Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Andy Griffith

Today is a sad day for all of us children of television. Andy Griffith was a giant whose work has influenced generations of talented people both in front of and behind the camera. Details surrounding Andy's cause of death have not been released at this time.

Andy was born Andrew Samuel Griffith in Mount Airy, North Carolina on June 1, 1926. As a student at Mount Airy High School, Griffith cultivated an interest in the arts and participated in the school's drama program. A growing love of music, particularly swing, would change his life. Griffith was raised Baptist and looked up to Ed Mickey, a minister at Grace Moravian Church who led the brass band and taught him to sing and play the trombone. Mickey nurtured Griffith's talent throughout high school until graduation in 1944. Griffith was delighted when he was offered a role in The Lost Colony by Paul Green, a play still performed today on Roanoke Island. He performed as a cast member of the play for several years, playing a variety of roles, until he finally landed the role of Sir Walter Raleigh, the namesake of North Carolina's capital.

He began college studying to be a Moravian preacher, but he changed his major to music and became a part of the school's Carolina Play Makers. He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and graduated with a bachelor of music degree in 1949. At UNC he was president of the UNC Men's Glee Club and a member of the Alpha Rho Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, America's oldest fraternity for men in music. He also played roles in several student operettas including The Chimes of Normandy (1946), and Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers (1945), The Mikado (1948) and H.M.S. Pinafore (1949).

After graduation, he taught English for a few years at Goldsboro High School in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where he taught, among others, Carl Kasell. He also began to write. Griffith's early career was as a monologist delivering long stories such as What it Was, Was Football. This is a story told from the point of view of a rural backwoodsman trying to figure out what was going on in a football game. Released as a single in 1953 on the Colonial label, the monologue was a hit for Griffith, reaching number nine on the charts in 1954.

Griffith starred in a one-hour teleplay version of No Time for Sergeants (March 1955) — a story about a country boy in the United States Air Force — on The United States Steel Hour, a television anthology series. He expanded that role in a full-length theatrical version of the same name (October 1955) on Broadway in New York City, New York. The role earned him a "Distinguished Supporting or Featured Dramatic Actor" nomination at the 1956 Tony Awards, losing to Ed Begley. He did win the 1956 Theatre World Award, however, a prize given for debut roles on Broadway. Another New York stage role was the titular role in the 1957 musical, Destry Rides Again, co-starring Delores Gray. The show, with a score by Harold Rome, ran for more than a year. Griffith was nominated for "Distinguished Musical Actor" at the 1960 Tony Awards, losing to Jackie Gleason.

Griffith later reprised his role for the film version (1958) of No Time for Sergeants that also featured Don Knotts as a corporal in charge of manual-dexterity tests, marking the beginning of a life-long association between Griffith and Knotts.

Beginning in 1960, Griffith starred as Sheriff Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show for the CBS television network. The show took place in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina, where Taylor, a widower, was the sheriff and town sage. The show was filmed at Desilu Studios, with exteriors filmed at Forty Acres in Culver City, CA.

From 1960 to 1965, the show co-starred character actor and comedian — and Griffith's longtime friend — Don Knotts in the role of Deputy Barney Fife, Taylor's best friend and partner. He was also Taylor's cousin in the show. In the series première episode Fife calls Taylor "Cousin Andy", and Taylor calls Fife "Cousin Barney". The show also starred child actor Ron Howard (then known as Ronny Howard), who played Taylor's only child, Opie Taylor.

Griffith learned early on the show would work better if Barney was the comic relief and Andy was straight man. Although Griffith never received a writing credit for the show, he worked on the development of every script. While Knotts was frequently lauded and won multiple Emmy Awards for his comedic performances (as did Frances Bavier in 1967), Griffith was never even nominated for an Emmy Award during the show's run. I guess it’s because the comic relief overshadows the straight man.

I have been more influenced by Andy Griffith than Don Knotts. I, like Andy, work best as a straight man when working with other actors. As a comedian I, like Andy, told stories. But in the world of Mayberry, I identify with Barny. I think there is a lot of Barney in all of us. We may strive to be like Andy Taylor, act like Andy Taylor and may even fool ourselves into thinking that we are Andy Taylor. But we are really Barney Fife, full of good intentions, but with a bullet in our pocket.

There have been many great comedic characters on TV, but many of these comedic characters go to a farcical extreme spitting out predictable punch-lines, one liners and zingers. Some even dropped I.Q. points for the sake of a joke. Andy Griffith felt that the integrity of Mayberry’s citizens was more important than a punch line. The same integrity of the Barney character allowed Don Knotts to play the serious moments as well thus making Barney a more well rounded character and proving that Don Knotts was a good actor.

My favorite Andy moment from The Andy Griffith Show was this.

In 1986, Griffith returned to television as the title character, Ben Matlock, in the legal drama Matlock (1986–1995) on NBC and ABC. Matlock was a country lawyer in Atlanta, Georgia, who was known for his Southern drawl and for always winning his cases. Matlock also starred unfamiliar actors (both of whom were childhood fans of Andy Griffith) Nancy Stafford as Michelle Thomas (1987–1992) and Clarence Gilyard, Jr. as Conrad McMasters (1989–1993). During the series' sixth season, he served as unofficial director, executive producer and writer of the show. Although the show was nominated for four Emmy Awards, Griffith once again was never nominated.


Good Night Andy. Barny is waiting for you at the fishing hole.

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa
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