R.I.P. Andy Griffith

Andy Griffith—who embodied folksy wisdom across decades of TV and movies, whether it was sincerely as the wise, forgiving sheriff of The Andy Griffith Show and the cantankerous country lawyer of Matlock, or with a sinister edge in Elia Kazan's A Face In The Crowd—has died, according a report from an NBC affiliate in Griffith's home of North Carolina. The news was relayed by Griffith's longtime friend Bill Friday, president of the University of North Carolina where Griffith (a one-time wannabe opera singer) had long ago achieved a degree in music before transitioning to the comedy and acting career that would make him a television icon. No official cause of death was given. Griffith was 86.

Griffith's homespun persona was no act: He was born in Mount Airy, N.C., and died on Roanoke Island—the same setting as The Lost Colony, a play he performed in for many years after graduating high school. That led to roles in several operettas, Gilbert And Sullivan plays, and the like, and it was Griffith's zeal for the spotlight crossed with his small-town humility that would come to define his persona. America first took notice of him as a Will Rogers-style monologist, making recordings of his long, rambling stories such as What It Was, Was Football—told from the point of view of a backwoodsman marveling at the strangeness of a football game—chart-topping hits.

He would soon be called upon to play the country bumpkin in the 1955 TV play No Time For Sergeants, which was later adapted into a 1958 film alongside his future co-star Don Knotts. His fate, at that point, was more or less sealed.

However, it's remarkable that Griffith continued to amble along in that persona for so long, given how quickly he subverted it. In 1957, Griffith made his movie debut in Elia Kazan's A Face In The Crowd, a searing, prescient appraisal of the still-nascent media machine and its influence on politics, written with cynically insightful aplomb by Budd Schulberg. Griffith starred as "Lonesome" Rhodes, a Will Rogers-styled, country bumpkin monologist who's catapulted to fame and power, only to turn into an arrogant megalomaniac who knowingly trades on his "folksy" charm to manipulate his audience. Griffith's performance is a true tour de force, revealing a surprisingly complex, knowingly self-aware edge to his own identity. And the scene where Griffith's character—caught unaware by a live mic—cruelly taunts his audience of "stupid idiots" is enough alone to color everything you'll see of his afterward (not to mention every pundit's or politician's insistence since that they speak for the real Americans).

But of course, Griffith would have far greater success playing his wholesomeness straight. In 1960, he made his first appearance as the sheriff (and jack of every trade) of a tiny little town on Danny Thomas' Make Room For Daddy, an episode that served as a backdoor pilot for the sitcom that would cement his legacy. The Andy Griffith Show debuted in 1960 and became a huge, immediate hit, running in some form for the rest of the decade. No doubt protective of the sitcom that bore his name, Griffith was instrumental in the development of his character from a stumbling, bumbling hick to the sage patriarch to a town of other stumbling, bumbling hicks, recognizing the value of playing the less flashy role of straight man to characters like Don Knotts' goofy Deputy Barney Fife. As a result, Griffith became one of TV's most lasting father figures: Patient, forgiving, and always willing to listen to everyone's problems—even when they were exasperatingly stupid—Griffith's Andy Taylor embodied a small-town sensibility that still holds nostalgic sway over much of America, many of whom would like nothing more than to be the young Ron Howard's Opie, whistling as they amble off with Andy to the ol' fishing hole.

Griffith stayed with the series for eight seasons, never receiving a writing credit despite his frequent input on its scripts, and never garnering so much as an Emmy nomination for his performance. (Knotts, by contrast, won three.) He eventually left it behind in 1967, spawning the sequel series Mayberry R.F.D., with Ken Berry stepping into the central role in an attempt to keep it going. (The spinoff Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., starring Griffith discovery Jim Nabors, lasted five seasons of its own.) Until CBS finally said goodbye to Mayberry in 1971—amid the "rural purge" that saw the networks killing off all of its once-popular shows about big-hearted rubes (Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, etc.)—Griffith remained on as executive producer and continued to oversee its direction. He also reprised the role of Andy Taylor in the 1986 TV movie Return To Mayberry.

Like the networks in the early '70s, the years immediately following saw Griffith similarly trying to get away from stories of bumpkins. Not coincidentally, they were also the most fallow period of his career: Audiences rejected Griffith as the administrator of a California private school (1970's Headmaster) and especially as a scrap metal scavenger who builds his own spaceship out of junk, then explores the moon and beyond in 1979's strange, Isaac Asimov-advised Salvage I.

