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.

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