Andy Griffith: His Hottest Decade Was the ’50s

TV fans love him for Mayberry and Matlock, but at the start of his career he had a top-10 record, two hit Broadway shows, one popular movie and another — A Face in the Crowd — that turned his smiling-yokel persona into a multimedia monster

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Promotional headshot portrait of actor Andy Griffith from 1958, for director Norman Taurog's film, 'Onionhead'.

“I’d struck out on Broadway, and I’d struck out in the movies, so I kinda had to go to television,” Andy Griffith stated in 2008. That comment, like so many things Griffith said as Sheriff Andy Taylor and Ben Matlock, was a sly joke, an aw-shucks feint of self-depreciation to disarm the sharpies who underestimated him. But his admirers from a half-century’s runs and reruns of The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock should know that there was life before Mayberry. By the time he launched his own TV show on Oct. 1, 1960, when he was 34, Griffith had already conquered the other extant media: records, Broadway shows and movies. He didn’t strike out; he was a triple-crown winner.

Beginning as a standup comic, Griffith perfected the “Andy” persona — the good ol’ boy observing modern life with enthusiastic bafflement — in monologues like “What Is Was, Was Football,” which went to No. 9 on the pop-music charts in 1953. He extended that character by starring in the TV, Broadway and movie versions of the military comedy No Time for Sergeants, a solid hit in each medium. And having constructed this friendly Tarheel image, he then boldly deconstructed it, tore it to shreds, as folk singer and TV talk-titan Lonesome Rhodes in the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd. For a decade, Griffith scaled the mountain of achievement, then coasted — most agreeably and reassuringly —  as the folksy-foxy sheriff or lawyer on TV.

(READ: James Poniewozik’s tribute to Andy Grffith’s TV career)

Raised a Baptist, and entering the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the intention of becoming a Moravian minister, Andy Sam Griffith soon spun the spellbinding oratorical skills of a backwoods preacher into comedy monologues. That brought him to New York, where the rural naïveté of the Andy character played like sweet, foreign bluegrass music to the sophisticates in Manhattan night clubs.

Unlike traditional standup, with its barrage of one-liners, the monologue has a through-line narrative; it’s a short story or essay delivered aloud. Ruth Draper fashioned it into high art on Broadway, but the monologue was also a staple of vaudeville; in the 1920s it had helped build Will Rogers‘ legendary reputation. As Rogers was to Oklahoma, and later Herb Shriner to Indiana, so Griffith was to rural North Carolina: the country boy speaking truth to the city slickers.

Occasionally, a monologue could become a vinyl and radio smash. Johnny Standley, a Wisconsin musician in Horace Heidt’s band, had translated the fire-and-brimstone preacher mode to the tale of Little Bo Peep for his 1952 comedy record, “It’s in the Book.” The two-sided single hit No. 1 and sold two million copies. But Standley’s monologue climaxed in a sing-along tune (“Grandma’s Lye Soap”), whereas “Football” was just Andy talking, for five minutes and 40 seconds — possibly a record length in that era of three-minute singles.

(SEE: Sing Along With Andy)

Listening to “What Is Was, Was Football” on YouTube, the Andy fan hears the rolling cadences and sly innocence of the Taylor and Matlock voices. Nearly 60 years ago, it was all there. And Griffith created the piece — the only time in his career he took writer’s credit.

He tells the audience that, “last October, I believe it was,” he and his fellow Christians had come to some college town for a tent service, and he wandered into what his listeners instantly realize is a football stadium. To Andy, it’s just a giant “cow pasture” with stripes on it and “great big outhouses” (tunnels) on either side. The referee is “a convict”; when players get in a huddle, “They voted.” (For full comic effect, play the YouTube recording, or channel the Andy voice in your head.)

He gradually infers that “Both bunches-full of them men wanted this funny-lookin’ little pumpkin to play with. They did. And I know, friends, that they couldn’t eat it because they kicked it the whole evenin’ and it never busted. … One bunch got it, and it made the other bunch as mad as they could be. And, friends, I seen the awfulest fight that I have ever seen in my life. I did. They would run at one another and kick one another and th’ow one another down and stomp on one another and griiind their feet in one another, and I don’t know what all, and just as fast as one of ’em’d get hurt, they’d tow him off and run anoth’un on.” In the rhythms of Griffith’s laconic frenzy, you can hear a forerunner of the tone Arlo Guthrie used in his own famous comic monologue, the 1967 “Alice’s Restaurant.”

(READ: Corliss on Arthur Penn’s film of Alice’s Restaurant)

Superbly building the excitement, Andy then calms down to offer his final précis: “I think it’s some kindly of a contest where they see which bunch-full of them men can take that punkin and run from one end of that cow pasture to th’other, without either gettin’ knocked down, or steppin’ in somethin’.”

