Andy Griffith’s contributions to the American culture are immense. People born decades after The Andy Griffith Show ended will recognize the folksy whistle of its theme song, though they might not know why. In Matlock, he redefined himself and televised legal dramas.
Though the actor passed away in 2012, his influence on America’s imaginings of small towns lives on. With that in mind, let’s look at the life and career of this iconic entertainer.
A Blue-Collar Childhood
Andy Samuel Griffith was born in 1926 in Mount Airy, North Carolina, a small town near the Virginia border. Griffith’s family was poor even for that time and region. Growing up poor during the height of the Great Depression, Griffith was aware of his class as a child, which kept him from socializing with his peers.
By the time he got to high school, Andy Griffith’s interest in acting and music would force him to move past any social stigma. Raised in a Moravian Church, Griffith was taught to sing and play the trombone by his minister. At Mount Airy High, he participated in the school’s drama program.
After graduation, Griffith attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Initially enrolled to study to be a Moravian preacher, he changed his major early on, graduating with a bachelor of music degree in 1949. While studying, he joined the Carolina Playmaker’s, the theater company in residence at UNC-CH. He also became the president of the university’s chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the oldest music fraternity in the country. With the Playmakers, Griffith performed in multiple operettas (light-hearted operas,) cultivating his singing voice.
After graduation, Andy Griffith worked briefly as a high school music and drama teacher in Goldsboro, another small North Carolina town. While there, he would be offered a role in The Lost Colony, a play about Sir Walter Raleigh’s attempted settlement of Roanoke Island, performed each summer in an amphitheater located on the site of the failed colony. This was the first evidence of Griffith’s North Carolina regionalism, which would go on to positively influence nearly every piece he’d work with after.
Outside of teaching and The Lost Colony, Andy Griffith worked as a monologist, delivering comedic readings, which were a popular thing in the early fifties. His most fondly remembered monologue was What it Was, Was Football, released in 1953. In it, Griffith reads as a naive Revivalist preacher who has stumbled into a college town’s raucous football game.
Move to Broadway and Televised Film
In 1955, Griffith was the star in a teleplay No Time for Sergeants, where he played a country boy who has enrolled in the U.S. Air Force. The show was extended and reproduced for theater, debuting on Broadway later that year. Griffith was nominated for the “Distinguished Supporting or Featured Dramatic Actor” Tony, and won the Theatre World Award, given for debut Broadway roles. Reviews of the play highlighted the ease with which Griffith represented his character, adding emphasis to the young actor’s typecast as a country good ol’ boy.
Andy Griffith was only in one other Broadway performance, Destry Rides Again, before getting his film debut. While Griffith’s character in A Face in the Crowd was a country boy, he was anything but good. Conniving and self-interested, Griffith’s portrayal saw immediate critical recognition, though the film was not initially popular. However, the film has managed to become a classic, significantly more popular today than when it was released.
In 1958, a film version of No Time for Sergeants caused Griffith to reprise his role. The film version was a critical success, and is also notable for introducing Andy Griffith to Don Knotts, who would become a close friend and colleague in later years.
The Andy Griffith Show
In 1960, Andy Griffith returned to TV for an episode of Make Room for Daddy. On the sitcom, Griffith played a county sheriff and newspaper editor. The episode served as a sort of pilot for The Andy Griffith Show, which would be produced by Make Room for Daddy‘s producer.
Griffith starred as Sheriff Andy Taylor, who was a single father and sheriff in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina. Mayberry was based heavily on Griffith’s hometown of Mount Airy, which now has an annual “Mayberry Day,” celebrating the aesthetic of The Andy Griffith Show.
The culture established by The Andy Griffith Show is what makes it such an important piece of American television. While the show is set in 1960s, it had the atmosphere of a rose-tinted 1930s. It was one of the highest rated shows of its time, and still airs on multiple channels, and is also available through Netflix. Oddly, despite all its fame, neither the show nor Andy Griffith were ever nominated for an Emmy.
One distinguishing factor of Andy Griffith’s character was that his flaws were not central plot devices. While sitcoms like I Love Lucy were able to generate comedy from the bumbling failings of their protagonists, Sheriff Andy was a relatively normal person. This forced the show to use the rest of its cast more fully, which helped boost the careers of Don Knotts (Deputy Barney Fife) and Ron Howard (Opie Taylor, Andy’s son in the show).
