Our Town: Andy Griffith and the Humor of Mourning
By Evan Smith RakoffApril 20, 2013
THREE DOLLARS GARNERS ADMISSION to the Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy, North Carolina. The unadorned brick building opened in 2009 on a bluff across from the Andy Griffith Playhouse, with a ribbon cutting held on the 20th anniversary of Mayberry Days, the town’s annual celebration of The Andy Griffith Show. Mount Airy, located in North Carolina’s northwestern Piedmont, near the Virginia line, is where Andy grew up poor and ambitious, and its people claim inspiration for the fictional town at his eponymous show’s center. Andy steadfastly refuted this common belief, and attended Mayberry Days only once, five years earlier in 2004, in his second official Mount Airy public appearance since 1957, back when the town held an “Andy Griffith Appreciation Day” (the same year my mother, the teenage Betty Jean Simmons, rode with other contestants of the Miss Mount Airy Beauty Pageant in a convertible driven by my Dad, Bobby Lee Smith). Like Andy, at birth, my parents had each been given a nickname as their legal name, and despite education and accomplishment, shared a nagging embarrassment at the class implications — Andy instead of Andrew, Bobby rather than Robert, Betty instead of Elizabeth. My parents used initials in lieu of full names in the thin phonebook of the North Carolina town we settled. Andy corrected people who made the mistake — although not the producers of the television show Biography, who in their 1997 gloss of Andy Griffith’s life and career, get it wrong, naming him Andrew Samuel Griffith. His most famous character was named Andrew Jackson Taylor. The man was Andy.
In 2004, a bronze statue was dedicated in Mount Airy, picturing a scene from The Andy Griffith Show’s opening: Sheriff Andy Taylor holding hands with his son Opie, fishing poles resting on shoulders. (The statues are only slightly larger than life — visitors pose with arms around them, pat their backs, place hands on heads.) The ceremony took place outside the Andy Griffith Playhouse, and the then 78-year-old actor smiled determinedly, and gave an informative and lighthearted speech touching on the history of the show, emphasizing the diverse backgrounds of its makers, and politely avoided renouncing the town’s claims by punctuating the speech with references to Mount Airy as “where the show was born,” meaning, where he was born. Griffith pointed out a tall man named Jim Clark in the crowd, a fan who has written several books about the show, and founded the decades-old The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club, which has chapters scattershot across America and in 14 other countries, including United Arab Emirates, Greece, Austria, and Thailand. Griffith told the crowd if anyone had any questions, Jim was the person to ask. Andy didn’t say aloud, “Please don’t approach me about this over-40-year-old sitcom,” but it was understood. Andy ended with a full-voiced rendition of “Mayberry Union High” (a haunting two-verse fight song written for the “Class Reunion” episode in the third season), and promptly left.
The statue in Mount Airy is a replica of one unveiled seven months earlier at another ceremony in North Carolina’s state capital, Raleigh, presented by the cable network TV Land. Mount Airy kicked up such a fuss that TV Land gave them a statue too.
The little town of Mount Airy, situated in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, counts tourism its second largest industry (behind agriculture), with the force of visitors climbing steadily in the years since Mayberry Days launched, and arriving in record numbers in the months after Andy Griffith was buried in the sandy loam outside his 60-acre home in Manteo, North Carolina, over 300 miles away from his birthplace, in July 2012. Travelers to Mount Airy are welcome to stay in the humble mill-hand ranch house where Andy lived as a child — it’s now a bed and breakfast. There are numerous other businesses with either a connection to the show, or fashioned as tribute, including the original Snappy Lunch, a Floyd’s Barber Shop, a Bluebird Diner, a faithfully replicated Mayberry courthouse interior — with dual jail cells, and a candlestick phone on which fans pretend to speak with Sarah, Mayberry’s lone operator — and a Wally’s Service Station, where a mini-fleet of Ford Galaxie 500s painted to look like a Mayberry squad car provide round-the-clock tours.
In 1818, when Keats and his friend Brown visited the birthplace of Robert Burns — a thatch-roofed cottage that Burns’s tenant-farmer father had shaped out of Scottish clay — it was already a shrine with a resident tour guide. Keats described the person in a letter, saying:
The Man at the Cottage was a great Bore with his Anecdotes — I hate the rascal — his Life consists in fuz, fuzzy, fuzziest — He drinks glasses five for the Quarter and twelve for the hour — he is a mahogany-faced old Jackass who knew Burns — He ought to have been kicked for having spoken to him.
In Andy’s case, the curator of his museum was Emmett Forrest, a lifelong friend raised in the same south-end section of town, near the factories, where Andy was called “white trash” as a child. Elia Kazan used this gnawing hurt to draw a performance out of Griffith during the filming of A Face in the Crowd (1957). According to Gilbert Millstein, who profiled Andy Griffith for The New York Times Magazine in 1957, Kazan would growl in a low voice “white trash” at Andy just before rolling camera, and as J.W. Williamson put it in his book, Hillbillyland, “the fury of the outsider would rise in the actor like Lucifer in starlight.” Griffith told Millstein he was so troubled by his immersion in the character he played in A Face in the Crowd — the everyman entertainer turned megalomaniac Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes — that he and his first wife Barbara almost quit show business. Instead, they left New York City, vacating an Upper East Side apartment for the newly-bought home in Manteo. Manteo was where he and Barbara had starred a decade earlier in a “symphonic outdoor drama,” The Lost Colony, commemorating the history of the first English colonists on Roanoke Island. (The Lost Colony is still running; this year is its 76th season.)
