NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Andy Griffith: A Well-Spent Life

His Life and Work Touched Many and Leaves a Large Legacy

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

It will take years to fully assess Andy Griffith’s legacy and the impact he has had on individual lives and on the American cultural scene. Griffith won a Grammy for one of his gospel albums. It’s safe to say, though, that he taught many more life lessons and changed countless lives with his comedy show about small-town America, The Andy Griffith Show.

That show came along when small towns weren’t about pick-up trucks and babes and beer and bonfires but were a birthplace of and safe haven for true bedrock values. That was back when “values” wasn’t just a political catchword and “true value” wasn’t a hardware store. The Andy Griffith Show began and undoubtedly remains the most complete primer in how to live a decent and good and honorable life.

With his little town of Mayberry as an idealized version of the reality of his own hometown of Mount Airy, N.C., Griffith created his own idyllic guidebook of what life in modern-day small town America could be. Much like Walt Disney with his perfect Magic Kingdom, Griffith remade America into a paradise of everyday life.

And make no mistake about it, The Andy Griffith Show was every bit Andy Griffith’s show. He was a perfectionist and a taskmaster, and it showed in every little detail of that program. It even extended down to Griffith excising funny jokes from the script if he felt that a particular joke would damage a character’s long-term image.

Visitors were always welcome in Mayberry. Unless they turned out to be villains. And then Sheriff Andy and the town’s citizens would find a way to humanely expel them from their Eden. There remain in print dozens of books on the show and about Mayberry, including a Biblical guide.

Just about every one of the 249 episodes of The Andy Griffith Show has a clear moral. The shows were deceptively-simple dramatic parables, which was a large part of their appeal.

In fact, the show is widely regarded as being the best-written sitcom ever on television. Griffith always gave credit for the program’s quality and for its successes to the skills of the show’s writers and especially to his hugely talented ensemble cast of carefully drawn characters. It is telling to note that Don Knotts won five Emmys for his role of Deputy Barney Fife and that Griffith won zero Emmys for his role as Sheriff Andy Taylor. It’s interesting to remember that, originally, Griffith was intended to be the show’s funny man and Knotts was hired to be the straight man. After only a few shows, Griffith providentially realized that their roles should be reversed, and television history was made.

It’s further testimony to Griffith’s vision for the show to remember that it was filmed during the turbulent ’60s, a time of the Vietnam War and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The Andy Griffith Show, though, existed out of time. It harked back to innocent days in America. You would never know that the iconic opening scene of the show, depicting Andy and Opie walking down a bucolic country road, was actually shot in Franklin Canyon Park not far from the Beverly Hills Hotel. The Griffith show itself, though, existed in the viewer’s mind somewhere, far, far away from Los Angeles.

What is sometimes overlooked in the praise for The Andy Griffith Show is his entire body of dramatic and musical work, from the concert stage to recorded works, Broadway, television and the movies.

Griffith’s performance in the 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd is one of the most powerful dramatic performances you will ever witness. If you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so. Griffith was so effective in the role as a megalomaniacal radio commentator, in fact, that The New York Times originally gave it a mixed review, bemoaning the “dominance of the hero and his monstrous momentum.” Since that time, however, the critical regard for the film and for Griffith’s performance have both swelled considerably.

He totally occupied that role and so convincingly became the mad Lonesome Rhodes that you will find it at first difficult to believe that Andy Griffith was capable of being both a monster such as Lonesome Rhodes and of being everyone’s favorite small town sheriff and single father and philosopher as Sheriff Andy Taylor.

It’s a testimony to both his acting skill and his confidence in his acting ability that he could master such roles. And again, he trusted his own ability so much that he felt comfortable in letting his Mayberry co-stars carry much of The Andy Griffith Show.

When you realize that A Face in the Crowd was Griffith’s first movie role, his performance becomes even more astonishing.

Griffith originally wanted to be an opera singer, and then a preacher, and indeed began his college years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying religion. But music and performing and acting became his chosen lot in life.

One thing that originally drew me to The Andy Griffith Show was its genuine use of real music. Griffith’s obvious lifelong love of music led him to invite the pioneering Sixties bluegrass group the Dillards to appear on the show as the family band the Darlings. They pulled into town riding on an overheating old Model A truck and were soon believably woven into the show as musical characters. And such acoustic music heroes as Roland and Clarence White were sometimes showcased on the show.

After Griffith’s death, Rodney Dillard told the Los Angeles Times that Griffith “represented American family values and has given comfort and hope in these uncertain times. He gave the Dillards [the Darlings] an opportunity to be part of this. Andy was kind, generous and patient with an inexperienced group of pickers from the Ozark Mountains.” 

The Andy Griffith Show’s instantly recognizable theme was written by Earle Hagen and Herbert Spencer with lyrics added by Everett Sloane. Of the song, “The Fishin’ Hole,” Hagen said, “I realized what the show needed was a simple tune. So I spent all of 15 minutes writing it. I called my bass player and drummer, and we recorded it in a little studio in Hollywood. I whistled the tune myself.”

The song’s lyrics are seldom seen, let alone heard.

Here are a few of the lyrics of “The Fishin’ Hole”:

Well, now, take down your fishin’ pole and meet me at the fishin’ hole.
We may not get a bite all day, but don’t you rush away.

What a great place to rest your bones and mighty fine for skippin’ stones.
You’ll feel fresh as a lemonade, a-sittin’ in the shade.

Whether it’s hot, whether it’s cool, oh, what a spot for whistlin’ like a fool.

Griffith recorded it, singing all the words. But he did little, if anything, to push his recording. As a song, “The Fishin’ Hole” makes a mighty fine whistling song. But I don’t think it really needs any words.