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Andy Griffith has died at 86

Actor Andy Griffith is all smiles following his

Actor Andy Griffith is all smiles following his being named top male perfomer in a new TV program "Matlock" at the 13th Annual People's Choice Awards in Santa Monica, Calif. (March 13, 1987) (Credit: AP)

Andy Griffith has died. according to a number of reports citing a close friend of Griffith's. Various news sites - including CBS News - have now confirmed. He died after being transported from his North Carolina home to  a nearby hospital, per reports. He was 86.

  Almost suffice it to say, anyone who has ever had a TV set or grown up in front of one - which would largely include all of us - has known and loved Griffith well over the past fifty or so years: An actor as indelible, to use that overused word, as any other in the history of this medium. His kindly fatherly gentlemanly Sheriff Andy Griffith is very nearly an exemplar of human goodness, from another era and another time - the last gasp, as it were, of a '50s era innocence (or what many of us innocently took to be "innocence") of that long ago time. 

 More practically, of course, "The Andy Griffith Show" (1960-68) launched the career of Ron Howard. (For without "The Andy Griffith Show," could there ever have been "Happy Days?")

 And then there was "Matlock," the million dollar lawyer in million dollar suits who always got his man or woman - the bad ones anyway. 

  It's easy - probably too easy - to pigeonhole Griffith as Andy Taylor, but there was much much more - he had a singing career (he won a Grammy, never an Emmy, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005), and a big screen one as well; but shot through all of his many roles was that voice, and face, and style - as deeply reflective of his native North Carolina roots as probably any actor that emerged from that state. The role he played in "A Face in the Crowd" - his 1957 film debut was probably a model for everything Andy Taylor would NOT be; but like Taylor, this one was just as memorable. 

  And who could ever forget "No Time for Sergeants" - which displayed this young brilliant comic actor with chops and a booming vocal style? Check out the classic clip below - you will remember it fondly, I am sure. 

  Born in Mount Airy, N.C. in 1926, he went on the UNC and from there onto Broadway and then Hollywood; but like all careers, this one wasn't born but made, and by an unexpected bit of whimsy - an old comedy album/bit called "When it was, was football," about a boy who had never seen a football game (he later recalled, I think that it's some kind of a contest where they see which bunch full of them men can take that pumpkin and run from one end of that cow pasture to the other without either getting knocked down or stepping in something." He he recorded the bit and it clarified his career - for generations, really. Foremost, it landed him on "The Ed Sullivan Show;" check out the recording below...

Andrew Samuel Griffith was the only son of Carl Lee Griffith, a carpenter and foreman in a chair factory, and Geneva Nunn Griffith. In an extended interview with old friend and columnist Mal Vincent of the Virginian Pilot in 2008, he said he was a sickly child and "I wasn't much of a student and didn't have an aim until I was about 14. and then, I wanted music," specifically the trombone, later switching to singing. "I've got a better voice than you'd know. I certainly spent a lot of time vocalizing in my life."

His later TV career was pretty much established on just two TV shows - "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Matlock" and while there was plenty of TV work in between - mostly movies like "Winter Kill, "Hearts of the West," "Murder in Texas," "Fatal Vision" and even 1986's "Return to Mayberry" - the big screen one effectively disappeared.

That wasn't Griffith's idea: "Seinfeld"-like, he walked away from "TAGS" when it was the top-rated series in the land, but as he recalled in the Vincent interview, "I didn't think it would last, to tell you the truth. I thought we'd be canceled and might not even make it through that first year. I look at that first year today, and I was so bad. I was so country, trying to be funny. It was pretty cornball. If it hadn't been for Don Knotts..." ...Don Knotts, of course, and Barney Fife - the other classic character to emerge from the long ago classic ... The two had worked together on "No Time for Sergeants" - on stage and screen - and an early '60s star comedy team was born. 

 With Knotts aboard, "we went to work on it. I said, 'Let Don be funny.' It turned around when I became the straight man. I would just react to him. I'm good at reacting."

That was to become the template of the show: Griffith would be the straight man in a maelstrom of nuttiness; when the rest of the world was falling apart, there was Andy Taylor, the rock of Gibraltar, or Mayberry, so to speak. He told Vincent, "After the fifth year, as we had agreed, Don left. Universal gave him a movie. It was to be called 'The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.' Don showed me the script and, after reading it, I said, 'Well, it isn't very funny.' I worked on it, but I never took any credit as a writer. I actually think I could be a pretty good writer."

The series had begun as a "backdoor pilot" on "The Danny Thomas Show"  - the sheriff of Mayberry arrested Thomas as he was speeding through town. The series, conceived with Sheldon Leonard, also starred an unknown by the name of "Ronny Howard" - the young son of Taylor, a widower; and Aunt Bee, played by New York stage Frances Bavier, a fellow Tarheel (she and Griffith clashed on the show...)

 After ending the show, he said, "I thought I was hot stuff and would go right into movies. It didn't work out that way." No it did not. The temptation to return to TV arrived quickly: The "Mayberry R.F.D." spin-off arrived and just as quickly left. Then "The New Andy Griffith Show" in 1971 - this time Griffith playing someone named Andy Sawyer. It was a disaster. Then the long long string of forgotten appearances and cameos; throughout the '70s, he flirted with becoming a parody of himself. He later formed his own production company - no luck; his long marriage to Barbara Edwards ended, and shortly after a second marriage to Cindi Edwards  - she was 27, he 56 - he was stricken with Guillain-Barre syndrome, which left him paralyzed from the knees down. (There a heart attack and by-pass surgery later; he fully recovered from the paralysis.)  

A quick observation about "Matlock," which arrived in 1986 and which was in every sense of the word the salvation for Griffith. He co-created with this Dean Hargrove, and the show would become an important part of NBC's long climb out of the cellar. Nevertheless, NBC was long ambivalent about it: The show "skewed" older, meaning it was largely seen by older viewers, which were undesirable to advertisers. In 1986, NBC was about to become hellbent on a "youth" kick and older shows like "Highway to Heaven" and "Golden Girls" - hits all - were almost seen as impediments. But Griffith held tough - he had almost complete creative control, rebuffing network interference, and managed to keep it a solid top 20 show over its near decade run.

After it over, the career finally faded - happily - into the sunset, as Griffith returned home to his beloved North Carolina, and Roanoke Island, where he died this morning.

Tags: andy giriffith , the andy griffith show , ron howard , matlock

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