Andy gave his friend Emmett memorabilia over the course of the last several decades, understanding Emmett wouldn’t sell any of it, and would eventually find an appropriate showcase for the keepsakes of Griffith’s long career, such as the keys to the Mayberry jail, and Otis Campbell’s suit. Working with the Surry County Arts Council, Emmett Forrest saw a permanent home for the collection past its infancy, visiting the remembrances often until his death in January 2013.
Once a month, or more, Betty Lynn frequents the museum, the actress who played Barney’s girlfriend Thelma Lou in the show’s first five seasons — signed 8x10 headshots cost 10 bucks. At the encouragement of other cast members, Lynn first visited North Carolina to attend Mayberry Days in 2001. Lynn had lived in the same West Hollywood three-bedroom home since 1950, but moved into a Mount Airy retirement community in 2007. After years of speaking to devotees of The Andy Griffith Show, Lynn believes a central reason fans love the show is because they wished Andy was their father — she hears this again and again, especially from men. Sheriff Andy Taylor was a surrogate for fathers who were absent, remote, or brutal.
John Keats arrived in Ayrshire 22 years after Robert Burns’s early death in 1796. Unlike Keats, Burns was a sensation immediately after his first book appeared, the Kilmarnock edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, which he published to finance an escape to the West Indies, intending to leave Scotland behind, along with the travails of a young family or two (he’d just fathered three babies with two women, and his father-in-law wanted him arrested). His literary success was lasting, but he never fully escaped debt in his short life, in part because he never stopped making babies — the last, Maxwell, born the day he was buried. This poverty, combined with his ecstatic elevation of vernacular and folk song, and persona — the melancholy temper, the good looks, the many loves, and his tragic early death — helped the adoration of Burns reach cult level. After Burns died, his friends began an annual birthday supper to toast the man on his birthday, January 25, and the tradition continues today, around the globe. There are memorials to Burns in six countries on three continents, mostly bronze statues. A coterie of late-19th century Atlanta businessmen replicated Burns Cottage to house their lodge meetings, a rite of American success in a church of Scottish poverty. In 1956 the Soviet Union issued a postage stamp featuring the Ayrshire ploughman — the Soviets considered Burns a poet of the people.
These two men, Burns and Griffith, worked in entirely different forms, centuries apart, yet there are similarities between them — poverty, class resentment, love of song and of folk music; both suffered overwhelming passions and had furiously dedicated friends; each proudly displayed the poetry of their vernaculars and elevated the common man to icon. Is Andy Griffith our Robert Burns? One should argue Whitman or Poe, or even Frost, makes for a richer comparison. Certainly self-invented Whitman, who loved Burns, is the triumphant American version — yet the Whitman house in Camden, New Jersey, receives scant visitors. The same is true for Poe’s tidy home in Baltimore, now temporarily closed for lack of community support; and poor Frost’s New Hampshire farmhouse was vandalized and set aflame by a horde of drunken teenagers, who literally pissed on his stuff. Maybe these aren’t fair comparisons. But in the second half of the 20th century, television is popular culture. Perhaps whatever impulse propelled Keats in the 19th century — and Clark Gable, Irving Berlin, Joe Louis, and the Prince of Wales over a century later — to make a pilgrimage to the simple birthplace of poet Robert Burns, propels people to commune with the spirit of Andy Griffith in Mount Airy. The city earned over $100 million last year because people want to witness the place where this man came into being, and as any casual observer can discern from fans talking on the candlestick courthouse phone, they desire to exist inside his fiction. Emerson, intending the highest compliment, wrote of the demotic appeal of Robert Burns, “The people who care nothing for literature and poetry care for Burns.” Many people, who care nothing for the sheen of Hollywood, care for Andy Griffith.
Mrs. Gedge tells Mr. Gedge in the Henry James story, “The Birthplace,” as she and her husband prepare to assume the caretaking of the murkily historic home of an unnamed master author (referred to as the reverential “Him,” and suggesting Shakespeare):
[W]e know the difference between realities and shams. We hold to reality, and that gives us common sense, which the vulgar have less than anything, and which yet must be wanted there, after all, as well as anywhere else.
To succeed at his job, Mr. Gedge must embellish the miniscule facts of the esteemed writer’s life for the entertainment of the travelers who journey there, pay the fee, and bear witness. Julia Thomas explains in her book Shakespeare’s Shrine how the Bard’s home in Stratford was largely constructed within the imagination of 19th-century Victorians, frothing with national identity and nostalgia. The home was purchased and restored by the English nation beginning in 1847, saving it from the clutches of P.T. Barnum — the house’s only provenance an old wooden sign above a butcher shop stating William Shakespeare was born there.
Barnum has a connection to Mount Airy, as well. The brothers Chang and Eng Bunker, conjoined at birth, and who traveled with Barnum’s circus for many years billed as the Siamese Twins, retired to a large farm there in 1839. They married local women, the Haynes sisters, and raised 22 children. A certain number of the curious came by to see them, Mount Airy’s first brush with tourism.