In 1967, after seven successful seasons, Andy Griffith opted to leave the show to pursue other acting and production interests. The spin-off Mayberry R.F.D. was created, keeping the town of Mayberry alive in the public’s mind for a few more years. Eventually, the show was cancelled as part of the “rural purge,” where many stations (specifically CBS) cancelled many of their shows aimed at older demographics. As stated by the Museum of Broadcast Communications, “Mayberry’s total isolation from contemporary problems was part of its appeal, but more than a decade of media coverage of the civil rights movement had brought about a change in the popular image of the small Southern town.”
After leaving The Andy Griffith Show, Griffith bounced between a variety of shows and films, attempting to diversify the public’s perception of him from just a Southern sheriff. Many of the televised movies he starred in were attempts to create new shows, though none were successful. Throughout the 70s, Andy Griffith was in over a dozen different films, with appearances on even more shows.
From 1980 to 1983, he took a brief hiatus to spend more time with his family. Then, in April of 1983, Griffith was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, which led to months of rehabilitation after subsequent leg paralysis. Then, in 1984, he performed as an attorney in the NBC miniseries Fatal Vision. His role on that show is thought to be the precursor for the titular character of Matlock.
In 1985, Andy Griffith rekindled public awareness that he could play darker roles in the televised film Crime of Innocence. The next year he would play an alcoholic and abusive patriarch in Under the Influence.
In 1986, Andy Griffith became the criminal defense attorney Ben Matlock. It’s interesting to view the shift in Andy Griffith’s presentation of our legal and executive offices relative to the real world perceptions. In 1960, Griffith was Andy Taylor, a small town sheriff able to peacefully resolve even the most complex issues of his little community. In one episode, the character even draws attention to the fact he doesn’t carry a gun with him on duty. Two decades later, in Crime of Innocence, he’s a judge unnecessarily sending juveniles to prison.
And then in Matlock, he inverts the role, working to maintain the innocence of the accused against an overbearing and uncaring justice system. Griffith’s character was full of folksy wisdom and keen insight, and led to the trope of pointing to the actual guilty party who just happens to be sitting in the courtroom. As a mystery show, it was a clean hybrid of whodunit with howcatchem.
The show, which ran for 9 seasons, was highly rated for most of its tenure. Eventually, as it replaced earlier legal dramas, its style was superseded by the higher production value of shows like Law & Order. Matlock continues to air, with his character remaining the platonic crush of doting old ladies everywhere.
When Matlock ended in 1995, Andy Griffith was 69, and voluntarily left the show to spend more time with his family. He also recorded his most successful music album, I Love to Tell the Story: 25 TImeless Hymns, which won the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Southern, Country, or Bluegrass Gospel Album.
Since Matlock, Andy Griffith has made a few appearances on TV and in movies, most frequently with Ron Howard, who played his son on The Andy Griffith Show. In his last film appearance, the romantic comedy Play the Game (2009), he is cast alongside Ron Howard’s father, and Ron’s younger brother, both of whom were in The Andy Griffith Show.
When he wasn’t acting, Andy Griffith was living in Manteo, North Carolina, on Roanoke Island. In 2000, his last-minute endorsement of Mike Easley for the North Carolina governorship is credited for stopping Mike Easley from losing his lead, in what is called “the Mayberry Miracle.” Also that year, he had quadruple heart-bypass surgery.
Griffith reprised his role as Sheriff Taylor and Ron Howard as Opie in an video produced by Funny or Die endorsing Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. He also endorsed Democrat candidate Bev Perdue in her 2008 North Carolina Governor campaign.
Andy Griffith Now in 2018
Unfortunately on July 3, 2012, Andy Griffith passed away after a heart attack at age 86. He was buried on Roanoke Island later that day. His effect on American culture has continued, though.
In his hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina, there’s the Andy Griffith Museum, and an annual “Mayberry Day.” There are also police cars painted like those in The Andy Griffith Show that give tours of the town.
On Christmas Day, 2015, CBS broadcast two colorized episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. Both The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock continue to air, with the former being available on Netflix.