Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Just a Good-hearted Kind of Guy

The main title sequence from Matlock

I was sorry to hear that American actor Andy Griffith died this morning at his home in Dare County, North Carolina. He was 86 years old.

My earliest memories of Griffith, of course, are from his 1960-1968 CBS-TV series, The Andy Griffith Show, in which he played a small-town sheriff, Andy Taylor, who worked with a perpetually bungling deputy named Barney Fife (Don Knotts) in fictional Mayberry, North Carolina. (Griffith had evidently filled a similar role in an episode of Danny Thomas’ Make Room for Daddy, and impressed both audiences and TV execs with his performance.) When I was but a wee lad, I learned to whistle the theme from that series, titled “The Fishin’ Hole,” the music having been composed by Earle Hagen (whose credits also include the classic Harlem Nocturne and, incredibly, the theme from The Mod Squad). I was quite a whistler, and still am, and I used to roll out that memorably bouncy melody every morning as I
walked the quarter-mile to the corner where my school bus stopped.

(Right) The opening and closing from The Andy Griffith Show

It was as an adult, though, that I really came to appreciate Griffith’s acting. Following a succession of less-than-successful TV efforts (in The New Andy Griffith Show (1971), Salvage 1 (1979), and other shows), and a bout with Guillain–Barré syndrome, he returned to television in the legal drama Matlock (1986–1995), playing Ben Matlock, a thriving defense attorney in Atlanta, Georgia, whose countrified manners and Southern drawl served to mask--at least initially--his remarkable legal and investigative skills. I followed that series most closely during its first year, when the lovely Linda Purl co-starred as Matlock’s co-counsel and daughter Charlene, and Kene Holliday served as his on-call private investigator, Tyler Hudson. Although my loyalty to the program waned in later years, as the series moved from NBC to ABC and other cast members were added, whenever I did catch an episode of Matlock, I couldn’t help but appreciate Griffith’s seemingly effortless talents as an actor. He said at least once that Ben Matlock was his favorite role.

Dennis Rogers of Raleigh, North Carolina’s News & Observer has a piece in his newspaper this morning, and its ending will do well as an end to my own obituary here. He writes:
[In 2005] Griffith was interviewed by Beverly Keel for the online magazine American Profile. In the interview, he talked about the difficulty of life in the shadow of Sheriff Andy Taylor:

“Don’t pay any attention to that, that is a persona,” he said. “I am not any favorite dad; I am not any kind of all-American person. I am just a 79-year-old person. I worship and I am kind of private.

“I have many failings. My son died of an overdose when he was 36. I was not a good father to him. So I have failed in many ways. I am a man, like any other man.”

Andy Griffith never won an Oscar, an Emmy or a Tony for his acting. But then, around here we never thought of him as an actor. He was just our friend and neighbor and we were so proud of him we couldn’t hardly stand it.

And if the rest of the world happened to tune in to his popular shows and just happened to assume folks in North Carolina were anywhere near as good-hearted as Andy Taylor, Ben Matlock or the good people of Mayberry, well, that was OK with us, too.
Good-bye, Andy. I’ll be whistlin’ like a fool in your honor today.

“The Fishin’ Hole,” with lyrics sung by Andy Griffith himself

READ MORE:Mayberry Was Fine, but A Face in the Crowd Was Special,” by Mark Lacter (L.A. Observed); “Andy Griffith: Last of the Good Guy Sheriffs,” by Mary McNamara (Los Angeles Times); “Griffith’s Tough Second Acts,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Limbo); “The Andy Griffith/Hawaii Five-O/007 Mash-up” (The HMSS Weblog); “Sheriff Who Gave Stature to Small-Town Smarts,” by Neil Genzlinger (The New York Times); “Andy Griffith,” by Tony Figueroa (TV Confidential); “Andy Griffith (1926-2012),” by Ivan G. Shreve Jr. (Radio Spirits); “Andy Griffith Died of a Heart Attack, Death Certificate Says,” by Patrick Kevin Day (Los Angeles Times); “Some Andy Griffith Films,” by Terence Towles Canote (A Shroud of Thoughts); “Our Town: Andy Griffith and the Humor of Mourning,” by Evan Smith Rakoff (Los Angeles Review of Books).


Winifred said...

We've had the odd showing of Matlock here in the UK & I liked it. I don't remember seeing the Andy Griffiths show. Was that Ronny Howard the Ron Howard from Happy Days? Looks like him.

Andy Griffiths just looked like a nice bloke the kind that we don't see in dramas now. Shame! Sad to see him go.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Yes, Winifred, Ronny Howard went on to portray a 1950s student of "cool" in Happy Days.