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I grew up in Raleigh, N.C., or The Big City, as it was referred to on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
When I heard of Andy Griffith’s death this morning, it felt like I’d lost an uncle. I never met him, but for anyone in North Carolina who was raised watching “The Andy Griffith Show” whether in real time or in its continual reruns, Griffith was the closest thing we had to a human god who wasn’t famous for throwing a ball or was named Billy Graham. (Read Alan Sepinwall's fine appreciation here).
Though Griffith played Andy Taylor, the sheriff of Mayberry, and I’m quite sure his jurisdiction did not extend beyond the city limits, it felt like his avuncular, benevolent presence watched over all of us. Not only did the widowed father take care of his boy, Opie (with the help of Aunt Bee, or “Aint” Bee, as everyone on the show pronounced it), he saw to it that none of Mayberry’s fine denizens came to any harm.
Mayberry may have been a fictional town that stood in for Griffith’s real hometown of Mt. Airy, N.C., but it felt very real. “The Andy Griffith Show” was the first television series that I had knowledge of being set in North Carolina and every time someone mentioned Raleigh in an episode, this little girl’s heart would swell with pride that all over the country people were hearing the name of my home town. I felt like it put us on the map. Plus, Raleigh was seen as a thriving metropolis and destination on the show: Deputy Barney Fife frequently talked about coming to Raleigh on vacation, staying at the YMCA, and taking in a picture show.
Nothing ever happened in Mayberry that Andy couldn’t fix within an half-hour episode, whether it was someone stealing Aunt Bee’s pie recipe or Opie lying or Otis needing to sleep one off in the drunk tank...again. And heaven help those big city folks (usually from the North, if I recall correctly) who came through Mayberry thinking they could pull one over on the local rubes. Well, Andy would sit right down and set them straight with his sly, homespun wisdom. He’d send those city slickers packing. No pie for them.
Even better was when someone would come through Mayberry (an inordinate number of cars seemed to breakdown there), who just happened to have superior musical skills, like Flatt & Scruggs or The Dillards (as The Darlings). There was always time to sit and pick for a spell, often with Andy on guitar.
Yes, it was an idealized version of southern country life, but it didn’t feel that farfetched, perhaps because Griffith knew the area so well and threw in so many aspects of his own childhood. Even though there were broad characterizations, Griffith never made fun of his own and understood the difference between a stereotype and a caricature. Oh sure, it was fine for Floyd the Barber to poke fun at service station attendants Gomer or Goober, but they’d circle the wagons right fast if an outsider tried to do so. My father traveled the state a great deal for work when I was growing up. I occasionally accompanied him to smalls towns just like Mayberry where nobody knew a stranger, everybody was your friend and there was always a cold soft drink (usually a Sun Drop in a glass bottle) waiting for Walt’s daughter.
I never saw an episode of “Matlock,” Griffith’s detective series from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and I don’t remember him at all as the federal prosecutor in the made-for-TV movie “Fatal Vision,” which told the story of Jeffrey McDonald, a Green Beret stationed at Ft. Bragg accused of killing his wife and children (As a kid growing up 75 minutes from Ft. Bragg and having a father who served in the National Guard there, the memories of those deaths, McDonald’s assertion that a bunch of “hippies” killed his family, and the subsequent trials in Raleigh are my equivalent of the Manson murders). He remained Andy Taylor to me.
I had grown up and long left North Carolina before I discovered Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” in the mid-to-late ‘90s. Released in 1957, it starred Griffith, in his first movie role, as Lonesome Rhodes, one of the most craven, charismatic characters ever committed to the big or small screen. I watched the movie slackjawed, incredulous that Sheriff Taylor could be so duplicitous, evil, and, dare I admit it, sexy. Griffith brilliantly plays an Arkansas ne’er-do-well discovered singing in jail by a radio producer, played by Patricia Neal. He becomes a national folk hero, seemingly speaking truth to power, all the while hiding his nearly sociopathic ambitions. If there had been true justice, the role would have catapulted Griffith to the ranks of a top movie star. I don’t know why it didn’t, but if it had, we never would have gotten Sheriff Taylor. (Note: TCM will run “A Face in the Crowd” in a daylong salute to Griffith on July 18).
For a long time, I thought that Mayberry was only special to people from North Carolina, but I came to realize that what Griffith had created resonated with most southern folks and almost anyone from a small town; He was seen as a national treasure and we were happy to share him. Country music embraced the values that Sheriff Taylor stood for and considered Griffith one of their own. “The Andy Griffith” show was immortalized in a number of country songs and in 2008 Griffith starred in Brad Paisley’s stirring video for “Waitin’ on a Woman.” Paisley talks about working with Griffith here and his death in this touching LA Times piece. (Griffith himself won a Grammy for his gospel recordings in 1996).
North Carolinians loved Griffith for representing them so well and for never abandoning them. He came back to live in N.C. more than 20 years ago and seemed to love his later years there, lending his voice and name to causes he supported. In 2002, TV Land donated a statue of Griffith to Pullen Park, the local Raleigh park my mom took me and my older sister, Jeannie, to when we were little to ride the train and the merry-go-round. It’s a statue of Griffith as Sheriff Taylor with Opie as they head for their fishing hole, just like in the show’s credits. My friend Debbie and I went to see it on one of my trips back home several years ago and it brought back a rush of childhood memories. I have no doubt that today that statue is covered in flowers and is serving as a meeting place for Griffith’s fans, just like Strawberry Fields served for John Lennon’s fans. I don’t know if Gov. Perdue has called for the N.C. flag to be flown at half-mast in Griffith’s honor, but it feels appropriate if she has. Griffith may be gone, but Andy Taylor will live forever. I’m heading to Raleigh later this week. A trip to the statue, and maybe even a drive by the YMCA, may be in order.