Mount Airy had its Stratford moment in the early 1990s when the mayor and local businessmen decided to capitalize on the stream of pilgrims wandering in Snappy Lunch and asking after Andy Griffith. In 1990, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, “Among Mount Airy business leaders, such meager attention to what they view as a potential windfall in Mayberry tourism is like watching a river of gold flow out to sea.” The mayor at the time, Maynard Beamer told the paper, “Some of us would like to set up a place and call it Mayberry, maybe between here and the interstate.” Later that year, The Washington Post covered the first Mayberry Days celebration, quoting the Surry Arts Council director Tanya Jackson:
Mount Airy being the inspiration for [Mayberry] felt it would like to do something, anything, in honor of the show and for any Andy Fans who might be making a pilgrimage to The Birthplace.
The corporeal town reimagined as a fiction, the fiction a shadow version of the town — portraits in funhouse mirrors.
Mount Airy is no longer the only town to celebrate The Andy Griffith Show. A few years ago, Westminster, South Carolina, almost 300 miles southwest of Mount Airy, towards Atlanta, began its own Mayberry Days, replete with antique replica Mayberry Sherriff’s cars, and actors portraying characters from the show, on parade.
The evening of September 23, 2012, during the “In Memoriam” section of the Primetime Emmy Awards telecast, we witnessed an industrial acknowledgement of the importance of Andy Griffith, who passed away less than three months prior. In the planning of the broadcast, there was contention over how many seconds of screen time to dedicate to the actor, with dozens of other well-respected recently dead to celebrate, including Harry Morgan, Dick Clark, Don Cornelius, Phyllis Diller, Sherman Hemsley, Celeste Holm, Ben Gazzara, Ernest Borgnine, Mike Wallace, and Andy Rooney, among others. In a tightly run awards show — banter, description, winning announcements, 13-pound statues of metal placed in the hands of the living — these things demand attention. The clock is ticking. The Andy Griffith Show opening animated on the giant screen above center stage. Ron Howard walked slowly from upstage surrounded by giant electronic displays of Andy Griffith, approached the microphone, and spoke for a full one minute and 27 seconds, over 120 words, among them:
I was able to grow up professionally in that collaborative, fun, but hard-working environment that was defined by Andy’s tastes, his creative energy, his unwavering respect for the audience, and the unique possibilities that he believed our show could offer. Andy’s legacy of excellence, accessibility, and range, puts him in the Pantheon.
Not the pantheon of great actors, or pantheon of shows, simply, the “Pantheon” — all the gods of a people. Howard then introduced the traditional “In Memoriam” montage, (which did not include the other Andy Griffith Show star who died in 2012, George “Goober” Lindsay). The statement this tribute made was profound, like an ornamental gated plot at a cemetery — here was a remarkable man deserving of exceptional appreciation.
In stark contrast to the Emmys, during the three-minute “In Memoriam” segment of the Academy Awards broadcast February 24, 2013, Andy Griffith was conspicuously absent. The 85th Oscars were mired by several controversies, ranging from criticism leveled at its makers for an excess amount of Broadway-style song and dance numbers, organized protest of the adolescent humor of host Seth MacFarlane, to outrage over an unfunny and ill-conceived comment about a child actor posted on Twitter, then deleted, by the satirical newspaper The Onion (its publisher later publically apologized). Yet the perceived snub of Andy Griffith was reported in several major news outlets the following day, including The New York Times, Slate, the New York Daily News, Huffington Post, and CNN. Other deceased actors were left out of the memorial montage, but it was Andy Griffith’s name used in almost every headline, accompanied by an unsmiling photo. The outrage was widespread online — social media, blogs, comments sections of news outlets, wherever people now express themselves. One YouTube user shakily captured the memorial segment with a hand-held camera, as it appeared on his TV, then posted the footage without comment and the spare title, “Andy Griffith Missing.” Griffith appeared in 11 feature films, the more critically acclaimed were Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress (2007), and Howard Zieff’s Hearts of the West (1975), but most of all, the anger was for not acknowledging Griffith’s starring role in Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd. Film and television director Peyton Reed was still sore about it the next day when he wrote via Twitter: “It was a bummer not seeing the great Andy Griffith in the ‘In Memoriam’ tribute last night. A FACE IN THE CROWD is in my all-time top ten.” That week, to show its disdain for the Academy’s omission, NBC affiliate WKYC-TV in Cleveland broadcast a 1992 Matlock movie, preempting two-hours of contemporary programming, the sitcoms The Office, 1600 Penn, and the drama Law & Order SVU.
On the morning of July 3, 2012, after the news arrived that Andy Griffith had died at his home in coastal North Carolina, I thought about sharing my enthusiasm for The Andy Griffith Show with my children — the happy moments we’ve enjoyed watching together — after discovering its eight seasons streaming on Netflix. I wanted to leave my office and spend the remainder of the day sitting by the river, which I couldn’t actually do and keep my job. So there I sat in a mesh office chair instead, sending out some messages on Twitter, reading the flickering remembrances of others, including Emily Spivey, a TV comedy writer from my hometown, and watching clips.
Twitter divides our attention, perhaps, but it also allows us to collectively mourn, immediately — sending lightning fast, entirely impermanent notes of condolence — to no one and everyone — into the ether. The stages of grief online are a quick and immediate flurry. It happens often, as our cultural heroes age and die. When they’ve lived past 80, as Andy Griffith did, we typically celebrate their contributions, mark full lives, rather than truly mourn with accompanying tears and sadness. Eighty-six is a less tragic number, than Burns’s 37. Yet there I was, headphones wrapped around my head, facing the reflective screen of my giant iMac, on a high floor in lower Manhattan, shedding real tears for a man I never met, an actor. (And being of Southern stock, and of a certain age, I’d last cried in public in 2002, in an empty corridor of the emergency vet clinic after my elderly dog died.)
