History will remember him as a wise country sheriff and a charming country lawyer. But as wonderful as he was filling those roles, Andy Griffith was so much more than that. Before he passed away this morning, Griffith built a six-decade career on the persona of a good ol’ country boy sharing down-home wit and wisdom with the masses. His two popular TV series, The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968) and Matlock (1986-1995), brought the actor immense fame and fortune, securing his legacy as one of television’s most enduring and beloved presences.
But his arguably best performance belies that small-screen persona, and to this day surprises fans who are only familiar with Griffith’s extensive television work. In 1957, Griffith made his film debut in Elia Kazan’s searing satirical drama A Face in the Crowd. Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, a folksy country singer discovered by radio reporter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) as he sits in jail after being arrested for public drunkenness. She puts him on the air, where he becomes an immediate hit, and as his popularity grows, Marcia follows along as Rhodes becomes a true media hit. Against her better judgment, Marcia falls in love with Rhodes, whose real personality is coarse, crude, and offensive. But as Rhodes becomes a powerful media figure, influencing elections, consumerism, and public opinion while denouncing his loyal audience as “sheep” in private, Marcia slowly realizes that she has created a monster.
As Rhodes, Griffith is appealing and off-putting by equal measure. Rhodes is not a good person to begin with, but he’s not downright evil (at least initially). It takes the glare of the spotlight and the spoils of celebrity to turn him into a figure to be feared rather than pitied–a man whose desire for fame becomes the driving force of his existence, who is utterly broken when he is finally shunned by the masses. It’s an utterly arresting performance. So ingrained is Griffith’s down-home bonhomie in the pop culture consciousness that seeing A Face in the Crowd for the first time can be something of a jarring experience. It’s a testament to his sheer ability as a performer–an ability that has, throughout Griffith’s career, been almost criminally underrated at times.
In 1958, Griffith began a lifelong professional partnership with Don Knotts when both men appeared in the comedy No Time for Sergeants. Based on the same-titled novel by Mac Hyman, Sergeants started as a one-hour TV movie in 1955 before being turned into a Broadway play later that year. Griffith starred in both of the earlier versions, and reprised his leading role as hapless private Will Stockdale in the film treatment. Sergeants was incredibly successful and cemented Griffith’s stardom. He followed this success, however, with a notorious flop, the 1958 dramedy Onionhead with Walter Matthau, the film that Griffith would later credit as turning him away from the big screen and toward a career in television.
And yes, most of Griffith’s later career successes came on television; not only were The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock two of the most popular series of their respective times, but he also starred in a number of other shows, television movies, and mini-series, for which he continued to garner critical praise and acclaim for decades. Surprisingly, for all his television success, Griffith was only nominated for an Emmy once, for his role in the 1981 TV film Murder in Texas.
Griffith continued acting well into his later years. Though the bulk of his work remained on television, he appeared sporadically in films, perhaps most notably as the villain in the 1996 spy spoof Spy Hard with Leslie Nielsen. One of my favorite latter-day performances of Griffith’s comes in the 2007 Adrienne Shelley dramedy Waitress, co-starring Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion. Griffith plays Joe, the owner of the diner where Russell’s character works. He’s a grumpy old soul whose fondness for the young waitress leads him to change her life for the better at the twilight of his own. It’s a small role in a small but entertaining movie, and Griffith is undoubtedly the brightest spot in it.
Griffith died this morning where it all began for him–his home state of North Carolina. He was eighty-six years old. And he will, without a doubt, be missed by so many of us whose lives were touched by the sheer love and talent he poured into his work over the years.