He was the country boy a country came to love.
For eight years, from the relative calm of the early '60s through the decade's turbulent later years, Andy Griffith— who died today at 86 — sat at or near the top of the ratings with The Andy Griffith Show. One of the rare shows to actually end its run at No. 1, Andy and its star were a calming, home-spun refuge from the social and political struggles raging outside the fictional world of Mayberry.
Vietnam, the sexual revolution and the fight for civil rights would eventually invade TV in the form of All in the Family. But Mayberry was a place apart — a bucolic paradise where elderly aunts dispensed comfort and homemade jam; drunks let themselves in and out of the county jail; and a warm, loving father opened each half-hour by taking his son fishing.
INTERACTIVE: Reactions to Griffith's death on Twitter
VIDEO: Remembering Andy Griffith
Indeed, odds are for many of you, the very name "Andy Griffith" calls to mind that image of Andy and Opie (a young Ron Howard, one of the most adorable children ever to amble across a TV screen) with fishing poles over their shoulders. And not just the image; surely you're also humming that theme song?
Watch a clip of Andy on 'The Andy Griffith Show.'
As Sheriff Andy Taylor, Griffith perfectly embodied one of America's favorite archetypes: the seeming country bumpkin who's actually smarter than anyone around. The difference with Sheriff Taylor was that there was really nothing bumpkinish about him. What marked him as stupid, to those visiting Mayberry from the outside, wasn't the way he behaved or thought, but the way he spoke, that slow, soft drawl peppered with country aphorisms.
The writers often played up that contrast between Andy's soft speech and sharp mind, but never in a mean way — "mean" was not a part of the show's vocabulary. And neither were politics. At a time when the urban North and the rural South often seemed to be two separate but equally angry countries, The Andy Griffith Show was neutral ground, a place were we could all indulge in a little nostalgia for a more leisurely paced life.
MORE: TCM plans tribute
For that, you can thank Griffith, who set the show's gentle, understanding tone. Even his by-the-books, exposed-raw-nerve of a deputy Barney Fife— so brilliantly played by the inimitable Don Knotts— couldn't rile him, and Barney could have riled a saint.
Andy Griffith has highway named after him in 2002.
For Griffith, TheAndy Griffith Show capped a sudden rise to stardom. A little-known actor and comedian, he got his big break in 1955 in No Time for Sergeants, a TV play that became a Broadway hit, a movie and eventually a short-lived TV series (without Griffith). It also inspired a long-running TV series: The Andy Griffith spinoff Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., which reshaped Griffith's original Sergeants role as the sweet, naïve, inept private to fit Jim Nabors.
Griffith put a nastier twist on his rustic act for a well-received turn in Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, his big-screen debut in 1957. And after another stint on Broadway in the 1959 musical Destry Rides Again— a job that proved he could be as pleasant a presence as a singer as an actor — Griffith moved to Mayberry, where he stayed until he, not the network, decided it was time for him to go. He did CBS one last favor, launching the follow-up hit Mayberry R.F.D., and then moved on.
In 2005, President George W. Bush presented Andy Griffith with America's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
A succession of TV movies, and even a few TV series followed. But no matter what role he played, in the public's mind, it seemed, Griffith was fated always to be that openly good-hearted, deceptively smart Southerner he played so well in The Andy Griffith Show. Bowing to the obvious, he went back to type for his second big hit, the murder mystery Matlock— which had a healthy run on NBC before concluding on ABC.
Unlike Andy, Ben Matlock lived in a big city, Atlanta, and only dealt with high-profile murder cases. And unlike Andy Griffith, whose appeal crossed the generations, Matlock's virtues were mostly appreciated by older viewers. But it's only advertisers who think older viewers are somehow less valuable than younger ones; the rest of us are presumably wise enough to know better.
Matlock ended in 1995, and Griffith's appearances became sporadic — in new shows, though not in repeats. But no matter. On many a TV set, and in many a mind's eye, he's still walking to that fishing hole, his beloved son at his side, as that catchy theme whistles in the background. It's an image designed to make even the most cynical among us smile.
And that's a legacy of which any actor can be proud.