Question: I could swear Andy Taylor was a jack-of-all-trades and had several jobs on The Andy Griffith Show, but a co-worker says I'm nuts and that he was always just the sheriff. Who's right? There's no bet riding on this, just pride. Thanks. — Jim A., Hartford, Conn.
Televisionary: You've got a respectable memory there, Jim. (Don't get any ideas, though — there's only room for one Televisionary in this town.) Feel free to claim a good chunk of your office mate's pride because you're right on this one.
When The Andy Griffith Show first launched as a spinoff of The Danny Thomas Show and began its eight-year run on CBS in October 1960, Sheriff Andy Taylor (Matlock's Andy Griffith) not only handled enforcing the law in Mayberry and raising young Opie (future filmmaker and Happy Days star Ron "Ronnie" Howard), he was the town's justice of the peace and newspaper editor, among other things. Then the producers decided the character should be more sharply defined and they quickly limited him to wearing the badge.
It was probably one of the few times in Griffith's entertainment career that he ever started off with a more complex image and then simplified it. The Mount Airy, N.C., native's usual M.O. was to play the slow-minded hick role to the hilt to soften up those who foolishly thought themselves his intellectual better — a tactic that served the University of North Carolina graduate and former high school teacher well in negotiations. A late orthopedic-surgeon cousin of mine used to do much the same thing, talking about the "'lectric television" and playing the hayseed before running conversational rings around whoever took the bait and made fun of him at the dinner table. For my cousin it was an art; for Griffith it was a business.
Griffith Show producer-creator Sheldon Leonard told TV Guide in 1961 that when he initially presented his idea for the show to Griffith, who'd already made a name for himself with a hit comedy record and some memorable work on Broadway and in movies (A Face in the Crowd, No Time for Sergeants), the star-to-be, rather than jumping at the idea, just sat silently and let Leonard think he was a rube. In the second meeting, he began slowly but deliberately asking questions about the show, where it would go and the money behind it in an exaggerated drawl (Griffith slowed his speech down and exaggerated his Southern accent to disarm people), then left without signing anything. He let the producer wait a good while before having his manager call Leonard in for yet another talk, then quickly put his name on the contract when the producer arrived. "Why all this advance rigmarole?" Leonard recalled asking. "Jest wanted to know who I wuz dealin' with," Griffith answered in his trademark "aw shucks" manner. "I never saw no sense in rushin' things."
Maybe not, but when the actor did make a decision, it was usually a smart one. By the time Leonard told that story, Griffith had sold 900,000 copies of his record, What It Was, Was Football, and owned half the show and part of a $500,000 shopping center, a record store and two music firms. He also owned a 53-acre estate on North Carolina's Roanoke Island. Some hick.
Another big surprise came in the form of the diminutive Don Knotts, who pitched his own character to Griffith and was signed for 17 appearances, but then did so well with the show he stayed on for five years. His character, the inept deputy Barney Fife, was a big hit with audiences and the actor made his trademark brand of visual comedy look so easy that few realized how much skill it took to pull it off. "Don is one of those comedians who is, as they say, 'funny just standing there,'" observed Steve Allen, who'd worked with him on The Steve Allen Show. "He has a great face for comedy, and a hair-trigger sense of timing." Further praise came from Robert Mitchum, who appeared with Knotts in a film called The Last Time I Saw Archie and saw firsthand how calculated every little twitch and move was. "He's a stitcher," the actor said. "He knows where all the seams are whenever he goes to work."
In addition to its solid Nielsen numbers — the show was a regular top-10 performer and had just claimed the number-one spot for the 1967-68 season shortly before Griffith called it quits — another measurement of the Griffith impact on entertainment is its success in launching other properties and careers. Knotts left in 1965 to star in his own short-lived variety show, but went on to make a long string of movies. Jim Nabors's gas jockey character, Gomer Pyle, first appeared in Mayberry for a season before enlisting and moving onto his own hit CBS series, Gomer Pyle, USMC, which ran for six years and turned in impressive ratings of its own. And even after Griffith left, his series survived another three years without him after installing Ken Berry's Sam Jones as the lead and changing the name to Mayberry R.F.D. That show, too, was a ratings winner and only left the air because the network bigwigs decided to cancel all rural comedies in a bid for sophistication.Not bad for a town so small and quiet its head lawman spent his time doing everything but combat crime. I reckon them simple country folk weren't so simple after all.