The success of “What It Was, Was Football” and the followup album Just for Laughs (with another terrific monologue on Romeo and Juliet) won Griffith frequent guest spots on Ed Sullivan’s and Steve Allen’s Sunday evening variety shows. But it was his March 1955 role as Air Force Private Will Stockdale in a U.S. Steel Hour version of the Mac Hyman best-seller No Time for Sergeants that propelled Griffith into an unusual media trifecta. Ira Levin, later renowned for his creepy novels (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil) and plays (Deathtrap), adapted the Hyman book for TV, and just seven months later it was a Broadway show that ran for nearly two years and earned Griffith a Tony nomination and a Theatre World award as best actor. In 1958, director Mervyn LeRoy’s virtual reproduction of the play became an audience-pleasing movie.

Griffith didn’t dream up the Stockdale role, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing it. Set “in and above the United States of America,” with the time designated as “Now and a while back,” No Time for Sergeants is an above-standard boot-camp comedy whose strongest cuss words are “dang” and “by dog.” The plot meanders through the basic training of a, well, an Andy Griffith-type whose amiable denseness exasperates and ultimately charms his Sergeant (the sleepily slow-burning Myron McCormick). When Will hears taps played, he observes that “Somebody brung their trumpet.” When his fellow recruit Ben (Roddy McDowell on Broadway, Nick Adams in the movie) boasts that his great-grandfather “fought with Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville,” Will enthusiastically adds, “Licked ‘im good too, I bet!” And when the Sergeant announces that he’s designating Will as “Permanent Latrine Orderly” or “P.L.O” — he makes the punishment seem like a promotion — Will is so honored he can say only, “Gol-lee!”

(LIST: Is The Andy Griffith Show on the all-TIME 100 TV Shows?)

Sounds pure Mayberry, doesn’t it? It happens that Don Knotts, who would play Andy Taylor’s deputy sheriff, was stealing scenes from Griffith long before they teamed on TV. Knotts played an equally jittery soul in the Broadway and movie versions of No Time for Sergeants (and had also been a Steve Allen regular when Griffith guested there). He was the ideal anecdotal antidote, the wimpy hysteric to Andy’s placid reservoir of folk wisdom.

At the time, canny producers saw Griffith as the avatar of some pretty solid Hollywood stars. In a 1958 Playhouse 90 adaptation of The Male Animal he played an easy-going professor fighting political censorship — a part Henry Fonda had taken in the 1942 film. In the 1959 Broadway musical Destry Rides Again he was given the role of the mild-mannered deputy sheriff that had shot Jimmy Stewart to movie stardom two decades earlier. The Harold Rome musical ran for more than a year and earned Griffith another Tony nomination. The star’s one flop film, another 1958 service comedy called Onionhead, was as close as he came in the pre-Mayberry days to having “struck out in the movies.”

Griffith would continue to whittle the Andy persona for the rest of his distinguished career. But just once, he showed the rancid underbelly of a creature so seductive that everyone falls in love with him. As writer and director, Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan were fresh off multiple Academy Awards for their 1954 dockworkers exposé On the Waterfront. Now Schulberg wanted to denounce the power of television talkers; it’s said that his model was that cracker-barrel sage of radio and early TV, Arthur Godfrey. As the protagonist in Waterfront, Kazan had cast Marlon Brando. The new Brando — someone with a hero’s appeal and a demagogue’s danger — would be Andy Griffith in his movie debut.

(READ: Corliss on Budd Schulberg and A Face in the Crowd)

Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes is a refugee of the nowhere town of Riddle, where he says, “they was pretty strict. Didn’t allow us to touch hard liquor till we was ten or 11.” Discovered in a rural jail by radio gal Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), this singer-spieler strums his way to national stardom and a promised cabinet seat as Secretary for National Morale. He fools his audience by behaving like — like Andy Griffith — while plotting to shape his listeners into a proto-fascist army: “Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers — everybody that’s got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. … They’re mine! I own ’em! They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ’em.”

One of several TV-is-awful satires that the 1950s film establishment directed at the medium that was stealing its customers, A Face in the Crowd lays the hate on heavy. Virtually every character is venal or craven, except for Marcia, who exposes the real Lonesome to his fans by pushing the “on” button during one of his rants, and the scriptwriter (the young Walter Matthau, if he was ever young) who gets to tell the star off at the end. But satire is often prophesy, and this one would seem truer 50 years later — when a right-wing secular evangelist like Glenn Beck could sob his way to stardom and marshal his viewers into a Tea Party army. What was rival pundit Keith Olbermann’s derisive tag for Beck? Lonesome Rhodes.

(READ: Who Knew Andy Griffith Was So Controversial?)

“I’m not just an entertainer,” Rhodes shouts. “I’m an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force — a force!” In A Face in the Crowd he’s a force of nature, because of the reckless energy this nearly novice actor invested in him. Ingratiating and frightening, a figure of simple, no, satanic charm, Lonesome Rhodes was not the sort of character that would endear Andy Griffith to his fans for the rest of his life. It was simply the role of a lifetime.