July 3, 2012

Andy Griffith, R.I.P.

You recall that the other day I mentioned televisions shows you watched when you were a kid but would be embarrassed to admit you watched now.

Well, I watched the Andy Griffith Show when I was a kid. I remember I was envious of the whistler in the theme song, because I couldn’t whistle then, and can’t now.* I thought Andy was a swell sheriff, and he seemed like a good dad (not having one myself, I didn’t know for sure). And, being a typical prepubescent boy, I thought the love story with Helen was stupid. I probably thought the sequel with Ken Berry, Mayberry R.F.D., was stupid as well, but I watched it as well, which means either that I was a true television addict, or lacked taste, or both.

*I can’t swim or ride a bike either, but those are stories for another day. 

I’ve only watched the Andy Griffith Show sparingly since those days, and I’m not sure whether I’m embarrassed by my viewing past or not. Perhaps that show, like I Love Lucy or The Dick Van Dyke Show, is one of those programs that either implants itself in you or doesn’t. Hogan’s Heroes did, Andy Griffith didn’t. Maybe it’s because, living in the big city, I couldn’t relate to small-town life, I don’t know.

I do know that one of my fondest television fantasies – you know, the stories you’d really like to see on your favorite shows – involves The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimball finding his way to Mayberry. Being a pediatrician, the ideal plot would have involved Kimball saving Opie’s life after an accident, perhaps on that gravel road he and Andy walked down during the show’s opening. Andy’s grateful, of course, but then – being a good cop – he finds out Kimball’s true identity. And therein lies the dilemma.

Andy Taylor, behind that down-home manor, was no fool, and was a shrewd judge of character. And while he’s a police officer sworn to uphold the law, he also knows when a man’s guilty and when he’s innocent. Richard Kimble, the sheriff surmises, is not a murderer. Likely what Andy would have done, in so many words, would be to let Kimball know he knew. And then, looking out the window, he might have mentioned that he’d been having a problem lately with hitchhikers. “They go out that road by the highway, where all the trucks run – you know the place – and they’s picking up rides out there all the time. Not a good thing for a town to be known for. I’m a-goin’ to have to go out there tomorrow morning and see what I can do.”

So Kimball picks up on the clue, and next shot we see is him thumbing his way on the road, and a trucker stopping to pick him up. In the Epilog, we see Lieutenant Gerard arriving in Mayberry – Barney probably tipped him off, you know – and Andy being shocked, shocked to find out that he had Richard Kimball, the wife killer, right here in Mayberry, under his very nose. “You just never do know people, do you?”

I like to think that fantasy is a testament not only to the fondness we have for our old shows, but to the character that Andy Griffith invested in Andy Taylor. We knew that Andy would do the right thing, and that he’d do it in the right way. Not every actor can pull that off, but Andy Griffith could.

So anyway, I say that I don’t really watch the old Andy Griffith shows. I watched his other big hit, Matlock, and found his character fascinating, with an edge you never really saw in Mayberry.* To find that edge, and where it came from, you’d have to watch one of the great political movies ever made, A Face in the Crowd. I’ve written about that in the past (you can read it here), but suffice it to say that after watching Griffith’s brilliant performance, you can understand why he might have been frustrated with being pigeonholed into Andy Taylor-like roles. The man could act.

*The show, however, drove me crazy. Here Ben Matlock absolutely takes apart the killer on the witness stand – just like Perry Mason – and then the next shot we see is of the jury coming back with a Not Guilty verdict. Really? You really think the prosecution wouldn’t have moved for a dismissal after what Ben came up with? 

Having looked at Griffith from the perspective of the post-Mayberry Matlock and the pre-Mayberry Crowd, there’s one other Andy Griffith I remember, and that’s the storyteller. When I was in grade school one of our teachers played the record of his monologue "What It Was, Was Football." Funny then, funny now. Dry, clever, insidious in its subtlety. And there was the role that made him famous – "No Time for Sergeants," which he played on television, on Broadway, and in the movies. If you’ve never seen it, you should. It’s one of the few great comedies from the Golden Age of Television, having aired on the U.S. Steel Hour in 1958. Funny then, funny now.

Andy Griffith died today, at age 86. It’s big news down here in North Carolina, the place that he loved and that loved him back. Even before today, it was easy to tell he’d touched a lot of people here. When you’re writing about television, and the great figures of the time, you don’t often find yourself this close in proximity to the story. But here it is.

And so, therefore, in the end there were several Andy Griffiths: the sly monologist, the earnest private, the political demagogue, the down-home sheriff, the shrewd attorney, the North Carolinian who stayed true to his roots. (And that doesn’t even get into the spirituals he recorded.) You can’t say that about many actors, and for that reason it doesn’t matter which Andy Griffith you remember. The point is, you remember him: and that’s something you can’t say about many actors, either. TV  

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