Tuesday, July 3, 2012

America’s Biggest Small Town Hero

I loved Andy Griffith. He was a big part of my childhood. Watching "The Andy Griffith Show" was a treat.

 Rest in Peace Andy, you will be missed.

Has ever a melody been so closely linked to a scene? Composer Earle Hagen himself whistled the theme song that sent Sheriff Andy Taylor and son Opie, fishing poles on shoulders, meandering down that woodsy path toward “The Andy Griffith Show.” The song, which Hagen reportedly wrote in under an hour, was called “The Fishin’ Hole,” but we never heard the lyrics. Never had to. The whistle said it all.
With characters who might have stepped right out of a Norman Rockwell painting—Andy, Opie, Aunt Bee, Barney—“The Andy Griffith Show” debuted in 1960, spun off quickly from a one-episode trial on “Make Room for Daddy” (Andy stops “Daddy” Danny Thomas for speeding). The series did not make Andy Griffith a star—he was already an accomplished actor, singer and comedian, with attention-grabbing roles on stage and screen—but it did make him that most American of mid-century idols, a country hero who seemingly embodied the values of a gentler time. And so he remained, until his death today at the age of 86.
Born Andy—not Andrew, he would emphasize—in 1926, Griffith was the only child of parents who struggled in poverty for much of his childhood in Mount Airy, N.C. The scars of feeling “second class” stayed with him, as he learned to play trombone, briefly studied to be a Moravian church minister, then later taught music. Ironically, considering how inexorably he would be tied to Andy Taylor’s fictional small town of Mayberry, Griffith admitted, in a 2008 interview, “I think I was driven to do the things I did so I could get out of Mount Airy.”
Get out, he did. First to New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, then to Broadway’s “No Time for Sergeants,” and a made-to-order role as a country boy in the Air Force. The stage hit and subsequent 1958 movie also featured the scrawny, bug-eyed Don Knotts, who would become Griffith’s lifelong friend, and his Mayberry cousin and sidekick, Deputy Barney Fife.
But it was the year before, 1957, that Griffith made his most memorable film appearance, in a performance that, viewed through the lens of the star’s later, aw-shucks popularity, is even more chilling.
Eerily, Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” opens with a whistling Tom Glazer tune. But this whistle is no jaunty invitation to summertime fun; Griffith’s character, the wily Lonesome Rhodes, is smarmy from the start. Plucked out of an Arkansas jail to sing and strum guitar on a local talent show, he engineers his own show business rise by playing up his phony populist roots, agitating the crowds, exerting his good ole boy influence. Hypocritical to the core, Rhodes is finally trapped by his own vicious, sneering words, spoken off-camera but broadcast to all. What in later years would be the actor’s guileless, gap-toothed grin is here an urgent, maniacal laugh. Homespun wisdom? When the fans are out of range, Griffith’s Rhodes is looking out for “Mr. Me, Myself and I.”
The role is the antithesis of the Andy Griffith America adored, the easygoing Southerner who shuffled from Mayberry to Atlanta for his second big TV hit, “Matlock.” By the ‘80s, when that country lawyer appeared on TV, Griffith, always closely involved with his shows’ scripts, was writing some as well. And I would like to believe that the living room Andy—the persona pretty much reprised in the 2007 independent film “Waitress” and Brad Paisley’s 2008 video, “Waitin’ on a Woman”–is closer to the real thing.
Certainly, “The Andy Griffith Show” reflected the actor’s own sensibility. “Andy really set the tone of the show,” director Ron Howard, the former child actor who starred as little Opie Taylor, would recall decades later. Off-screen tantrums and insults? Hardly. The small screen father and son formed a bond that endured to the end, and which found them costarring for the last time in “Ron Howard’s Call to Action,” a video in support of presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008.
Howard tweeted this today: “His pursuit of excellence and the joy he took in creating served generations & shaped my life I’m forever grateful.”
Griffith married three times, and one of his adopted children died of alcoholism at age 39. But in American memory he remains a backwoods ideal: the fair-minded sheriff, the good-humored widower trying to do his best by his son, a whistling reflection of an era long gone.
“You gotta be a saint to stave off the power that little box can give you,” Walter Matthau’s acerbic TV writer says in “A Face in the Crowd.”
Andy Griffith might not have been a saint—although he did record many a gospel song–but he left us all whistling, smiling, and forever nostalgic.


Debbie said...

what a great tribute! He will be missed.

Ann said...

sigh...............a true loss.
marvelous tribute to a wonderful actor.

BECKY said...

Oh, Patricia! What a wonderful tribute to Andy. You sure have all the facts, too. Barney and Andy being cousins was only mentioned once, I think, and very early in the series. If anyone missed that episode, they probably wouldn't believe it! :)
Thanks for a lovely post. BTW, I also wrote about Andy on my blog, too, if you'd like to read it. Have a great day.