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“The Andy Griffith Show” had characters that were beloved all over the world, but here in Southwest Virginia, and especially in Galax — just down the road from the real “Mayberry” — they felt like family.
Griffith’s kindly sheriff character of “Andy Taylor” was a role model of simple country wisdom, humor and compassion, and a father figure to many who tuned in to the show, which ran from 1960 to 1968.
Griffith died Tuesday at his home in Manteo, N.C., at age 86.
He’ll never leave the hearts of fans, and in the Twin Counties, Andy never left our TVs, either.
Television station WDBJ-7 in Roanoke has broadcast “The Andy Griffith Show” at 5:30 p.m. each weekday for decades.
Griffith was something of a local legend, growing up in Mount Airy, N.C., just 30 or so miles from Galax. Though not from the Twin Counties, he was considered by many locally a “hometown boy” who made good and continued to represent the values of his Appalachian upbringing when he made it to Hollywood.
His show featured a small, idealized Southern town not much different from Galax, Hillsville, Independence or Fries. No doubt many in these Virginia mountains, just north of Mount Airy/Mayberry, saw a nod to themselves in the fictional Darling family, a string band of “hillbilly” characters who were popular guest stars on Griffith’s show.
“I see so many TV shows about the South where the creative powers behind it have no life experience in the South,” Griffith acquaintance Craig Fincannon told the Associated Press. “He was of this dirt and had such deep respect for the people and places of his childhood. A character might be broadly eccentric, but the character had an ethical and moral base that allowed us to laugh with them and not at them. And Andy Griffith’s the reason for that.”
Richard O. Linke, producer of “The Andy Griffith Show,” is quoted as saying of the actor that, “If he’s a hillbilly, he’s the hippest hillbilly I ever met.”
Griffith’s career included stage, television and movies, and he was also an accomplished gospel singer and recording artist.
Griffith also became North Carolina’s favorite son, and a symbol of the state. It was a role that was sometimes a burden, but he played it with grace, taking time to talk with people who had to meet “Andy Taylor.”
In 2002, North Carolina dedicated a part of U.S. 52 in Mount Airy as the “Andy Griffith Parkway, in a ceremony that the normally reclusive Griffith attended.
Griffith died about 7 a.m. Tuesday at his coastal North Carolina home, Dare County (N.C.) Sheriff Doug Doughtie said, reading from a family statement. “Mr. Griffith passed away this morning at his home peacefully and has been laid to rest on his beloved Roanoke Island.”
From Landmark News Service:
Andrew Samuel Griffith was born in Mount Airy, N.C., on June 1, 1926. He was the only son of Carl Lee Griffith, a skilled carpenter and foreman in a chair factory, and Geneva Nunn Griffith.
At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, he majored in music. He joined the respected Carolina Playmakers and landed several comedic roles in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
At school he met Barbara Edwards. In the summer they both got acting jobs in “The Lost Colony.” She had the role of Eleanor Dare, opposite his Sir Walter Raleigh. “I was never right for that part,” he had said. “I think they just gave it to me because of Barbara.” He played it for five seasons, until 1953.
The couple married on Roanoke Island in 1949.
Griffith’s career spanned more than a half-century and included Broadway, notably “No Time for Sergeants;” movies such as Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd”; and records.
“No Time for Sergeants,” released as a film in 1958, cast Griffith as Will Stockdale, an over-eager young hillbilly who, as a draftee in the Air Force, overwhelms the military with his rosy attitude. Establishing Griffith’s skill at playing a lovable rube, this hit film paved the way for his sitcom.
He was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts Hall of Fame in 1992 and in 2005, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the country’s highest civilian honors.
Andy Taylor first appeared on television in 1960 as a guest character on “The Danny Thomas Show.” He was the sheriff and justice of the peace in a small town called Mayberry.
Mayberry was written as anywhere in rural America, but Griffith added references to places such as Raleigh and the Outer Banks. That same year he became the central character in “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“I didn’t think it would last, to tell you the truth,” he said in a 2008 interview with The Virginian-Pilot newspaper. “I thought we’d be canceled and might not even make it through that first year. I look at that first year today, and I was so bad. I was so country, trying to be funny. It was pretty cornball. If it hadn’t been for Don Knotts... “Then we went to work on it. I said, ‘Let Don be funny.’ It turned around when I became the straight man. I would just react to him. I’m good at reacting.”