In the following days, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a young man named Sam Cook-Parrott gathered a group of musician friends and set down for eternity a lo-fi pop-punk tribute called “Andy Griffith.” It’s a catchy song, with a simple, infectious, wailing melody. Cook-Parrott calls his band Radiator Hospital, and its six-minute EP, Some Distant Moon, was released on November 2, 2012. Sam wrote, “The song is about when the deaths of cultural figures/childhood idols affect you more than the actual relationships you have with people in your life.” It’s a remarkable song on its own, but is also the first recorded musical acknowledgment of the death of Andy Griffith — created by someone who graduated high school in 2009, who wrote on his blog he’s never been west of Minnesota, or south of Maryland, and until recently, when he moved to Philadelphia, had not been out of Michigan for more than two weeks. “The night Andy Griffith died I just stayed around, I just stayed around.” What Sam Cook-Parrott likely experienced was what I and a host of others felt — real grief.
I don’t know the context of Cook-Parrott’s grief, but as to mine? Betty Lynn is right. Andy Griffith was a surrogate father. Cable arrived in our neck of North Carolina in the 1980s, a few years after my father was killed. My older sister, as a precocious 11-year-old, matched our family’s blood types, and discovered our newly dead father couldn’t have contributed to my DNA. Things in the house got even worse after that.
But on cable, The Andy Griffith Show aired three or four times daily out of stations in Chicago, and Atlanta, in addition to our local CBS station in nearby Greensboro. Toggling between episodes was thrilling, usually lingering on the superior early seasons filmed in black and white, especially those that gave Don Knotts’s character, Deputy Barney Fife, the most screen time. Mom would slam and lock her bedroom door; we could hear her throw open the drawers of her cherrywood nightstand, a metronomic ticking of brass handles answering each push and pull. We’d hear the vial of pills rattle, and Mom loudly counting out the number of Darvon she had left, judging whether there were enough to cause certain death rather than coma. When this happened, I’d turn up the volume of The Andy Griffith Show. Actor Billy Bob Thornton, presenting a TV Land Legend award to The Andy Griffith Show in 2004, said of growing up in Arkansas, “Anytime I was down, I would dream I was in Mayberry.”
When Andy Griffith died I had an almost Pavlovian memory of myself as a lonely child bounding indoors when I heard The Andy Griffith Show’s whistling theme music. It is a curious thing about grief, that mixed in with our sadness is the knowledge of our own mortality, the loss of who we once were. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in the final couplet of “Spring and Fall,” which he composed as a young country priest in Wales, “It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for.” I mourn for the boy who could lose himself in Mayberry — in half hour stints I existed outside of time — braver, lighter.
In a smart New York magazine piece concerning a type of “hysterical nostalgia” at play across the American political landscape, Frank Rich wrote, “Andy Griffith was a genial and gifted character actor, but when he died on Independence Day eve, you’d have thought we’d lost a Founding Father.” And Rich rightly noted how many used the great actor’s death to lament the loss of a simpler time, indicating distaste for our current society by harkening back to the world of The Andy Griffith Show. Newspapers saw not just Andy Griffith passing, but family values, or as Statesman Journal wrote, “a far simpler time.” The Clay-Times Journal hit the existential nail from which this nostalgia hangs: “Andy Griffith left us many memories of small town life.” True, watching (again and again) a television show of an imagined small town gives us pleasant memories. But it isn’t of a small town. It is of an earlier time in our lives, when we watched a show about this imagined small town. And we felt better.
Other publications went further, and listed moral lessons to be drawn from this imaginary place: there were “Lessons Andy Griffith could teach all of us” in The Hazard Herald; The Andalusia Star-News advised, “Now is time to return to moral values of Mayberry.” Inc. magazine ran an article in the days after Andy Griffith’s death, its headline: “Five Leadership Lessons from 1960s Mayberry, N.C.”
Drawing moral lessons is not so unusual. Christian groups have published and circulated Bible lessons based on the show for decades — some freely distributed, others for a price. Stephen Skelton, in Nashville, created, “The Mayberry Bible Study,” in four volumes, which includes clips and entire episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. Methodist minister and Andy Griffith expert Neal Brower, author of Mayberry 101, teaches scripture based on the show, as well as scholarly classes at local community colleges, and an annual lecture at the Mayberry Days festival in Mount Airy. Thomas Harrison, the head of faith-based Media Embassy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, distributes, “Take Me Back to Mayberry.” For $55, plus shipping, one receives a curriculum CD, a demonstration DVD, and 16 full episodes of The Andy Griffith Show.
The attempt to overlay another set of discrete beliefs atop something omnipresent in the popular culture is older than the Bible. It happened with Burns as well. There’s not a political or religious faction in Scotland that didn’t claim the poet its own, with more than an armload of books published over the centuries attempting to parse his religiosity. Burns never claimed a particular religion, though all claimed him. Leading up to the presidential election of 2012, Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign heavily purchased advertising during times The Andy Griffith Show aired across the nation’s 50 largest markets, intending to shore up its conservative base. The strategy failed.
