From 1960 to 1968, Andy Griffith (who died this week at the age of 86) was Sheriff Andy Taylor on “The Andy Griffith Show,” set in Mayberry, N.C., which he as show co-owner modeled after his home town of Mount Airy, just south of the Virginia border in the shadow of the Blue Ridge and Pilot Mountain (also the name of a tiny town that became the larger town of Mount Pilot on TV). After the show went into reruns, which still continue, it was succeeded by a spinoff, “Mayberry R.F.D,” and the town’s name became a metaphor for small-town America, sometimes favorable, sometimes not.
The first show “gave rise to other small town, Main Street USA shows,” Joanne Ostrow writes for The Denver Post. Until then, TV “was centered in New York duplexes . . . urban police stations and hospitals, and suburban ranches and Colonials.” Doug Martin of The New York Times notes that “The Real McCoys” debuted in 1957 (and offers several other tidbits, such as Griffith’s endorsement of President Obama’s health-care reforms). The Times’ Neil Genzlinger says the McCoy show was “unflattering,” but the Griffith show countered a rural and especially Southern “stereotype defined by ignorance and bigotry” and confirmed “the notion that the moral center of the country lives somewhere in a small town.” Griffith “made rural values universal,” The Boston Globe said in an editorial.
Mount Airy, population 10,000, gradually adopted a Mayberry image, particularly after the decline of the region’s main industries: textiles, tobacco and furniture. “Tourism has really saved us,” Tanya Jones, executive director of the Surry County Arts Council, told CNN. Griffith originally resisted helping the town promote itself as Mayberry, perhaps remembering prejudice he felt growing up on the wrong side of the town’s railroad tracks, but in recent years participated in those efforts, including establishment of the Andy Griffith Museum. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes, opposite Patricia Neal, in the drama 'A Face in the Crowd.'
Griffith’s first big star turn was as “a country singer and egomaniacal psychopath named Lonesome Rhodes in the gut-wrenching drama ‘A Face in the Crowd’ It is the story of a wildly popular entertainer who becomes too big too fast and is corrupted beyond salvation. His fall from grace is even faster than his sudden rise from anonymity,” Dennis Rodgers writes for the Raleigh News & Observer. “Griffith nailed it. He was dead-on brilliant. His demonic anger and barely controlled energy were difficult to watch, however, and the public stayed away in droves. Today, film buffs consider it a classic. But when it was released, only critics seemed to approve.”
Andy Griffith played Lawyer Ben Matlock on the popular TV series 'Matlock' from 1986 to 1995.
Griffith’s last big role was as fictional Wilmington, N.C., lawyer Ben Matlock, in an eponymous series that ran “off and on from 1986 to 1995,” Rodgers writes. “Griffith’s Matlock was wise, cranky, stubborn, funny and 100 percent Andy. Those who knew the actor said he was much closer to Matlock’s persona than he ever was to TV’s beloved sheriff. It was also a favorite of fans of the old show who tuned in to catch the sly Mayberry-related asides Griffith would slip into the dialogue.”
Rodgers concludes, “Andy Griffith never won an Oscar, an Emmy or a Tony for his acting. But then, around here we never thought of him as an actor. He was just our friend and neighbor and we were so proud of him we couldn’t hardly stand it. And if the rest of the world happened to tune in to his popular shows and just happened to assume folks in North Carolina were anywhere near as good-hearted as Andy Taylor, Ben Matlock or the good people of Mayberry, well, that was OK with us, too.” Read more here
For coverage from the Mount Airy News, click here. For an obituary from Inside TV, go here. TV Week has reaction, including President Obama’s, and some video clips, including a “Face in the Crowd” trailer and a segment from another movie, “No Time for Sergeants,” which followed TV and Broadway versions that starred Griffith.
This story was republished from The Rural Blog, a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues, and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.