American Culture

RIP Andy Griffith: he was more than Mayberry

The Andy Griffith that I grew up with was the kindly, somewhat bumbling sherriff of Mayberry, North Carolina. I can’t remember whether I was introduced to him first on the Andy Griffith Show or Gomer Pyle. Given my Appalachian roots and the innocuous safety of the shows, the distinction is minor. The shows were increasingly culturally out of step with the country and quickly outgrown.

Eventually, my mom discovered Matlock when I was already in college–so my exposure was minimal: seemed like Andy got older, graduated from law school, and moved to the Big City of Atlanta where he solved Real Crimes that didn’t happen in Mayberry. His sidekicks were (gasp!) a woman and an African American. But it was obviously a show meant for my parents.

The Andy Griffith that I grew to treasure was fleeting but indelible. I’m a classic film fan, so one night I turned on Turner Classic Movies in the middle of a movie called A Face in the Crowd. I was mesmerized. Here was a completely different Andy Griffith–one that I could admire for his technique and in a movie that I could take something from.

If you haven’t seen “A Face in the Crowd,” you need to get a copy, your favorite beverage, and a big bowl of popcorn. I hate it when people spoil movies for me, so I’m not going to do that. Here are three reasons why you need to see this movie:

  1. It dispels unequivocally any notion that dirty small-screen politics is a recent invention. I kept having to put it into context: radio and the movies had been used masterfully 20 years before hand, of course television was the next political frontier. But the crass manipulation of the media, the cynical attitude of the kingmakers and politicians, the blatant exploitation of ignorance are breathtaking.
  2. The movie was directed by Elia Kazan and written by Bud Schulberg several years after both had testified for HUAC. I’m not sure whether we seeing axes being ground on screen, disillusionment made manifest, or an attempt at justification. Whatever motivated them, I’m grateful.
  3. An amazing cast: Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick, and of course, Andy Griffith.

Andy Griffith’s character commands the screen, whether his character, “Lonesome” Rhodes, is in manipulative, lecherous, cynical, or domineering modes. Andy Griffith lecherous? Oh, yeah. Heck, he could have played Jerry Sandusky and made it believable. Watching the arc of Lonesome Rhodes’ life is a rare treat. Granted, a treat that doesn’t always taste good–kind of like the Every Flavor Beans in Harry Potter–but one of those things that you should try, at least once.

Farewell, Andy. Wish you’d had the chance to stretch your talents for us a little more often.

8 replies »

  1. This is now on “to watch” list. As much as I loved the AGS, I paid very little attention to anything else he did. Maybe after seeing what happened to the AGS after Don Knotts left I was afraid of being disappointed. But I need to get over that, I guess.

  2. Well, look at it this way: A Face in the Crowd was the prequel to the rest of his career.

  3. Andy brought small-town humor and life into the homes of every American through their television screens. He’ll be missed after his long and full career of entertainment which still fills many households like my own family’s. I created a portrait of Andy and Don Knotts for my Cult of Personality series a few years back, which depicted entertainers who influenced my life in one capacity or another. I shared work of art today on my artist’s blog at Feel free to drop by and share your own memories of growing up with Mayberry.

  4. See also “No Time for Sergeants” and a lost film I think better than it was treated (and another dramatic role for Griffith), “Onionhead.” And “Hearts of the West” and “Rustlers Rhapsody” are worth a look, too. He was quite a fine actor.

  5. Ah, Hearts of the West–wonderful movie, with Griffith the head of one of the funniest packs of sidekicks ever put on screen. But A Face in the Crowd is something else–among other things, weirdly prescient about media control of America’s cultural life. And Griffith and Patricia Neal were never better.

  6. Thanks for all of the viewing suggestions–especially with the heat driving me indoors.

    When I grew up, my best friend’s dad grew up with (and was still friends with Don Knotts). Six degrees of Mayberry.