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TV icon Andy Griffith dead at 86

Actor Andy Griffith in his uniform as Sheriff

Actor Andy Griffith in his uniform as Sheriff Andy Taylor on, “The Andy Griffith Show,” in the late 1960s. Credit: Getty Images

Andy Griffith -- whose folksy, small-town sheriff Andy Taylor became a TV icon for the ages -- died Tuesday at his home on Roanoke Island, near North Carolina's Outer Banks. He was 86.

Without specifying cause of death, Griffith's family said in a statement that he "has been laid to rest on his beloved Roanoke Island." In a separate statement issued through the Andy Griffith Museum in his hometown of Mount Airy, N.C., his wife, Cindi, said, "Andy was a person of incredibly strong Christian faith and was prepared for the day he would be called home to his Lord."

In a career spanning stage, film and even music, one show -- and one character -- stood above the rest. As the lawman with the gentle demeanor and broad smile, Taylor and his town Mayberry captured a slice of Americana that was either fast disappearing or, more likely, never really existed in the first place. But over 254 episodes and eight years on CBS (1960-68), Griffith never breached his unwritten bargain with viewers: Mayberry was their refuge and the sheriff with the aw-shucks charm their anchor. "The Andy Griffith Show" was the ultimate comfort food for millions yearning for comfort.

While Andy Taylor threatened to pigeonhole Griffith, there was much more to his career before and after Mayberry. Shot through almost all of his many guises was that voice, face and style -- deeply reflective of his North Carolina roots. Even though he starred alongside Lee Remick, Walter Matthau and Patricia Neal in his 1957 film debut, Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd," he still managed to turn in a sharply memorable performance, as the Ozark hayseed who became an overnight media sensation with a hidden agenda.

Born in 1926, 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."

He got his first break in 1953 when a comedy monologue he recorded about a boy who had never seen a football game became an unexpected hit. It landed Griffith on "The Ed Sullivan Show," which brought him to Hollywood's attention.

Much later, he was approached by TV executive Sheldon Leonard to star in a spinoff of "The Danny Thomas Show." (Thomas was speeding through Mayberry, and Andy arrested him.)

"The Andy Griffith Show" was not strictly designed to be a starring vehicle for Griffith, but a single-camera ensemble comedy, with a cast that included Don Knotts as his bumbling deputy, Barney Fife; New York stage actress Frances Bavier as kindly Aunt Bee; Howard McNear as colorful town barber Floyd Lawson; George Lindsey as Goober Pyle; and a child actor then billed as "Ronny Howard" as widower Taylor's son, Opie. Howard, now one of Hollywood's most successful directors, tweeted Tuesday, "Andy Griffith. His pursuit of excellence and the joy he took in creating served generations & shaped my life. I'm forever grateful."

After Griffith and CBS ended the series in 1968, he hit a personal and professional dry patch. "The New Andy Griffith Show" (1971) stumbled and was followed by a string of forgotten guest appearances and cameos. He formed his own production company, and had no luck initially with that either. His long marriage to Barbara Edwards ended, and a second marriage to Solica Cassuto ended in divorce. Shortly after his third marriage in 1983, to Cindi Knight -- she was 27, he 56 -- he was stricken with Guillain-Barre syndrome, which left him paralyzed from the knees down; he later recovered.

Then came the turnaround -- "Matlock," co-created with Dean Hargrove. On the NBC drama, which arrived in 1986, Griffith played crafty Atlanta defense attorney Ben Matlock, a Harvard Law graduate. The show, which later moved to ABC and aired until 1995, was in every sense of the word salvation for Griffith.

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