When The Andy Griffith Show aired in 1960, it did perhaps look wistfully back at an earlier time, the 1930s, the decade many of its writers were young men. Still, nostalgia for the loss of a perceived societal innocence was not the only response after July 3. Some suggested The Andy Griffith Show was out-of-pace with the zeitgeist — opaque, blindered. And of course it was. When producer Aaron Ruben was asked in 1999 by the Archive of American Television why there weren’t more black actors on the show, he answered, “Andy wouldn’t have minded. He got along with black people.” Then he spread his arms in a gesture as if creating a magical place, and said, “but it was Never-Never Land.”
Some commenters lumped The Andy Griffith Show together with other Southern-themed shows, such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, or Green Acres. (Fans of the show will collectively emit a sickening moan reading the previous sentence.) The Andy Griffith Show, especially the early seasons, is perhaps the greatest sitcom of all time, not a novelty show. And it isn’t solely because of Andy Griffith. Andy Griffith Show fanatics do not watch Matlock.
These widespread lamentations may have as much to do with change as loss — how we ingest entertainment as well as the type of content being created. Immersive video games dominate how youth spend their free hours, and over half of American homes view movies and TV shows on individual devices — smartphones and tablet computers — rather than a television. Perhaps we are at the end of the cultural moment that began in the 1950s, when families began to gather around a wooden console television, rather than a radio. Maybe Andy Griffith’s death is indeed a line in the sand. What exactly did he create?
The Andy Griffith Show is a situation comedy produced and created in 1960s California by a host of seasoned entertainment veterans, mostly children of immigrants, born and raised in lower Manhattan, or the Bronx, Brooklyn, Chicago, or Buffalo — the northern cities where Jewish immigrants settled after fleeing the pogroms in Russia and Poland. Their skills were honed in radio, theater, vaudeville, and live television, a lion’s share after serving in World War II. Bronx-born Arthur Stander, The Danny Thomas Show writer assigned the pilot, “Danny meets Andy Griffith,” (folded into a season seven episode of The Danny Thomas Show by producer Sheldon Leonard, effectively inventing what became known as the spin-off), began his career before the birth of television, and had written for Fanny Brice’s radio comedy, The Baby Snooks Show. Also from the Bronx, Jack Elinson, whose first job in comedy — after he returned from service in Italy at the close of the war — was writing squibs for Walter Winchell’s syndicated newspaper column.
The show’s genesis took place, when, in 1960, at the urging of the William Morris Agency, who represented Andy Griffith — then starring on Broadway in Destry Rides Again — producer Sheldon Leonard sat down over a beer and a sandwich at Andy’s favorite Eighth Avenue bar. Leonard had come up with the idea of a small-town sheriff, who also presided over court, and edited the local paper. Andy didn’t like the gimmick, but he liked Sheldon, so said yes, and agreed to fly out to Los Angeles and shoot the pilot.
Sheldon Leonard Bershad was born in New York City, a graduate of Stuyvesant High; most everyone on earth would recognize him as Nick, the swarthy bartender who bounces Jimmy Stewart and his angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life. When The Andy Griffith Show aired later that year, Andy, Sheldon, Danny Thomas (born Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz, in Deerfield, Michigan), and Andy Griffith’s manager, a gruff New Jersey native and former Capitol Records executive named Richard O. Linke, owned a hit television show.
It starred a foursome, supported by a widening circle of rich comedic characters: Aunt Bee was played by an odd, matronly stage actress from New York City, a Columbia graduate, Frances Bavier, who looked and spoke like Eleanor Roosevelt, and despite having the sweetest on-camera role, is the only player anyone remembers as especially menacing; Opie Taylor, Andy’s motherless son, was owned by Ron Howard, who landed the role at five, and is one of the most compelling child actors in history, despite that how he pronounced “Pa” was entirely unique (he pronounced it Paul, but without a Southern drawl) — still, young Ronnie always delivered what was asked, and consequently has made his life’s work entertaining others; West Virginia–born Don Knotts, America’s clown, who joined the Navy out of high school and entertained shipboard with a ventriloquist act; together with North Carolina’s Andy Griffith, who after he made his 1957 screen debut in A Face in the Crowd, was talked about as the next Brando. He wasn’t. By 1960, Andy did not have choice offers for film roles, so thought he’d try his hand at TV.
Griffith arrived in New York City during the first wave of the folk revival in February of 1954, booking his premiere gig at the famed Blue Angel on East 55th Street, a nightclub co-owned by cabaret pioneer Herbert Jacoby, and the Village Vanguard’s Max Gordon. Odetta made her New York debut at the Blue Angel six months before Andy’s two-week stint. Burl Ives immediately followed him. Despite insisting he bombed at the Blue Angel, in 1954 Andy Griffith booked 40 solid weeks in nightclubs.
America has always had a romance with its wild places, frontiers, with the intersections between newborn civilization and ancient chaos. By the 1920s, archivists were traveling mountain road and streambed attempting to document Appalachian folk music and stories before the region was subsumed by rapacious modernity, just as Robert Burns gathered and adapted the old Scots ballads 150 years earlier as Enlightenment innovations revolutionized Scotland, and English culture threatened obliteration. When Burns was a youth, travelogues by Englishmen documenting tours of Scotland were in vogue — the most famous by Samuel Johnson and James Boswell of their 1773 trip together.
