NEW YORK — Through his decades'-long career, Andy Griffith was beloved, yet somehow taken for granted. He early on gained immortality as Sheriff Andy Taylor. But his skill at playing cornpone decency blinded fans to his ability to master other roles.
It simply seemed that, as a denizen of make-believe Mayberry, N.C., Griffith, with his wide grin and gentle drawl, wasn't acting, but instead a natural. (Note that Griffith was overlooked for so much as an Emmy nomination for "The Andy Griffith Show," while his comical co-star, Don Knotts, bagged five trophies as Deputy Barney Fife.)
Sure, being Andy Taylor would've been plenty. But for Griffith, who died Tuesday at age 86, there was more to the act.
As a reference point in understanding Griffith's range, there's no better place to start than with his first film, "A Face in the Crowd." Released in 1957, it would be notable for just the other names attached: director Eliza Kazan, writer Budd Schulberg, co-stars Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau and Lee Remick. But the film belongs to Griffith as Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, a drifter who becomes a power-mad media star with an evangelical streak. The film is a pioneering exploration of the corrupting influence of television in the wrong hands, and Griffith is riveting as a ruthless TV guru.
A year later, Griffith showed his stuff as a comic actor in "No Time for Sergeants." In this hit film, he reprises his role from the Broadway play as Will Stockdale, a country lad whose simple-mindedness is matched by his eternal good cheer. No wonder he turns the military upside down when he is drafted into the Air Force. Griffith is able to keep the performance riotously broad, yet believable and appealing. He proudly demonstrates his ability to read by struggling through a children's book: "Once they was a boy named Tony, who wanted a pony. So he went to his mama and sayed, 'May I have a pony?' And his Mama says, 'Naw, Tony, you may not have a pony.' " Hearing him, you laugh but also share his pride at plowing through it. And then there's the scene where, overeager as ever, Will rigs up the toilets in the latrine to respectfully "salute" the officers.
The success of "Sergeants" helped pave the way for Griffith's hit sitcom (as well as inspiring a spinoff, "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C."). Serving as a pilot for his prospective new series was an episode of a popular comedy, "The Danny Thomas Show," in which Thomas' character was stopped for speeding in a small town where Andy Taylor was not only the sheriff, but also justice of the peace and editor of the paper. Playing bumpkin-boss to the hilt, Griffith was an ideal foil for the city slicker Thomas, whose condescending attitude finally got him thrown in the clink. The episode was a success, and a few months later, in October 1960, "The Andy Griffith Show" premiered. In that series' early episodes, Griffith's sheriff retained its clownishness. But soon, he realized he was surrounded by comic giants (particularly Knotts), so Andy Taylor claimed his role of down-home dignity amid his eccentric fellow residents. Sheriff Taylor still carried the show, but you couldn't really tell — it rested light as a feather on Griffith's shoulders.
"Hearts of the West" is an amusing, if largely forgotten, comedy released in 1975 and starring a baby-faced Jeff Bridges as a 1930s writer of Wild West novels who heads to Hollywood, where he's cast in B-movie westerns. In a supporting cast that also includes Blythe Danner and Alan Arkin, Griffith plays Billy Pueblo, a crusty actor in a performance with as much grit as charm.
"Matlock," which ran nine years starting in 1986, was a pleasant, prolonged postscript to "The Andy Griffith Show" in the form of a light-hearted formulaic drama. A Southern lawyer instead of a Southern lawman, Matlock, with his slower gait and head of silver hair, could have been Andy Taylor at a later stage of life. Set in Atlanta, there was no sense of community on the show, as there was with mythical Mayberry, but Matlock, as a steadfast individual, embodied the same upright values and sense of order that helped make Sheriff Taylor so endearing. Matlock was a reassuring figure for viewers to visit, and Griffith made him that way.
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