Even his explicit attempts to recreate some of his past success didn't go over well: In 1975, Griffith returned to playing a sheriff in a small town in Adams Of Eagle Lake—a re-appropriated version of the 1974 TV movie Winter Kill, in which Griffith solved a string of serial killer murders with the help of a young Nick Nolte. But putting a dramatic spin on Griffith as a cop didn't connect with audiences, nor were they lured in by 1971's The New Andy Griffith Show, a show that overtly aped the tone of his most famous predecessor by putting Griffith back in a small town setting and making him the mayor. It lasted only 10 episodes.

But in 1986, after successfully playing a lawyer in the TV movie Fatal Vision, Griffith would find his second wind as a different kind of country-bred lawman, one who was every bit as sneakily wise (if slightly less amiable). Griffith's Matlock was an attorney whose Southern drawl and home life on the farm stood in marked contrast to all the younger, fancier, big-city lawyers who were always trying to pull one over on the good people—and that's exactly why they never saw him coming. Though ostensibly a legal drama, Griffith used his comedy training to great effect as the often-cranky Matlock, who was always exasperating the police with his ability to find clues they'd overlooked, and just about everyone else with his cheapness and eccentricities. The fact that Matlock always, always won—usually to the chagrin of some young hotshot who'd woefully underestimated him—made him a hero to an older audience and kept it on the air well into the mid-'90s.

Griffith stuck with the role through nine seasons, once again never receiving so much as an Emmy nomination despite the show's enduring popularity and his influence on the character. Eventually he left regular TV roles for good in 1995, concentrating on guest appearances and films. Among the many movies he made during the course of his career, many of them were made for television—and like Face In The Crowd, nearly all of them were dramatic departures from what people expected from him. The Strangers In 7A saw him as a depressed factory worker caught up in a robbery plot by sadistic Vietnam vets. The far stranger Pray For The Wildcats starred Griffith as a psychopathic executive who forces a group of ad men vying for his business (including William Shatner) to embark on a murderous motorcycle trip while he chases them through the desert.

Griffith also played villain roles in 1974's Savages—as a successful lawyer who goes to extreme measures to cover up a hunting accident—and in 1983's Murder In Coweta County, where he portrayed a wealthy, homicidal landowner brought to justice by a sheriff played by Johnny Cash. He also surprised many with his role as a cruel judge who had it out for juvenile offenders in 1985's Crimes Of Innocence, and as another sociopath who shouldn't be allowed near a hunting rifle in 1995's Gramps with John Ritter. Still, it was the more sympathetic side of Andy Griffith that brought him his only lifetime Emmy nomination, playing the grieving father in 1981's Murder In Texas.

Griffith similarly worked both sides of his persona on the big screen, playing an aging star of B-movie Westerns opposite Jeff Bridges in 1975's Hearts Of The West, a tyrannical, gay cattle baron in the Western spoof Rustlers' Rhapsody, as well as the evil genius "General Rancor" whom Leslie Nielsen must stop in Spy Hard. In 2007, Griffith earned late-career laurels for his role as the cranky diner owner in Adrienne Shelly's Waitress, which would prove to be one of his last on-screen appearances. His final film credit would be 2009's Play The Game, a romantic comedy in which Griffith's lonely widower learns how to become a ladies' man in his august years, though it's entirely likely far more people saw the 2008 Funny Or Die short in which Ron Howard and Griffith—a longtime Democratic supporter—reunited in order to urge people to vote for Barack Obama.

Over the years, it's been tempting to look at Griffith's body of work as purely sentimental or even sappy—and certainly his many albums of gospel and Christian hymns, along with his work on the Andy Griffith Show, have made him a model of a certain old-fashioned, moral majority sensibility. But as evidenced in his many movie roles, Griffith was a surprisingly layered actor, willing time and again to chuck the goodwill he'd accrued from playing the good ol' boy and try going crazy for a while, even if audiences just wanted him to remain their bastion of small-town common sense. He was definitely that too—and he did it better than almost anyone else—but like his many characters, we'd be wise to remember today while honoring him that Andy Griffith was much smarter and capable of surprise than a lot of people ever gave him credit. Then again, that's exactly how he snuck up on 'em.

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