Anne and Frank Warner, a New York–based couple, traveled to remote parts of the country collecting songs and handmade musical instruments, starting in the 1930s. (Philco developed the first battery-powered recorder specifically for them.) Frank grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and was a Duke graduate. In the summer of 1938, hunting for a handcrafted dulcimer, he sought out a mountain tobacco farmer and carpenter named Frank Proffitt, who Warner recorded playing and singing a local folk song, “Tom Dooley,” which is a ballad of the 1866 murder of Laura Foster in nearby Wilkes County. The murder, supposedly, was the result of a lover’s triangle in which syphilis was introduced by one of its players. Folk archivist Alan Lomax published the song in 1947. When the Kingston Trio’s version using the same lyrics went number one in 1958, selling six million copies worldwide, topping the charts in the United States and abroad, Frank Proffitt, Lomax, and Anne and Frank Warner sued the Kingston Trio and won, despite earlier recorded versions, (beginning with Grayson and Whitter’s 1929 Victor record by the legendary Ralph Peer). However, when Proffitt first witnessed the pinstriped California-based Kingston Trio perform “Tom Dooley” on the television he’d purchased for his children, he felt ill, rushed outside, stared up at the mountain ridge, and wept. (Proffitt did not sue the filmmakers who slapped together the B-Western The Legend of Tom Dooley, with an entirely invented story, and starring young Michael Landon, the following year.)
Music was a large part of The Andy Griffith Show. Andy kept a banjo and two guitars on stage at all times, and the bluegrass band that Andy and the producers auditioned and made the show’s own, The Dillards, released an original song named “Dooley” in 1963. This was the cultural landscape where The Andy Griffith Show emerged — a folk revival as a reaction to Jet Age innovation.
In 1953, Andy Griffith first reached a national audience with a recording of “What it Was, Was Football,” in which an evangelical on his way to a camp meeting encounters his first college football game. It was locally recorded in North Carolina, and after record executive Hal Cook witnessed a line of people outside a Charlotte, North Carolina, record store waiting to purchase a copy, he quickly bought the masters for Capital Records, signed Andy to a recording contract, and not long after, Dick Linke, Cook’s friend and colleague at Capital became Andy Griffith’s personal manager. Griffith told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he overheard Cook on the phone to New York City explain he’d found a “real Li’l Abner,” referring to the star of the syndicated comic strip born in 1934 that took place in imaginary Dogpatch, Kentucky, and which introduced America to an odd notion of Appalachia — sprung from the head of Al Capp, of New Haven, Connecticut. “I have always resented it,” Griffith told the Journal-Constitution’s Gayle White in 1996. (Cook insisted they were lifelong friends, and Andy performed at Cook’s retirement party in 1974, when Cook stepped down as publisher of Billboard magazine.)
On the recording of “What it Was, Was Football,” Griffith plays the preacher sincere and straight. He sounds just as the Baptist ministers he heard growing up sounded. It’s funny; it’s comedy, there’s juxtaposition and surprise, but it’s not caricature, not garish stereotype. It rings true. (It sold one million copies.) Griffith would maintain this vigilant stance toward comedy throughout his career, and it would prove wildly successful.
The Andy Griffith Show never fell out of the top 10 in the ratings during its first run, and it seems the characters continue to be as real to loyal viewers than flesh and blood. “We never went for something we didn’t believe,” Griffith told Ralph Pearl in a Las Vegas interview in 1969, just after The Andy Griffith Show ended its eight-year run. Pearl was overcome with excitement during the interview, and doesn’t seem to be sure if he’s speaking with Andy Taylor of Mayberry, or Andy Griffith, the gaunt and haggard man on the couch beside him, chain smoking irritably, clearly exhausted from his casino nightclub act. Andy often remarked, “If a joke made a lie out of a character, we’d lose the joke.”
Andy and Don Knotts drove The Andy Griffith Show, with Andy playing straight man to Don’s mania and insecurities. Andy studied Jack Benny — he understood the value of silence and pauses, letting the laughs come. Griffith suppressed his own considerable comedic pyrotechnics, believing the straight man would be more successful in the ecosystem he found himself in 1960. By the second season the main characters had casually dialed back their Southern accents to better reflect how people actually spoke, as laughing at an exaggerated speech pattern is cheap humor.
As an owner of the show, Andy Griffith attended script meetings, gave notes, and helped line producer Aaron Ruben with rewrites. Don Knotts said Andy’s mantra was, “If it sounds like a joke, throw it out.” In interviews in recent times, Mr. Griffith took credit for rewriting scenes with Don Knotts and Aaron Ruben, not claimed in early years, as they didn’t have WGA union cards. However, it was obvious to us watching in North Carolina, the names of places and people existed in our world, the characters were people we knew, or thought we knew, or wanted to know, and we welcomed them in our homes each day. If a proper name didn’t sound believable, Andy would replace it in the script with one from memory. If a character or the way he delivered his lines weren’t authentic, they’d work on it until they got it right. Every detail was worried over, from off-camera characters to the kitchen cupboard. There was a Mrs. Simpson visiting from Greensboro. Mrs. Jessup called the courthouse. Howard Sprague was proud of his mustache. Juanita Beasley worked at the Bluebird Diner. I knew Simpsons, Jessups, and a few Beasleys. My uncle Jim Beasley, a slick-haired salesman who married Aunt Shirley, my mother’s willowy and glamorous older sister, made racist jokes at Thanksgiving and once beat his wife’s face black and blue with her own shoe.
