Friday, July 6, 2012

Andy Griffith and the road not taken

Andy Griffith died on July 3, admired by almost every one of his fellow North Carolinians – myself included.

But a big part of him died on Oct. 3, 1960.

That was the day “The Andy Griffith Show” aired for the first time. A down-home star whose popularity would endure for more than half a century was born. And a potentially terrific actor, one who could have played memorable movie roles for the next 40 years, passed away.

Those two nouns, “star” and “actor,” have usually been incompatible since the first cameras cranked. Very few people have boosted the box office while giving diverse, vital performances throughout their careers: Lon Chaney, James Stewart, Meryl Streep, maybe Bette Davis, a handful of others.

Most actors have their destinies determined for them by looks or strength of personality: Dustin Hoffman was meant to be an actor, John Wayne a star. (Wayne was ideal in a dozen movies, playing variations on the one memorable character he mastered.)

A few get to choose. When John Gielgud directed an acclaimed stage version of “Hamlet” in 1964, he asked Richard Burton (who took the title role) whether he intended to become a serious actor or a star. “Both,” Burton replied, though he could never pull that off.

Andy Griffith had the same choice in 1960, and he boarded the Fame Train.

He had been acclaimed for his performance as Lonesome Rhodes in “A Face in the Crowd”; Rhodes is a folksy bum whose charming way with a wisecrack and a guitar makes him a hero in the dawn of national television, but he’s also a paranoid egomaniac who wants to be a political kingmaker. (This angry film, directed by Elia Kazan as a caution against the ways TV can affect elections, remains trenchant today.)

Griffith had also earned two Tony nominations. The first was for a broad 1955 comedy, “No Time for Sergeants,” where he played a country bumpkin too dumb to realize he’s driving his superiors crazy. (It inspired “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”) The second was for singing in a 1959 musical, the underrated “Destry Rides Again.” There he played the role James Stewart created in the 1939 movie, a straight-arrow deputy who is smarter than he looks and cleans up a crooked frontier town.

Then, by chance, Griffith appeared in episode 20 of the seventh season of “The Danny Thomas Show.” That episode featured Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor, who gave Danny a ticket for running a stop sign as he drove from New York to Florida. Ron Howard was Taylor’s son, and character actress Frances Bavier played a woman named Henrietta Perkins.

Viewers took to Andy, so CBS gave him his own show that fall, with Howard returning as Opie and Bavier promoted to the role of Aunt Bee. Eight years later, Griffith had been set in stone in American culture, forever delineated as one of our favorite folksy fathers.

Many performers in the ’50s and ’60s had to choose between testing themselves as actors and becoming famous, limited TV personalities. Clint Eastwood and Rod Steiger, busy on TV in their early years, ended up in the first group. Oscar nominees Telly Savalas, Robert Stack and Donna Reed gravitated toward the second, and so did Griffith.

Not that he wouldn’t play around with his image. He starred as the disturbed father in a TV version of Luigi Pirandello’s odd play “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” He earned his only Primetime Emmy (supporting actor, miniseries or movie) in the 1981 TV film “Murder in Texas,” as the father of a murder victim. He was cast as villains, from the unfeeling judge in “Crime of Innocence” to the guy committing “Murder in Coweta County.”

But his film career became insignificant after 1960. He had supporting roles in only two other worthwhile pictures: the 1975 “Hearts of the West,” as the crusty old western actor who warmed up to would-be writer Jeff Bridges, and the 2007 “Waitress,” as the crusty old owner of a diner who warmed up to would-be pie maker Keri Russell.

So he is remembered in death as dignified, wise, amiable Sheriff Taylor and the dignified, wise, less amiable attorney Ben Matlock, who won murder cases from 1986 to 1995 in the TV show that bore his name.

You need a strong screen personality to create two long-running characters, and Griffith had that. You must also commit nearly two decades of your life to building that kind of reputation – while thinking, perhaps, about all the other things you might have done.


Anonymous said...

Very good article. Thanks.

TV Theme Song said...

T.V. Shows and Actors come and go,but Mr.Griffith gave us such memerable people to love and laugh with .I would have been proud to call him Pa or have him defend me as he did so well on Matlock. From the first episode I said I wanted to live in Mayberry,I dont think anyone can watch that show and not say they wish they could live there even for a little while.A place where you felt safe and yet Pa always made sure youylearned your lesson but always with love . R.I.P. Kind Sir.

Anonymous said...

Excellent commentary. You're right that Griffith was an underrated actor who gave up movies for TV, a choice he had to make in that day. But the world would be a darker place without Andy Taylor and Barney Fife.