Walter Brennan and Richard Crenna, <EM>The Real McCoys</EM> Walter Brennan and Richard Crenna, The Real McCoys

Question: Here's an argument you can settle. I know that for a while hick sitcoms were huge on TV, but I had an argument with a friend about the trend. Wouldn't you say it was The Andy Griffith Show that started them all? Thank you for your help. I know you won't let me down.

Answer: The Andy Griffith Show is the show that's remembered for breaking the rural-comedy trend wide open after it debuted in 1960, Randall, but the comedy that defied the experts who thought folks in the big markets didn't want to watch their country-folk cousins came along three years earlier: The Real McCoys, which was a runaway hit for ABC before jumping to CBS for a final season in 1962.

Funny thing was, the champions of hayseed humor weren't from anywhere near the territory. Irving Pincus who dreamt up the show about a family of West Virginia hillbillies transplanted to the San Fernando Valley and produced it with his brother Norman was a New Yorker. His main writers were all Northerners, and star Walter Brennan was from New England. "This business about special knowledge is all nonsense," Jack Elinson, one of the show's writers, said at the time. "We're just writing good situation comedy, that's all.... Take away the cracker barrel and what have you got? A script that would play just as well on Father Knows Best."

Perhaps. There's no arguing that the show's success, of course, came from Brennan, who had been working in showbiz as everything from an extra to a character actor for 40 years but reached a new level of fame with his portrayal of the show's ornery Grandpa Amos McCoy. And Brennan didn't even want the job when Pincus approached him, but he finally gave in after a year of nagging. "Know why I finally said yes?" he asked in a 1957 TV Guide interview. "Just to get the cuss off my neck, that's why!"

Now, the public loved that kind of talk, but the network suits, as they are wont to do, predicted the rural concept would never fly when Pincus first shopped the series around. NBC took a one-year option but bailed on the project afterwards. Then ABC produced it and put it up against two formidable shows Dragnet and a show called Climax!. (I was going to make a joke about how you'd never see a title like that second one in use today, but then I remembered The Unit.) Three months later it was rapidly gaining steam, forcing Dragnet to switch time slots by season's end and knocking Climax! off the air altogether.

By the time Brennan actually got around to visiting the part of the country that spawned his character, there were more surprises in store. He met three real McCoys, but there wasn't a still in sight. He chatted with Joseph McCoy, a direct descendant of the clan that took up arms against the rival Hatfields, at Charleston, W. Va.'s Morris Harvey College, where Brennan went to pick up his doctorate in fine arts. "We like your show," McCoy told him. "It reminds us of the folks back home." He also received an Honorary Mountaineer award from the state's governor and met with some of the small-town folk in the town of Kanawha River Valley. "Funny thing," he said of that visit, "they all knew me. They all said they liked the show, even though there weren't more'n a handful of TV sets in the whole town."

By the time The Real McCoys left the air, shows like Andy Griffith and The Beverly Hillbillies were traveling the trail it blazed, and Brennan had proved fairly prescient about how long his show would last. It seems he and Desi Arnaz once figured out that The Real McCoys would make it for about five years before reaching its saturation point. "To be in this business longer than that, a man really has to have a hole in his head," he said. He must've put up with that hole for one more time 'round the calendar, though. The Real McCoys stuck around for six years.