In a 1972 interview, Frances Bavier credited Andy Griffith with making the show what it was — believable — especially to the people of North Carolina, where she moved, sight unseen, that same year. She said Andy didn’t structure the show, but paid attention to everything, and if things weren’t right, he’d help fix it, and pepper in details from his experience. Bavier was reclusive in her last decades, pestered by fans, like my high school girlfriend Lynn, who once put a cigarette out on my arm, and with her friends would sneak up on Bavier’s house late at night, bang on a window, then race away in an ’81 Camaro. On Frances Bavier’s Siler City tombstone, under her given name and the dates she existed on earth, carved in the stone it reads, “Aunt Bee,” and underneath, “To live in the hearts of those left behind is not to die.” A North Carolina couple purchased Bavier’s Studebaker for $20,000 at the estate auction in 1990, a year after Bavier’s death, the profits bequeathed to North Carolina public television; the Studebaker had four flat tires and Bavier’s cats had ruined its interior.
Andy remarked in his Mayberry Days speech in 2004 that the success of The Andy Griffith Show was due in large part to its use of the single camera, shot like a movie, rather than the typical three-camera sitcom taped in front of a studio audience. And this is true. It wouldn’t have been itself otherwise. (A clip survives on YouTube of a 1965 Dick Linke–produced one-hour variety special with Don and Andy singing, dancing, and acting out scenes from The Andy Griffith Show, in uniform, projecting their voices for an audience — if you care to witness a strange sight.) The single camera gave the director the strength and freedom to shift mood and tone on a dime. In a 22-minute show with Don Knotts and Jim Nabors clowning around in the bushes in one scene, it borders on miracle that Bob Sweeney, the director, could position the camera at ceiling height, above Andy’s head, looking down on him as he takes a phone call, and create instant tension. In the episode “High Noon in Mayberry,” a mysterious man Andy had wounded and sent to prison years before arrived in town with unexplained motives, with plans to deliver a gift to Andy. In one scene, Aunt Bee and Opie are at the dinner table, worried and small, in the background. The ex-convict is on his way over. Andy calmly asks Aunt Bee to take Opie over to the neighbor’s for a little while, but there’s a nip in the night air, and he’ll need his corduroy jacket. While Aunt Bee finds the coat and helps Opie button up, speaking with hesitation and natural silences, they have the following exchange:
Opie: Are you scared of the trouble that’s coming?
Andy: What makes you think there’s trouble coming?
Opie: You’re sending Aunt Bee and me over to Miss Clara’s.
Andy: Oh, well, I’ve just got some business to talk over.
Opie: Are you scared, Pa?
Andy: Well, I’m a little nervous.
Opie: Is this you’re first time?
Andy: No, I’ve been scared a whole lot of times.
Opie: Really, Pa? Gosh, you sure couldn’t tell.
This is comedic, and yet dramatic, touching, and the tension is maintained. Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell wrote “High Noon in Mayberry.” Greenbaum was a World War II Navy pilot, as well as a graduate of MIT and the Sorbonne. When Everett Greenbaum was asked if there was a formula for a successful sitcom, he answered that the problem with formula is once viewers learn the formula, there’s no surprise. In the early seasons of The Andy Griffith Show, Greenbaum and Fritzell created the Darlings, Ernest T. Bass, and Gomer Pyle, and mined aspects of their lives for the show — the episode “Up in Barney’s Room” in which Barney gets in hot water with his landlady, is based on Greenbaum’s time living in a rooming house on 14th Street in Manhattan. The show’s situations weren’t “memories of small town life” as The Clay-Times Journal suggested, or what it means to a North Carolinian, or Southern, but ideas about being human.
Although Danny Thomas remarked, “If he wanted to send a message, he’d go to Western Union,” the show did have a message. It regularly displayed distaste for blind authority and bureaucracy (“Mayberry Goes Bankrupt,” “Andy and the New Mayor”), and class prejudice (“The Clubmen,” “Rafe Hollister Sings”). Frank Rich chose The Twilight Zone’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” episode to contrast with The Andy Griffith Show, and illustrate Mayberry’s social toothlessness, but the Artie Stander–penned episode “A Stranger in Town” illustrates the idiocy of xenophobia as well as Serling ever did, and Serling did it well.
It is of note that a series written by World War II veterans, who fought jack-booted fascism, would create Barney, who loves his uniform, his shiny bullet, his authority, and the letter of the law far too much, and we laugh at him. He’s hilarious. Keeping Barney in check, we have our hero, Andy Taylor, a man who cares for his neighbors and disdains power over others. When Andy leaves town Barney puts the entire community in jail. When Andy returns he sets them free. Humanism triumphs over authority.
My eight-year-old son’s favorite episode is “Opie and the Bully.” When it aired in 1961, the writer credited was David Adler. David Adler was the name used by Brooklyn-born Oscar-winning screenwriter Frank Tarloff, who wrote nine episodes for Andy Griffith. Tarloff was an uncooperative witness when called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, at the height of McCarthyism — Tarloff refused to name names. He was immediately fired from his job as a writer on the NBC sitcom I Married Joan, dropped from his talent agency, and blacklisted. Frank Tarloff knew something of bullies. (Spoiler: Opie wins, and each time this happens, my son jumps up and shouts with joy.)