Knotts, who died in 2006, went on to win five Emmy awards. Griffith was never nominated.
“The Andy Griffith Show” was No. 1 in the ratings during its final year, 1968.
Griffith’s decision to end the show got a lot of opposition across America. He had wanted to end it after the seventh year, but CBS made such a lucrative offer that he agreed to the eighth. “I was restless,” he remembered. “I wanted to do other things. I thought the show was slipping and that it was time to go.”
He owned 50 percent but sold the rights to the reruns, which continue to run today.
Griffith produced a successor show called “Mayberry R.F.D.” starring Ken Berry, who also played a widower with a young son. When it was canceled, Griffith took the news hard. “CBS had decided it was going to purge the network of what it called ‘rural’ comedy. I think it was a bad thing for the country. When we try to hide our real roots, it’s not good.”
Griffith’s post-Mayberry career was full of disappointments and outright disasters.
It seemed no one wanted to see Griffith outside of Mayberry, even though Universal Pictures signed him to a five-year deal. In his first movie, 1969’s “Angel in My Pocket,” he played a minister. It flopped. Universal wanted to team him with Knotts in a movie, but Griffith refused and got out of the contract. “I wanted to prove that I could play something else, but there were 249 episodes out there of ‘Mayberry,’ and it was aired every day. It was hard to escape.”
A return to TV in 1970 with “The Headmaster” didn’t work. “I learned a lesson, and that is that it’s hard as hell to mix laughter and messages. I needed to go back to making people laugh.”
He formed his own production company, but the failed series “Salvage” and “Best of the West” resulted.
His personal life didn’t go well, either. In 1972, his 23-year marriage to Edwards ended.
They had two adopted children. Edwards got custody of their 12-year-old daughter, Dixie Nann. Andy got custody of their 14-year-old son, Sam. The son was apart from the family for some years before his death in 1996. Sam Griffith’s attorney was quoted in a Los Angeles Daily News report after the death saying Sam had suffered for years from alcoholism.
Dixie Nann made Griffith a grandfather.
His second marriage was to Greek actress Solica Cassuto. It lasted eight years, from 1973 to 1981.
Griffith met Cindi Knight when she was a young dancer in “The Lost Colony.” When I spoke to her by phone recently, she recalled, “It was a very slow romance to develop, over years of time.... Andy is a fine man.”
They were married on Roanoke Island in April 1983. She was 27; he was 56.
Just two months later he was hit by a rare neurological disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome that attacks the nerves. It left him paralyzed from the knees down. “I couldn’t walk for some eight months. When I did walk, it was with braces. I don’t know how I could have made it without Cindi. She was by my side.”
Then in 1986, the television show “Matlock” put him back on the map.
“I liked, particularly, that Ben Matlock was a smart Southerner. Not a rube.”
This time he owned the show outright. It ran eight seasons. When it was passed over by NBC, ABC took it, a rare show to cross networks.
ABC moved the production from Los Angeles to Wilmington, N.C., partially to cure Andy’s homesickness. In the process, it saved a lot of money.
In 1989 he brought the TV crew to Manteo to film a two-part episode, giving locals a chance to be famous. “During all the years of the old Griffith show I tried to talk them into filming something in North Carolina, but they said, ‘Why? They already think you’re in North Carolina anyway.’ “
Sidewalks in downtown Manteo, “The Lost Colony” theater and the Green Dolphin Pub were among the TV sites. The episodes opened the “Matlock” season in September of that year, and it was a big deal for Roanoke Island.
The show ended in 1995.
Five years later Griffith had a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.
He primarily spent his time off at his Manteo home, near “The Lost Colony.” Despite his community activities, Griffith valued his privacy. He was friendly and outgoing to a point.
He was known to turn down requests for autographs.
Manteo resident Eddie Greene met Griffith when both were performers in “The Lost Colony,” and the two kept in touch over the years.
He said Griffith often traveled from California back to Manteo to get away from the hectic life of celebrity.
“It was like coming home,” Greene said. “Manteo was his Mayberry.”