out of character rather than just gags.

(MORE: Remembering Andy Griffith, with Song Lyrics)

Andy Taylor wasn’t Griffith’s only landmark character in a long career, of course. (He had a late-career comeback with the detective show Matlock, which I wasn’t personally a fan of but won him the feisty allegiance of Abe Simpson, among others.) His first and most memorable movie role was as Lonesome Rhodes, the folksy TV host turned demagogue in 1957’s A Face in the Crowd. Rhodes was a villain as well suited to Griffith’s voice as Taylor: ambitious, insinuating and deceptively populist, he prefigured cable-TV manipulators that would come along decades later.

In Rhodes and Taylor, Griffith showed the fine line between the best and worst of Americana: how wisdom could be hidden in small-town guilelessness, how wickedness could package itself in a voice as sweet and rich as pecan pie. Andy Griffith’s voice wasn’t one of the loudest in TV or pop culture, but the man made himself heard all the same. RIP.

MORE: Who Knew Andy Griffith Was So Controversial?

12 comments
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Danyz
Danyz

And he indirectly gave his son Opi to America in Ron Howard, whose films too reflect something quintessentially American.

Brandt Hardin
Brandt Hardin

 

Andy brought small-town humor and life into the homes of

every American through their television screens.  He’ll be missed after his long and full

career of entertainment which still fills many households like my own family’s.  I created a portrait of Andy and Don Knotts

for my Cult of Personality series a few years back, which depicted entertainers

who influenced my life in one capacity or another.  I shared work of art today on my artist’s

blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot...  Feel free to drop by and share your own

memories of growing up with Mayberry. 

iansamry
iansamry

Glad you mentioned "A Face in the Crowd". Thats a great movie and I was surprised by how well he could play a villain.

Gin Heedneeds
Gin Heedneeds

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"If god is with me than who can be against me? I can do anything.G-ESTEEM

Teach me it's more to being a man than feeling up your thigh.For Breast Cancer.G-ESTEEM (w/ pic of President Obama amp; Wife)

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JohnOBX
JohnOBX

There are a few rare actors that seem to be able to bring a smile to just about anyone's face when you think of them:  Henry Winkler, Jonathan Winters, and Andy Griffin come to mind.  They may not have won Academy Awards or be remembered  100 years from now.  But they have that special quality that allows them to connect to people on a very basic but indescribable level.  You're always glad to welcome them to your living room, always sad to see them go.  

Thanks for the smiles, Andy.

BemusedOne
BemusedOne

I'm afraid I have to object to Jonathan Winters, too. He makes me cringe. But agree on Andy.

Stephen
Stephen

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Gin Heedneeds
Gin Heedneeds

G-ESTEEM-PEOPLE WHO EDUCATED THEMSELVES amp; EVOLVED INTO THE MOST HAPPY AMERICANS USUALLY RED NECKS amp; PRO-BLACKS(STAY BOW-LEGGED amp; THICK).

"If god is with me than who can be against me? I can do anything.G-ESTEEM

Teach me it's more to being a man than feeling up your thigh.For Breast Cancer.G-ESTEEM (w/ pic of President Obama amp; Wife)

STAY BOW-LEGGED amp; THICK.G-ESTEEM(Presidential Election Nov 6, 2012) 44-Life

Gin Heedneeds
Gin Heedneeds

G-ESTEEM-PEOPLE WHO EDUCATED THEMSELVES amp; EVOLVED INTO THE MOST HAPPY AMERICANS USUALLY RED NECKS amp; PRO-BLACKS(STAY BOW-LEGGED amp; THICK).

"If god is with me than who can be against me? I can do anything.G-ESTEEM

Teach me it's more to being a man than feeling up your thigh.For Breast Cancer.G-ESTEEM (w/ pic of President Obama amp; Wife)

STAY BOW-LEGGED amp; THICK.G-ESTEEM(Presidential Election Nov 6, 2012) 44-Life