Andy Griffith: TV’s conscience

On 50th anniversary of show's premiere, a look at actor's legendary career

All happy showbiz careers, to paraphrase Tolstoy, are not alike. Especially when, like Andy Griffith, you’ve successfully scaled five different rock faces to achieve the rarefied peak that earns you a 2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

As standup comedian, Griffith convulsed the nation in his 1953 monologue “What It Was, Was Football,” in which he introduced a new voice to the comedic landscape: wry, shrewd, disarming and satirical. His role in “No Time for Sergeants” was a TV and movie hit; when he took it to Broadway in 1955, it broke the magic ceiling of 500-700 runs by playing 796 performances.

He came back a year later to play the lead in “Destry Rides Again,” which ran for more than a year, earning him a Tony nom. As a country gospel singer (Griffith has a B.A. in music from the U. of North Carolina), his 1996 album “I Love to Tell the Story: 25 Timeless Hymns” went platinum and earned him a Grammy.

Griffith’s popular TV detective series “Matlock” ran first on NBC in 1986 and then on ABC in ’92, ending in ’95 only after Griffith called it quits.

But the two landmark works of his career, one prophetic and the other a perennial frontrunner in the sitcom world, were Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” and, of course, “The Andy Griffith Show.”

“A Face in the Crowd,” released in 1957, is still astonishing, not only in its acid depiction of superstar megalomania (Griffith got the part by channeling evangelist Oral Roberts in a dinner with Kazan), but for the way it foresaw the power of television as a mass medium controlled by wealthy sponsors with political agendas.

It was Griffith’s first film. Kazan got under his skin to such depth that it nearly wrecked his marriage and almost destroyed him emotionally.

“It was an experience I’ll never forget,” Griffith said in a 1998 interview for the Archive of American Television. (He is currently not giving interviews as he prepares for the January release of his autobiography “I Appreciate It: My Life”).

“Kazan told me, ‘All you have to do is find what the character is feeling and thinking. … It’ll come through your eyes, and you won’t have to show the camera anything.’ It took three months to shoot and two months more for me to get over it.”

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann says the film and Griffith’s performance “overwhelmed” him.

“In the early stages of broadcasting, you could see it as an opportunity for purely selfish people who’d let nothing get in their way,” Olbermann says. “They’d say and do anything to get on radio and TV. It’s the same now …

“You see in Lonesome Rhodes this complete amorality. His power is in convincing people he’s down to earth, one of them. But he isn’t down to earth. … The key to it all is that the audience believes them. Andy Griffith showed who these people are and how it’s done. I couldn’t believe this was the Andy Griffith I’d been seeing all the years before. My admiration for him shot through the roof.”

After his next film, “Onionhead,” flopped, Griffith decided to pack it in for the foreseeable future as far as movies were concerned. He didn’t want to go back to the theater. He was tired of playing clubs. Then television beckoned, as actor-producer Sheldon Leonard proposed the idea of Griffith as a Southern smalltown sheriff.

“The Andy Griffith Show” was born. It ran from 1960 to ’68 and was the top-rated sitcom of the decade. It’s still No. 1 in daytime reruns for TVLand, which is hosting a marathon on Sunday’s 50th anniversary of the show’s debut.

“Griffith was a pioneer, a pathfinder,” says Ron Simon, curator of television and radio at the Paley Center in New York.

“At the time he came along, the theater and television mostly depicted the urban middle class. He was so authentic that the casting director for ‘No Time for Sergeants’ wasn’t convinced that Griffith was a real actor. In all of his major work, he’s made people rethink what the South and Southernness is. ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ influenced the direction of pop culture and became a template for sitcoms thereafter, including ‘Seinfeld.’?”

That’s because Griffith insisted on going back to the one-camera set, which emphasized ensemble relationships among characters. And when Don Knotts, an old friend, arrived for the show’s second episode, Griffith changed his own character into one of central stability around whom zanies revolve — a formula that led to the great sitcoms of the ’70s and beyond.

“It was not played for satire,” observes Ron Howard, who famously portrayed Opie, Taylor’s young son — commemorative statues of the two of them going fishing stand in Raleigh and the Mt. Airy, N.C., town of Griffith’s birth.

“Other shows that depicted the South at the time, like ‘Petticoat Junction’ and ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ played up their characters as bumpkins: the ‘Li’l Abner’ approach. He didn’t want to take that direction. Sheldon Leonard had been a member of Frank Capra’s acting company. He and Andy wanted to infuse the show with values of decency, optimism, order and Americana, while still depicting people’s foibles and pettiness.

“I knew I’d want to direct one day. Andy showed that you could have fun on a set while still working hard.”

Howard cites the forward-looking nature of the show.

“We think of its success as based on nostalgia and wishful thinking. But none of those characters were married. Yet it’s still about family, and people caring for each other.”

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