The sole writer from North Carolina of the 44 freelancers who scripted The Andy Griffith Show was Harvey Bullock, a Duke graduate who spent World War II aboard a naval vessel sending fake coded messages intended for the Nazis to intercept. The rest of the writers, almost to a man — and they were indeed all men — were from cities, and roughly two-thirds were Jewish. Of course, fedora-wearing Joseph Mitchell, who chronicled life on the Bowery for The New Yorker, author of Joe Gould’s Secret and Up in the Old Hotel, was a North Carolina farm boy, and is buried there, near Ashpole Swamp in Robeson County. And Harold Hayes, who ran Esquire at its high-water mark, from 1961 to 1973, at the vanguard of New Journalism, a champion of Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Nora Ephron, and many others, was born and raised in Elkin, North Carolina, a mere half-hour drive across the county from Mount Airy, in 1926 — the same year as Andy Griffith. The outsider sometimes sees the heart of a story that locals don’t even recognize as a story.
Andy Griffith’s father ran a band saw for a furniture plant. Andy said, “We didn’t have money, I was no athlete, and I wasn’t a good student. So I was kind of nobody.” As an adolescent lover of swing music seeing Jack Teagarden play trombone in a Bing Crosby picture, and eager to slough off the uncomfortable weight of class prejudice, Andy gave his full attention to learning music (with the help of a Moravian minister who tutored him). Later, through music, Andy Griffith discovered theater at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and ultimately, through performance, shaped a true character, one so rich it’s walked into millions of homes every day for over 50 years. Andy became somebody.
In 1957, Andy and his wife Barbara spoke from their New York City apartment with Edward R. Murrow on his weekly CBS interview show Person to Person. The first thing Murrow asks, in his iconic newsman baritone is, “Well, Andy, as one Tar Heel to another, when do you expect to go home again?” Murrow, too, was raised poor in North Carolina, living as a child in a cabin without plumbing or electricity along the banks of the impossibly named Polecat Creek, outside of Greensboro. There’s a moment just before Andy answers Murrow’s question, when the expression in each of their eyes, Andy’s and Barbara’s, together with Murrow’s, light with the knowledge that Murrow is alluding to North Carolina’s Thomas Wolfe, and his last novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, published posthumously by Scribner in 1940:
You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood […] back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame […] back home to the places in the country […] away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and are looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
Some orbiting subatomic particles of Thomas Wolfe are zooming between them as Andy Griffith answers Murrow with a giant smile, saying he’d just bought a place in Manteo, on Roanoke Island — the same North Carolina acreage where he would die and be buried 55 years later. Manteo is the first location of English settlement in the New World, Sir Walter Raleigh’s failed attempt to bring civilization to the wilderness. For the settlers of Andy’s beloved Lost Colony, the wilderness won.
In Mayberry, Thelma Lou didn’t put a cigarette out on Barney’s arm like my girlfriend did to on mine; Andy Taylor wasn’t embittered or slump-shouldered after a lifetime of ridicule by those with more social status; no Beasley beat his wife half to death with a shoe. Still, Mayberry was a believable universe without these things. Tools of television helped make this true — camera angles, lighting, a disciplined laugh track, extras so far in the background they are almost invisible, along with other aspects I’ve mentioned. But there is one thing about the story that has not been discussed, and it is the thing that gives it gravitas, and why I, and others, watched. Opie’s mother is dead, unaccountably, before the show begins — it’s what sets the fiction in motion. Aunt Bee arrives to keep Opie from growing up wild and sullen — to keep the home from falling apart. The show offers humor as a way to contend with a constant state of grief.
In 1963, Andy Griffith appeared on Bob Hope’s NBC comedy special, invited to lampoon The Andy Griffith Show. In the 10-minute sketch, Hope, as a mafia boss, arrives in Mayberry to create an alibi for a high-profile murder. Hope brings with him a parade of violence, sex, extortion, racketeering, and ill-gotten riches. In the end, all the players, including Andy, are piled dead on the floor, shot in a battle of rival gangs. After a beat, Andy slowly rises, grabs his fishing rod and makes for the door. Bob Hope lifts his head, “Hey, Andy, wait a minute, you’re supposed to be dead. Where ya going?” Andy answers, “Fishing. On my show we always have a happy ending.”
The small town where I grew up in North Carolina was not so unlike Andy Griffith’s hometown of Mount Airy. It was a dry county, churches were prominent; we had a sole high school the community rallied around. Still, in this little idyllic town, the dad next door beat his sons without mercy; a lady down the street shot her drunken husband; a teenager fell into a coma after falling off his skateboard and fracturing his skull; a state trooper’s son, just out of high school, offered all us boys playing kick-the-can a dollar if we’d let him give us blowjobs; the dentist’s son shot himself in the chest; the coroner’s son hung himself; the dad I’d known was long dead, my natural father forever estranged, my mother silent behind her bedroom door, trapped by depression and prescription narcotics. When I heard that famous whistling theme song at 5:30 p.m., I ran inside, knelt on the floor, and turned my face fully toward the screen. I came inside when I was called.
Evan Smith Rakoff is a freelance writer and works at Poets & Writers. His essays and poems have appeared in Slate, The Washington Post, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. A native of North Carolina, he lives in lower Manhattan with his wife, son, and daughter.
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