June 1, 1926 – July 3, 2012
He was Will Stockdale, Onionhead and Lonesome Rhodes in movies before gaining his greatest fame on TV first as Sheriff Andy Taylor and much later as wily lawyer Ben Matlock. But to folks in North Carolina he was just Andy, a guy who was one of us — only a lot more talented.
Andy Griffith, a Tar Heel icon who brought fame to our state in the early 1960s by creating fictional Mayberry, N.C. on the immensely popular “Andy Griffith Show” died Tuesday at his longtime home in Dare County at age 86. He was without doubt the most popular and versatile entertainer in North Carolina history. He leaves behind a remarkable career that encompasses nearly every aspect of show business imaginable.
In fact, perhaps the most surprising fact is that Griffith never won Oscar, Emmy or Tony awards for acting throughout decades of noteworthy and often stunning performances in comedies and dramas via films, TV and on the stage.
Born and raised in Mount Airy, Griffith’s Depression-era beginnings in the mill community were humble indeed. And while many years later he made peace with his hometown, for years he spoke bitterly of his tough upbringing in the Surry County community. He always denied that the idyll town of Mayberry he created for CBS in 1960 was based on Mount Airy.
Griffith was drawn to show business early on, first as a musician and singer. He played the trombone at a Mount Airy Moravian Church and was encouraged to sing by a minister there. Later he won a scholarship to the University of North Carolina, where he majored in music. During his time at UNC, he ventured into Burlington, where he served as a part-time director of the children’s choir at what was then the First Christian Church on the corner of Church and Davis streets.
After graduating in 1949, Griffith remained tied to North Carolina, moving to Goldsboro, where he worked as a school teacher. That left summers free for Griffith to continue to pursue a career in entertainment as a cast member for the outdoor drama, “The Lost Colony.” Griffith also created a musical act and toured small clubs on weekends with his then-spouse Barbara.
Griffith’s big break came when he wrote an off-the-cuff comic monologue about a country bumpkin witnessing a football game for the first time. “What It Was Was Football” launched his period as a comic and led to a recording contract and appearances on network television. Not long after, he tried out for and the won the part of hillbilly Will Stockdale who is drafted into the Army. “No Time for Sergeants” put Griffith on Broadway and into movies. His most stunning film performance came in 1957 as Lonesome Rhodes in “A Face in the Crowd.” The character, an unrepentant reprobate who becomes a sullen and cynical radio and TV star, was diametrically opposed to the genial and likeable country folk Griffith had largely portrayed until that time.
In 1960, Griffith endeared himself to the TV watching nation — and North Carolinians especially — with the debut of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Griffith created a fun-loving but imminently reliable sheriff who used common sense and not force (he carried no gun after all) to establish law and order in the peaceful Tar Heel town of Mayberry. He surrounded himself with a talented cast who in turn created characters of comedic genius. The show helped start and establish the estimable careers of Don Knotts, Jim Nabors and Ron Howard while spending eight straight seasons among the Top 10 highest rated shows on TV. The 249 episodes have been a TV staple for a half-century in reruns. Locally, it has aired on Greensboro’s WFMY at precisely 5:30 p.m. for longer than anyone cares to remember.
In the 1980s, Griffith overcame personal tragedy (the death of his son to a drug-related problem) and illness (Guillain-Barre syndrome) to create the character Ben Matlock, a Southern lawyer who was both smart and funny. “Matlock” was among the most watched shows on television from 1986 to 1995 and like “The Andy Griffith Show” remains popular in reruns. Often episodes were filmed in North Carolina — usually at locations from Wilmington to Topsail Island.
Throughout his career, Griffith never strayed far from his North Carolina roots and retired to the beaches of Dare County, where he sometimes involved himself in state politics. The biggest favor he did for his home state was making it famous as well as himself. When “The Andy Griffith Show” first aired, most TV shows were set in either New York or California.
Thanks Andy, you made it cool to be a Tar Heel.