The Small-Town Wisdom of Andy Griffith

There was always more to Andy Griffith than meets the eye, or at least that part of his legacy which consists of the self-contained world of Mayberry, the small North Carolina town in which he starred as Andy Taylor, the town sheriff who didn’t pack a gun and raised his son Opie to grow up normal.

That was the world of “The Andy Griffith Show,” a hugely successful television sitcom which ran for eight-years into the teeth of the 1960s, extolling classic, small-town values and virtues in a United States that was rapidly changing in its cultural mores. Mayberry existed fictionally in a country where the birth control pill sparked a sexual revolution, where the war over civil rights was entering its most dramatic, violent and transformative phase in the South and all over the country, where America’s war in Viet Nam would expand until it began to tear the country’s politics into pieces. Still popular, the show ended in 1968, the year both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, Richard Nixon elected president and the Black Panthers became a political force. Need we add the surprise of the Tet Offense and the power of the “Silent Majority”? In Mayberry, the 1960s stopped just outside the town limits, or stayed on a train that never whizzed by and never stopped.

In Mayberry, the talk was often led by Aunt Bea, or about finding a mother for Opie, gossiping on the town’s only phone line, father-and-son doings between Andy Taylor and Opie, Deputy Barney Fife’s hysterical doings and the occasional speeding ticket or moonshining trouble. The whistling theme which announced the opening theme of “The Andy Griffith Show” was every bit as familiar to Americans as Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changing,” which had long ago become a battle hymn of the counter-culture republic. In Mayberry, the times were not a changing, which might account for its audience appeal in a country constantly in mounting turmoil.

When some of us who grew up in small towns watched this show—however, we might not admit it to our long-haired hippie friends—we were drawn back into our school days, in the town we ran away from screaming. It was one of those strange constants in America’s popular culture life where both Andy Griffith and the music of Andy Williams would co-exist with the Byrds and eventually, yes, Meathead from Archie Bunker’s TV world.

Because the show was so well-acted, especially by Griffith, who underacted American decency to the point of authenticity, and so heavily populated by outrageously eccentric characters, it became an enduring part of our life, unforgettable in its own way. The only pot prevalent in Mayberry was the pot containing Aunt Bea’s latest cooking miracle.

Griffith, who died at the age of 86 this week, would be the first to tell you that he was hardly as saintly virtuous and common-sense steady as the part he played on the show. “He was the best part of me,” he said. “But he wasn’t the only part.” In fact, Griffith said his personality contained chunks of the character he played in “A Face in the Crowd,” a dark film about American politics directed by Elia Kazan in which he played, to chilling effect, a malevolent country drifter and television host who used his position and everybody around him to become a highly popular and despotic politician.

Griffith came from a town similar in size and ambiance to Mayberry: Mount Airy, N.C., which today has its own Andy Griffith Parkway. He had hard-scrabble beginnings but was encouraged by teachers in his interests in music and drama. He tried his hand at acting and being a stand-up comedian, with a bit that included trying to explain football to a non-gridiron fan. He became noticed in a hit live drama performance of “No Time For Sergeants” during television’s golden age of live drama. The show was eventually turned into a hit Broadway production and included a cast member named Don Knotts, who became a close friend of Griffith.

In 1960, “The Andy Griffith Show” debuted, and nothing Griffith did after that—and he did a lot—quite registered so perfectly in the popular mind, heart and memory. Griffith was the driving force behind the show—but it was also memorably for being so densely full of characters with a capital C, and that rhymes with Bea, that it was practically an anthropological merry-go-round of American and Southern types, a wished-for bucolic place where broken hearts go to mend. We do not know what the unemployment figures are or were for Mayberry, but it was obvious that most everybody made it to the town diner and Aunt Bea made cookies and pies to spare.

Knotts played Barney Fife the irrepressibly near-psychotic, bumbling deputy, and he wore his uniform as if it was infested by ants. At the time, Ronnie Howard played Opie, the sheriff’s son. He would become a television star in his own right with “Happy Days,” a movie star with “American Graffiti” and a Hollywood mogul as a director (he won an Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind”). Gomer Pyle got his start here as an inept mechanic, played by Jim Nabors, who played the same character in the hit television series “Gomer Pyle USMC.” The great western character actor Denver Pyle—he played the Texas Ranger who did in Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in “Bonnie and Clyde”—was the head of the Darlings, moonshiners and bluegrassers. An actress namned Aneta Corsaut played Helen Crump, Opie’s teacher and Andy’s girlfriend. Francis Bavier was the sweet-hearted Aunt Bee who raises Opie as her own.

From 1986 to 1995, Griffith also starred in “Matlock” and acted throughout the rest of his life on television series, made-for-tv movies and movies in general. In 2005, he was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and you can bet that it’s a Mayberry medal.

Mayberry exists—like a brigadoon with a twang, with pies, with fishing poles and no power outages. It’s hard not to think it rose up again just the other day on the Fourth of July, somewhere in a place where there’s nothing but a gas station, two roads intersecting, a pond nearby and a diner where someone starts singing and the coffee is the best and not latte.

It’s hard to put a whistle into words. So we won’t.

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