Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Remembering Andy Griffith
Screenwriter Budd Schulberg told me various stars were invited to a special screening on the lot to see if they wanted to tackle the part of Lonesome Rhodes who goes from aimless drifter to the most popular TV personality in America.
And all watched Andy Griffith's performance in sheer amazement.
"Nobody would touch that one," Schulberg told me. "It remains one of the great Fifties movies although on first release it didn't make a dime of profit because it told harsh truths about American culture.
"The movie is perfect, Griffith is perfect. And it was all done decades before reality TV."
Griffith passed away. aged 86, on Tuesday after a long history of heart problems.
See, Griffith was more than Andy Taylor, the amiable sheriff of fictitious Mayberry on the long running (1960-68) CBS sitcom hit The Andy Griffith Show.
"The show was based on my childhood in and around Mount Airy, North Carolina," he told me. "Those characters I knew them all as a boy. In the stories we tell I'm often in the background playing the straight character and letting them shine."
I first met Griffith when he was promoting his turn as General Barney Slater in the 1979 TV miniseries From Here To Eternity.
I found him warm and friendly but hardly the unsophisticated hick he'd been as Sheriff Taylor.
About Andy Taylor Griffith grinned and said "It's like I never did anything else in my career."
Griffith played Sheriff Andy for 249 episodes then tired of the character and wanted to move on. Mayberry was reconstituted as a separate series and Griffith went on to star in the bomb sitcom titled Headmaster (1970) that lasted but a season--he was Andy Thompson.
"I'd been the sheriff for so long people would simply not accept me as a teacher."
Then he tried again the very next year with the New Andy Griffith Show (1971) as Andy Sawyer and bombed again.
After that, he admitted, "There were some plenty lean years" as he made do with TV movies like The Strangers In 7A, Go Ask Alec.
"Heck I even did guest bits on Doris Day and Lucy Ball to keep going. It was rough."
He bombed again in the 1979 TV series Salvage 1 before having a great late career success in Matlock which ran from 1986 through 1995 for 181 episodes.
When I was on the set to interview co-star Julie Sommars he ran into me and was bemused I hadn't ask to interview him. I told him the PR had said he was unavailable so he invited me back and we had a great talk.
"I based the character on Senator Sam Ervin." he admitted.
As executive producer Griffith had wise authority that extended to rewriting the scripts in his dressing room when he felt his character was being under represented in a scene.
By this time he was white haired and shaky and had to have weeks off written into the schedule but he clearly enjoyed his late success.
"Angela Lansbury is just next door (in Murder She Wrote)," he grinned. "And she's even older than I am."
"They're calling me a TV icon these days," he snorted. "Well, for years I had little work. Now I'm working every day and then some."
Originally a Broadway star in No Time For Sergeants, Griffith became a tv staple telling anecdotes on Steve Allen and Jack Paar.
He made the hit 1958 movies No Time For Sergeants and Onionhead before TV beckoned.
Not everything in his life was sweetness and light. He was married three times. In 1983 suffered from Guillain-Barre Syndrome and was unable to walk for seven months.
Son Andy Griffith Jr. died of alcoholism in 1996.
In 2000 Griffith underwent quadruple bypass surgery and worked infrequently thereafter.
Known as one of the most loyal of TV stars Griffith made room for his old partner Don Knotts on the show. And to me he praised his TV son Ron Howard who had gone on to a big career as a movie director.
When Matlock finally ended in 1995 Griffith retired back to a Mayberry-like town in North Carolina clearly relishing his TV fame as two very different iconic characters.