Tuesday, July 3, 2012

It's Mourning in Mayberry

When you think about it, there aren't too many people who are traipsing around this country who are beloved by the rest of us who are traipsing.

I use "beloved" deliberately because that's the buzzword in the wake of the death of actor and musician Andy Griffith, who passed away earlier today at 86.

Even President Obama, who came out with a statement today about Griffith, used the b-word.

There've been other words of praise, including an obituary I read online that said when you say Andy Griffith, you're basically saying a mouthful about Americana.

Was Griffith, best known for two roles---Sheriff Andy Taylor and lawyer Ben Matlock---truly beloved?

Let's just say that you'd be hard-pressed to find a TV actor who burrowed his way into as many generations and other demographics as Andy Griffith.

It didn't matter how young or old you were, whether you were male or female, whether you were married or single, whether you hailed from the country or were a city slicker. Didn't matter if you liked sports or fishing or classic cars or lemonade.

It didn't matter, because all of the above have called themselves Andy Griffith fans at one time or another.

When Griffith first entered our living rooms as Sheriff Taylor in the early-1960s, a policeman character on TV wasn't a family man, per se. He wasn't gentle or kind-hearted or nurturing. And he certainly wasn't a single dad.

Griffith was all of these, as he combined his "Aww, shucks" personality with the steady hand of a parent who was totally in control. The "Andy Griffith Show" was, at once, charming, funny, heartfelt, sympathetic and morally rich.

Griffith, as sheriff of Mayberry, was surrounded by funny characters, most notably deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), and a small child (Ron Howard), and the occasional animal. WC Fields would have tagged Griffith with a bunch of on-screen/on stage violations.



But Griffith didn't try to compete on screen. He didn't have to. All he had to do was be Andy Griffith---that deadpan, disarming man who was the calm among the storm that frequently went on around him. And that was more than enough to stand out.

The genius of Griffith was that he was able to leave indelible marks on the industry generations apart, despite several TV failures after his turn in Mayberry.

The career of Andy Griffith wasn't peaches and cream again until he put on a pale grey blazer and charmed us once more in "Matlock," which debuted in 1986.

He even managed to play a defense attorney that you could love, at a time when high profile trials were becoming more plentiful and defendants slimier, and their lawyers more distasteful.

For nine years Griffith played Matlock, one year longer than he was Sheriff Taylor. So for eight years Griffith played the guy who locked criminals up, and for nine years he played the guy who gained them acquittal at trial.

In both cases he had us in his gentle, self-effacing palm.

Through it all, when times were good and not so good in his entertainment career, Griffith remained spiritual.

"I was baptized alongside my mother when I was 8 years old," he once said. "Since then I have tried to walk a Christian life. And now that I'm getting older I realize that I'm walking even closer with my God."

Not any closer than how he does today.

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