Andy Griffith was an unlikely star from the beginning to the end of his long career. He didnt look like a leading man, and he certainly didnt sound like one when he opened his mouth. Yet, his impact on television was nothing short of monumental.
Although he first came to the attention of the public in the 1950s as a comic monologist, best known then for his explanation of the game of football as told by a bumpkin, Andy Griffith found his footing in television in the early years of the medium.
He started with a starring role in a one-hour version of No Time for Sergeants, the story of a country boy in the army. He went on to star in an expanded theatrical version of the teleplay, and then in the 1958 film version. He was an instant hit with audiences.
His first major film role, however, came a year earlier when he starred in Elia Kazans aptly titled A Face in the Crowd. Anyone seeking the key to Griffiths success would inevitably conclude he was, then and always, a face in the crowd, a Southern everyman with whom anyone could identify.
In 1960, Griffith played a country sheriff in an episode of Make Room for Daddy, a sitcom starring Danny Thomas and produced by former character actor turned TV producer Sheldon Leonard. Later that year, Griffith starred in his own eponymous show for CBS.
The series ran for eight years during one of the most culturally revolutionary decades in the nations history. Times were changing.
But the Griffith show never wavered from its formula. Some might criticize a show for not evolving, but in this case, it was the right thing to do. Imagine some bone-headed attempt to be hip in Mayberry: It would have devalued one of the greatest and most memorable sitcoms in history.
So it opened, every week, with the scene of Andy and Opie walking down a country road to go fishing, with the whistled theme music gently inviting us to spend some time in a simple world where people respected each other, where the biggest subjects of debate were whether Barney would be allowed to transfer his single bullet from his shirt pocket to his gun, or whether Otis was going to show up that night to sleep it off in one of the jails empty cells.
Mayberry was Brigadoon, a magic place that existed only in the imagination and daydreams. As its critics grew older, many of them inevitably came to realize Griffith had instilled real human values in the characters of Mayberry.
If the 1960s were all about social upheaval, the 80s, for TV, were about sleek sophistication, power and money.
Griffiths Matlock wasnt just old-fashioned for many younger viewers, it was just plain old. Matlock defied the odds and, to an extent, the times, much as The Andy Griffith Show had in the 60s. Once again, the show reflected Griffiths own steadfast adherence to traditional values.
Griffith earned the power to do what he wanted to in TV and that power came from the love his audiences felt for him in everything he did. There have been other nice guys on TV, but there was something about Griffith that transcended the superficiality of the medium.
We may have suspended disbelief in liking nice guys on other shows. With Griffith, we simply believed he was as nice and decent as he seemed to be in his two best-known shows.
Its hard to imagine anyone else who could ever earn the same level of love and trust that Griffith earned and kept among millions of fans, from generation to generation.