Andy Griffith grew from a southern boy who sang with dreams of being a preacher to a national treasure. Take a moment. Sit a spell, and re-discover the life of a man who taught us to be a little more American.
June 1st, 1926 saw the birth of two American icons. There was Andrew 'Samuel' Andy Griffith and Norma Jean Mortensen who is better known as Marilyn Monroe.
Andy was born and lived his early life in Mount Airy, North Carolina, Andy was the only child of Carl Lee Griffith and Geneva Nunn. As a young child, Andy's parents instilled in him a love of three things; The Lord Jesus Christ, music, and telling a good funny story. These three things would become Andy's trademarks the rest of his life.
(the birthplace of Andy Griffith)
Griffith was raised Baptist and participated in a variety of plays in high school. His talent was nurtured locally by a minister named Ed Mickey at the Grace Moravian Church. It was there that Mickey taught Andy to play the trombone. Originally, Griffith went to the University of North Carolina with the intention of becoming a Moravian minister. Griffith would graduate with a degree in Music from UNC. The first few years after college, Andy would teach music in Goldsboro, North Carolina. He would also work his way up through local productions. Andy performed several times in the play The Lost Colony, until he finally won the lead role of Sir Walter Raliegh in the play about the colony at Roanoke.
While at the University of North Carolina, Griffith met Barbara Bray Edwards. They fell in love and were married.
Edwards was an aspiring actress in her own right and starred in plays at the University of North Carolina as well. There were rumors that Andy making it as a star and Edwards not put a strain on their marriage eventually leading to their divorce.
In 1953, Andy Griffith entered regional and then national consciousness with his recording of What It Was, Was Football... This humorous monolouge is told from the perspective of a backwoodsman who stumbles upon his first game of football. Having never seen the game, the backwoodsman expresses shock and horror over all of these men fighting over this tiny little round piece of pigskin.
The slack jawed yokel takes an almost alien or early child development attempt to understand th game that is completed foriegn to him with hilarious results.
Five years later in 1958, MAD magazine would do an article printing What It Was, Was Football nearly verbatim.
The humor of What it Was, Was Football... transcended not only regional but also cultural barriers. Years later, on the Tonight Show, no less a source than Bill Cosby would tell Andy Griffith to Andy's great delight that Cosby had performed the monolouge on stage as a young man.
In 1957, Andy Griffith starred in the movie A Face In The Crowd directed by legendary and controversial director Elia Kazan.
Kazan was known for two things. Kazan got incredible dramatic performances out of legendary actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean in movie like On The Waterfront and East of Eden. Kazan is also known for testifying to the House Committee on Unamerican Activities and naming names of fellows artist as communists during Joseph McCarthy's "red scare."
A Face in The Crowd was a screenplay written by Budd Schullberg and was based on Schullberg's short story "Your Arkansas Traveller." In the film, Griffith plays Larry Rhodes (a seemingly simple but dangerously manipulative drunk).
In the film, Rhodes ambitious as well as maniulative nature leads him all the way to a penthouse suite as a young film star. However, the same nature ultimately leads to the destruction of his personal life. There is a hint that Rhodes life will be cyclical at the end. He seems destined to rise greatly again only to be torn down by his own demons.
In 1960, an episode of the popular The Danny Thomas show had an episode called Danny Meets Andy Griffith. The episode served as what is known in the industry as a "back door pilot" for the Andy Griffith Show. A back door pilot is essentially when an episode of a possible television show is previewed in another more popular television show. This gives the production company an idea of whether or not to move forward with the show. For instance, Robin Williams "Mork" character from Mork and Mindy originally debuted on an episode of The Happy Days.
Griffiths folksy sheriff was of course a hit, and The Andy Griffith Show went into production with Desilu studios run by the legendary Desi Arnaz.
Sure, we all can known and guess that Desilu did I Love Lucy (Desi - Desi Arnaz and Lu - Lucille Ball) but do you know off the top of your head where this Desilu banner comes from?
If you guess that the front end of the show had THIS on it, then you would be correct ....
And in 1960, The Andy Griffith show debuted on the air to remind people of the values that they wanted to live by in a time that was challenging them on every level.
In the back drop of it all, there was Sheriff Andy Taylor and his son Opie Taylor. Sheriff Andy's wife had died of something is usually referred to as 'Disney sickness' which convienently allows a man to be a single father and the mother to sleep in a near by grave. Comedic actor Don Knotts memorably gave rise to the iconic role of Deputy Barney Fife who was an excitable and manic counterpart to Sheriff Taylor's cool wisdom.
