Andy Griffith and Ron Howard in "The Andy Griffith Show." (Handout )
Although not a man normally associated with irony, Andy Griffith’s early career took a 180-degree twist of almost Shakespearean dimensions. After galvanizing audiences as Lonesome Rhodes, a bumpkin savant who, with the aid of a radio producer more interested in ratings than integrity, becomes a duplicitous and increasingly dangerous political figure, Griffith went through the mirror lightly and took a television role that provided a happy antidote.
Mayberry's Sheriff Andy Taylor, the role for which Griffith would become famous, was everything Rhodes was not: decent, honest and fair-minded. Sheriff Taylor was also the last of a breed: a white Southern authority figure as good guy.
Although it often revolved around the high rube factor of its characters, “The Andy Griffith Show” was a prose poem to small Southern towns, rhapsodizing, from opening credits to closing, a slow-moving world of porch-sittin’, stone-skippin’, fish-catchin’ beauty in which a group of goofy but good-hearted folk were kept in line by a sheriff who was more father figure than autocrat.
Photos: Andy Griffith | 1926 - 2012
The show premiered in 1960, the same year Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published, and that may be one of the more significant coincidences in American culture. Atticus Finch, Lee’s protagonist, is another of Taylor’s breed and shares many of the sheriff’s qualities: the charming drawl, the air of tolerance, the fatherly wisdom. Though based on real towns in North Carolina and Alabama, Mayberry and Maycombe were also remarkably similar, down to the court- and schoolhouses, but “To Kill a Mockingbird” painted a rather different picture of small-town life. Or rather a more complete picture, one that included the disturbing undertones of racism and classism of the place and time.
Still, like Atticus Finch, Griffith’s Andy Taylor was a hero, a voice of both reason and tolerance, which is why he, like Atticus, remained a beloved cultural touchstone long after the Southern gentleman in general and the Southern sheriff in particular became, in the cultural mythology, more fascist than friend. As the civil rights movement swept the country, images of white Southern police officers siccing guard dogs on young black protesters and George Wallace bellowing for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” molded the narrative template.
The regional drawl joined the German and British accents as shorthand for villainy, and Southern sheriffs were almost inevitably figures of corruption, violence and evil; not until the TV series “In the Heat of the Night” premiered in 1988 did a good white cop return below the Mason Dixon line, and then reluctantly.
Yet amazingly, Sheriff Andy Taylor survived both cultural deconstruction and the more commonplace and insidious devaluation of time. Some of this is due to the huge influence “The Andy Griffith Show” had on the entertainment industry, launching or showcasing a dozen big careers, including Ron Howard’s, and some to its incredible longevity in reruns.
But most stems from the deceptively powerful performance Griffith delivered, a performance so convincing that many confused the actor with the character. Which is, of course, precisely what happened in “A Face in the Crowd,” though to much more deleterious affect. Griffith remained in our living rooms with us long after “The Andy Griffith” show and its many spinoffs went off the air, bringing a sterner version of that decency to his defense attorney in “Matlock,” right around the same time John Grisham was resurrecting a similar sense of integrity (or as much as one could in a legal thriller) from the post-civil rights South.