The Andy Griffith Show began in 1960 as a show about hicks and bumpkins, and the lead character, Sheriff Andy Taylor, was every bit as corn pone as the rest. That changed after the first season, and it was Griffith, who died Tuesday at 86, who instigated the change. As he recalled years later, "I look at that first year today, and I was so bad. I was so country, trying to be funny. It was pretty cornball. If it hadn't been for Don Knotts ...
"Then we went to work on it. I said, 'Let Don be funny.' It turned around when I became the straight man. I would just react to him. I'm good at reacting." And that was only the beginning.
Even if we don’t count that first season that he wasn’t crazy about, Andy Griffith “reacted” his way into the hearts of millions for seven seasons on a television show that became so popular that when it ceased production, it was still No. 1 in the ratings (a feat matched only by I Love Lucy and Seinfeld).
Maybe it would have been a hit if everything had remained completely corny. The Beverly Hillbillies and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. had nothing but success making fun of moronic hillbillies. But The Andy Griffith Show was different. It had its share of affable idiots, no doubt about that, but it drew them with a subtlety missing in those other shows.
Most important, the jokes were always character driven. Barney Fife, for example, was a cheapskate, so when he goes on vacation, he stays at the YMCA in Raleigh, the state capital, where “a quarter goes just like that.” Ernest T. Bass is so backwoods he makes the folks of Mayberry seem sophisticated, which somewhere between punchlines quietly buries the whole notion of sophistication as anything but a relative concept. Floyd the Barber is funny because … because … because small animals live in his mouth and make strange noises when he’s supposed to be talking? Floyd was surely one of the most surreal characters to haunt a television screen, but somehow that made him more real, and the fact that you couldn’t analyze his humor just made him even better. Floyd was funny because … Floyd was funny.
The best parts of the show were like that—as weird and funny as life itself, and at the heart of all of it stands Sheriff Andy Taylor, the sensible everyman with whom we not only identify but to whom we cling like a life raft in a sea of chuckleheads.
Audiences made the mistake of thinking Andy Griffith and Andy Taylor were one and the same. "On the show, people thought he wasn't acting and that Andy Taylor was just naturally him,” Don Knotts once said. “He was so good that he made it look natural. He was acting. It was a fine performance.”
Or, as Griffith himself put it, "You're supposed to believe in the character. You're not supposed to think, 'Gee, Andy's acting up a storm.'" He may have been too persuasive for his own good, since Knotts won five Emmys for playing Barney Fife, while Griffith was never even nominated.
He was, in fact, a superb actor, and perhaps at his best, ironically, when he was playing villains. You will not think of Sheriff Andy as anything other than just another skillfully performed role once you have seen Griffith bring the slimy media huckster Lonesome Rhodes to vivid, appalling life in A Face in the Crowd. And lest you think that’s a fluke, check out the maniacal killer whom we follow all the way to the electric chair in Murder in Coweta County. As baldheaded cackling madmen go, that one’s right up there.
All that—and No Time for Sergeants and What It Was Was Football and Matlock—notwithstanding, it was The Andy Griffith Show and the town of Mayberry for which he will be remembered. You could mock the show, you could parody it, but like anything that has something genuine at its core, you couldn’t demolish it (not that some of the jokes at Mayberry’s expense weren’t funny, e.g., the cartoon entitled “Mayberry, LSD,” which shows Andy and Barney sitting in a swing and Andy asking, “Hey Barn, have you ever really looked at your hands?”).
Anyone who has ever been near a small town knows that Mayberry was created with care, love, and considerable intelligence. And Griffith’s influence on this vision went well beyond references to Mt. Airy (his actual hometown) or Raleigh or the Outer Banks (where he broke into show business as a member of the cast of The Lost Colony, the original outdoor drama). “Andy never got credit as a writer,” Don Knotts once said, “but he was involved with the story line of every episode."
Only a small-town boy, one who grew up learning that you can laugh at your neighbors but you’re still going to have to live with them—and yourself—would have had the sensibility to pull it off. Much of the show is nothing like anything else that has ever been on television—gentle, but not mush-witted, shrewd but never mean. The result was strange, a sort of jerryrigged Eden with a laugh track, somehow both idyllic and lunatic all at once. Balance was the key. If Andy and Opie tugged too hard at your heartstrings, Barney was there to say something so pompous and ridiculous that things came back on an even keel. It was a world without cruelty, or genuine malice, or tragedy—or minorities! Yes, there were limits to this vision. It wasn’t Shakespeare. But in the vast wasteland that was network television in the ’60s, it stood out like a diamond in a manure pile. Fifty years later, faults and all, it’s still one of the best things ever to appear on American television, and Andy Griffith deserves the lion’s share of credit for that.