Mayberry allowed audiences of the 1960s to think of the simple times and good life that they wanted to live. It was a wonderful escapist fantasy from the news stories going on all around them.
Against it all, there was Sheriff Andy Taylor telling us that if we would just sit on a front porch, pour a little lemonade, and talk things out like reasonable adults then maybe there could be peace and good harmony in our lives as well. It never hurt to have a good fishing hole or a big slice of Aunt Bea's homemade pie either.
The show also launched and enhanced the careers of not only Griffith and Knotts but also Ron Howard, Jim Nabors and many others. You just never knew who might be stopping by Mayberry one day.
In 1968, after 8 years and watch the world change around them, The Andy Griffith Show learned the same lesson that Andy himself had on stage. You exit while the crowd still wants more. Andy Griffith left the airwaves for new production while it was still on top, but had more than enough episode to allow re-runs to showcase the talent and folksy wisdom. That is the thing about the Andy Griffith Show. When it is on, you watch it. It doesn't matter whether it in 1965 or today. You take twenty however many minutes and sit down and just watch it. You do it because it just feels right. You hope that the episode you are going to watch is in black and white. But, you watch Andy Griffith because you know its the right thing to do and you will be better for it. And even if you can't whistle, you try the theme song....
It can't be hits all the time and the 1970s was kind of a world that left Andy Griffith. Mayberry continued on without Griffith and had a hit with Mayberry RFD. It was actually popular through its 78 episode run but CBS had what is infamously known as its 'rural purge' in 1971 and cancelled the series.
Griffith himself could not get another series going. Up until 1980, Griffith had five attempts....
The Headmaster, The New Andy Griffith Show, Adams of Eagle Lake, Salvage, and The Yeagers. Well, at least you have to give Andy E for effort even if none of those series warranted a second season. In addition, Andy's first marriage feel apart and he got a new wife... not quite in line with his traditional southern roots....
Andy was married to Solica Cassuto from 1973 to 1981. It was the 1970s, we all did things that just don't seem quite right. Their relationship was described diplomatically by Don Knotts as 'rocky' on the Biography special on Andy Griffith.
It took until the Reagan era for audiences to be ready to see Andy Griffith as anything other than Sheriff Andy Taylor. Luckily, Andy did not have 'giving up' in his nature and a role that fit the older, wiser, no longer married to a Greek actress Andy Griffith better. After his divorce, Andy would marry for the third and final time to actress Cindy Knight.
Finally resettled at his own home, Andy Griffith was ready to re-enter ours. In 1986, Griffith started the starring role as country lawyer Ben Matlock in the series Matlock.
Matlock was a folksy, feisty, lawyer in Atlanta, Georgia who would frequently get the perpetrator to admit their crime on the stand at the end of the episode. Matlock achieved fame for never actually losing his cases. Although, it was always teased that he might. Matlock was a southern combination of an old Andy Taylor and Perry Mason.
The result was a Tuesday night juggernaut from 1986 through 1995. Confidently, Griffith ran Matlock just as many seasons as he had previously run The Andy Griffith Show. Griffith was still good as spotting and featuring new talent in the series as well as evidenced by the career of future Walker, Texas Ranger star Calrence Gilyard, Jr.
Andy Griffith grew from a humble southern lad to a national treasure. He did it by reminding people of their roots. He did it by exemplifying what J. R. R. Tolkein meant writing "it is no small thing to celebrate a simple life." After retiring back to North Carolina, Andy Griffith died on July 3rd, 2012. In congress with the 'no fuss' way he lived his life, Andy Griffith was buried five hours later on his own property. On Independence Day 2012, Andy Griffith is back in the North Carolina ground from which his roots sprang. The same rural North Carolina that Andy spent 8 years in the 1960s convincing America just might have the answers to everything. If you are looking for a way to equate the life of Andy Griffith with a historical precedent, I do have a suggestion. I believe that Andy Griffith was nothing short of a modern day Will Rogers.
Like Rogers before him, Griffith made brilliance just look like simple, good old fashioned horse sense. Andy Griffith was a rural Socrates that knew if we looked hard enough and had the right environment, then the answers would be found in us all along. Somewhere, in Heaven, I firmly believe that there is a porch where today Andy Taylor, Barney Fife, and Aunt Bee will greet anyone who wants to stop by for a spell. You can have a cold glass of southern ice tea with just a tad too much sugar. You can take a load off. You can eat a slice of hot apple pie. And for just a moment, everything can be alright in the world. I like to think in times like these of my own Dad and how he might be up there right now stopping by.