Andy Griffith: Actor whose folksy appeal captured American hearts

 

The gentle, small-town sheriff in The Andy Griffith Show and the homespun lawyer in Matlock made Andy Griffith one of American television's most enduring stars – and both found their roots in the actor's own life. Raised in Mount Airy at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the north-west corner of North Carolina, Griffith took his country ways and Southern drawl to the folksy character of Andy Taylor, the unflappable widower bringing up a young son while combining roles as sheriff, justice of the peace and newspaper editor in sleepy, turn-of-the-'60s Mayberry.

Griffith negotiated himself a 50 per cent share in The Andy Griffith Show (1960-68) with the producer Sheldon Leonard. Together, they developed the hugely popular series, which finished only when the star decided it was time to leave his character behind – and still regularly topped the viewing figures.

Although featuring country bumpkins, the sitcom never ridiculed these down-home folk in the manner of The Real McCoys and The Beverly Hillbillies, but showed them complete respect. Comedy came from Andy's cousin and deputy sheriff, the lovable but inept Barney Fife (Don Knotts), and, with little crime in the dusty Southern town, the sheriff was left to mosey around, philosophising on life. Untouched by the outside world, where the Cold War and military action in Vietnam were turning the Swinging Sixties into a decade of turmoil during the programme's eight-year run, The Andy Griffith Show remained a throwback to a quieter, simpler time. (Outdoor filming actually took place on a back-lot at Desilu Studios in Culver City, California, close to the 1965 Los Angeles race riots.)

The cast also included Ron Howard – later familiar to television viewers as Richie Cunningham in Happy Days before becoming one of Hollywood's leading film directors – as Andy's son, Opie, and Frances Bavier as their housekeeper, Aunt Bee, who combined baking prize-winning apple pies with dispensing matronly wisdom.

Two decades later Griffith was back on peak-time TV as another rural widower, Ben Matlock, the Harvard-educated, banjo-playing defence attorney whose vague, charming front belied the razor-sharp mind that earned him the $100,000 he charged each of his clients. When not seen in his farmhouse, he was at his office in Atlanta, Georgia, or the courtroom in his trademark grey suit. Matlock even became a popular figure with the fictional cartoon family featured in The Simpsons, once paid homage to in an episode showing the town of Springfield's elderly residents mobbing Griffith and charging him to the ground.

Born in Mount Airy in 1926, Andy Griffith graduated in music from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1949 then taught music at Goldsboro High School. But he went into show business full-time after success on stage with humorous hillbilly monologues. One of the first, "What It Was Was Football", telling the story of a country boy attending his first game, became a popular 1953 record release. This led to television appearances in The Colgate Comedy Hour (1954), The Ed Sullivan Show (1955-60) and The Steve Allen Show (1956-58).

Griffith played the hillbilly private Will Stockdale in Ira Levin's comedy No Time for Sergeants on television ("The United States Steel Hour", 1955) before reprising it in the hit Broadway production (Alvin Theatre, 1955-57), winning him a Theatre World Award and a chance to repeat the role once more in the 1958 film version. He was also nominated for a Best Actor Tony, as he was for his subsequent Broadway performance, in the title role of the Harold Rome musical Destry Rides Again (Imperial Theatre, 1959-60).

Griffith starred in his first film, Elia Kazan's critically acclaimed A Face in the Crowd (1957), as an Arkansas hobo who becomes an overnight television sensation. Then a guest-starring role in The Danny Thomas Show (1960) led to his own sitcom: Sheriff Andy Taylor was seen arresting Danny Williams (Thomas) as the fictional nightclub entertainer drove through a small Southern town. The producer, Sheldon Leonard, worked with Griffith to devise The Andy Griffith Show.

When Griffith felt that the sheriff had no place left to go, he walked out on the programme at its height, with Andy marrying and moving away. By then, one of the supporting cast, Jim Nabors, had already spun off his lovable filling-station attendant into another series, Gomer Pyle.

Griffith ensured that CBS could continue to capitalise on the original by creating a sequel, Mayberry RFD. (1968-71), starring Ken Berry as the gentleman farmer Sam Jones, like Andy a widowed father raising a young boy. Griffith and Don Knotts made occasional guest appearances as their old characters returning to the town.

When he left The Andy Griffith Show, the star told cast and crew at a farewell party: "Well, it's been awfully good. It's been the best eight years of my life. I'll see ya again." Indeed, Andy Taylor and Don Knotts were both back – and both running for sheriff – in Return To Mayberry (1986), the most popular television film in the US that year.

Most surviving cast members were seen together in The Andy Griffith Show Reunion (1993) and The Andy Griffith Show Reunion: Back To Mayberry (2003), reminiscing and presenting their favourite clips, while all 249 episodes of the original series, retitled Andy of Mayberry, continued to be popular in syndication.

Attempts to repeat this success, with The Headmaster (as Andy Thompson, running a school in California, 1970-71), The New Andy Griffith Show (as Andy Sawyer, mayor of a sleepy Southern town, 1971) and Adams of Eagle Lake (as a sheriff in a small ski resort, 1975), failed to capture the public's imagination. But Griffith showed his talent for dramatic roles as President Esker Anderson, the Lyndon Johnson clone, in the series Washington: Behind Closed Doors (1977), Commander Robert Munroe in Roots: The Next Generations (1979) and a man pressing charges against his son-in-law in the TV film Murder in Texas (1981), which earned him an Emmy nomination.

He was back on the big screen as a villain opposite Leslie Nielsen's secret agent in the comedy Spy Hard (1996), taking cameos in films such as Daddy and Them (Billy Bob Thornton's dark comedy, 2001) and Waitress (2006). He also voiced Santa Claus in the animated Christmas Is Here Again (2007). He was inducted into the Country Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1999 for his albums of hymns, one of which won a Grammy. In 2005 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Andy Samuel Griffith, actor: born Mount Airy, North Carolina 1 June 1926; married 1949 Barbara Edwards (divorced 1972; one daughter, one son deceased), 1973 Solica Cassuto (divorced 1981), 1983 Cindi Knight; died Roanoke Island, North Carolina 3 July 2012.

Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices