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Early on, showing a different 'Face'

Before his more genial roles in series TV, Andy Griffith cut his chops as the tortured Lonesome Rhodes.

June 19, 2005|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

ANDY GRIFFITH apologizes for using "bad" language.

The actor is explaining how Elia Kazan helped shape his performance in the 1957 film "A Face in the Crowd," which Warner Home Video has released on DVD. Kazan would approach each actor before a scene and give him or her a word or a phrase that would elicit the response he was looking for.

And with Griffith, he was quite explicit. Especially in a scene in which Griffith's character, Lonesome Rhodes, catches sight of a beautiful cheerleader (Lee Remick) and gives her a lascivious look.

Griffith says Kazan gave him an unprintable two-word description of what he was to feel when he looked at her. "He was very direct," says Griffith. "He was just wonderful that way."

Long before he became wise and funny Sheriff Andy Taylor on the 1960s TV series "The Andy Griffith Show," he was a young stand-up comic from North Carolina who scored a big hit on "The Steve Allen Show" and "The Ed Sullivan Show." In 1955, he landed the plum role of naive Air Force Pvt. Will Stockdale in the live TV play "No Time for Sergeants." The hourlong telecast was so popular, it became a hit Broadway show and earned him a Tony nomination.

Then came "A Face in the Crowd."

The film reunited Kazan with writer Budd Schulberg -- the duo had won Oscars for their work on the 1954 drama "On the Waterfront." A dark social commentary that seems even more relevant today as the power and balance of the media are called into question, "A Face in the Crowd" revolves around Rhodes, a hard-drinking, hard-loving Arkansas hobo who, thanks to a bright young radio producer (Patricia Neal), becomes an overnight sensation.

Kazan and Schulberg "were trying to make the social comment that the medium and the people who control it can control the thoughts of the country and how dangerous that could be," says Griffith.

He clearly relishes talking about how he landed his role in "Face," recalling that Schulberg and his mother came to see him on Broadway in "No Time for Sergeants" and that soon after, he and Schulberg met at a bar. "We were sitting there talking and drinking. He told me, 'You are a nice man, but you can't play this role.' I had never read the script or his short story on which it was based at that time, but I just kind of envisioned this character. I said, 'I can't prove it to you ... but I can play it.' "

Kazan too had reservations about Griffith. But after he did an impression of evangelist Oral Roberts "healing" the director, Kazan "hired me the next day." "At that moment, he and Budd could both see that I had a little wild side -- that is, I can create a wild side. So Gadge [Kazan's nickname] used that. He used that part of me to find the emotions of evil, the various thousands of moods that this man had."

At the film's conclusion, Rhodes' true colors are exposed and he loses everything. Kazan suggested that Griffith should drink a little whiskey when he shot the sequence. "They bought me a bottle of Jack Daniels Black Label. I would shoot a little bit and drink a little bit. I thought I was great. Gadge pulled the plug around 3 o'clock. The next day he said, 'Andy, we have to shoot most of that over again. Today, just smell the cork.' "

Griffith saw the late director for the final time on his 90th birthday. "I talked to Budd a few days ago and Budd told me the last time he saw Gadge he was walking up the stairs and he heard my voice. He got up there and Gadge was looking at 'A Face in the Crowd.' "

Lately, Griffith has been focused mostly on music, releasing three CDs of hymns and spirituals. He's done an occasional guest shot on TV series such as "Dawson's Creek," and he'd like to act more. To that end, he and his wife recently bought a house in Toluca Lake and plan to split the year between it and their North Carolina home. "We figured if we were close, we would be more available," says Griffith. At his age -- he turned 79 this month -- "there are not a whole lot of leading-men parts for me."

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