Andy Griffith, we hardly knew you.
That isn’t to say that the amiable drawling actor, who died Tuesday, was a stranger. Quite the opposite. It’s just that the man’s career spanned multiple personas and pop-culture eras; memories, while vivid, might well be incomplete.
Most, one would think, know him from his namesake television series, The Andy Griffith Show, which ran from 1960 to 1968. The show’s whistling theme song, The Fishing Hole, is one of the most recognizable of all-time.
He played the small-town sheriff of Mayberry, N.C., where his cool-headed sensibility countered the more flustered personalities of those around him. On the show, Andy Taylor was the wise father to Opie (played by Ron Howard); the widower pseudo-son to the doting, worrying Aunt Bee; the long-suffering boss of the harried, witless deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts); the steadying influence over endearing goofballs Goober, Gomer and Floyd the peculiar barber; and the paramour and pie-eating partner to Helen the school teacher.
A younger generation recalls Griffith as the folksy Atlanta attorney Ben Matlock, all white-haired and white seersucker suit. Matlock ran for nine seasons, starting in 1986. His hot-dog-eating lawyer character lost few cases, and had a flair for not only clearing his clients but dramatically identifying the actual perpetrator, who more often than not happened to be in the courtroom.
Older female fans might picture Griffith as a charismatic younger actor, predating his stint as sheriff of Mayberry. The twice-Tony-nominated tall drink of water gained prominence in the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd.
As a child, I listened to one of his comedy records, What it Was, Was Football. I still remember his wide-eyed monologue on the weird pageantry involved with the big-time U.S. college sport. Griffith, as a rural Southern preacher uninitiated with the game on any level, gave a bewildered, breathless account of the goings-on: “And what I seen was this whole raft of people a-sittin’ on these two banks and a-lookin’ across this little green cow pasture,” he drawled, hick as heck. “Somebody had took and drawed white lines all over it, and drove posts in it and I don’t know what all...”
Did you know the gospel-singing Griffith received a Grammy Award for I Love to Tell the Story – 25 Timeless Hymns in 1997? Some people do.
As Sheriff Taylor, Griffith was known to pull out a 1956 Martin D-18 acoustic and pick a little. In 2004, guitar manufacturers C.F. Martin & Company honoured Griffith with a limited-edition signature model.
In 2007, he acquired new popularity by portraying a cranky diner owner in the hit independent film Waitress.
And let us not forget his cartooned Matlock appearances in the long-running animated series The Simpsons. On bus rides back to the retirement home, the grumpy grandpa Abe Simpson would urge the bus driver to drive faster in order to make it in time for the show’s broadcast, yelling that each Matlock episode “could be our last.”
This time, he was right.