RALEIGH, N.C. – Andy Griffith’s gift to the show that bore his name wasn’t just the homespun wisdom of the plain-spoken sheriff he played. It was the place he created: a small town where all foibles are forgiven and friendships are forever, full of characters who felt like family.
Mayberry, a fictional North Carolina village said to be modeled on Griffith’s own hometown of Mount Airy, was so beloved that it practically became a synonym for any community that was too innocent and trusting for real life. After all, Griffith’s Mayberry was a place where the sheriff didn’t carry a gun, the local drunk locked himself in jail and even the villains who passed through were changed by their stay.
On “The Andy Griffith Show,” he created an endearing portrait of a place where few people grew up but many wished they did.
Griffith, who died Tuesday at 86 at his North Carolina home, played a sage widower named Andy Taylor who offered gentle guidance to son Opie, played by Ron Howard, who grew up to become an Oscar-winning director. Griffith inhabited the sheriff’s “aw, shucks” persona so completely that viewers easily believed the character and the man were one.
“What made ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ work was Andy Griffith himself – the fact that he was of this dirt and had such deep respect for the people and places of his childhood,” said Craig Fincannon, who runs a casting agency in Wilmington and met Griffith in 1974.
A character on the show “might be broadly eccentric, but the character had an ethical and moral base that allowed us to laugh with them and not at them,” he said. “And Andy Griffith’s the reason for that.”
Don Knotts, who died in 2006, was the goofy Deputy Barney Fife, while Jim Nabors joined the show as Gomer Pyle, the cornpone gas pumper. George Lindsey, who died in May, was the beanie-wearing Goober. The sheriff’s loving Aunt Bee was played by the late Frances Bavier.
The show initially aired from 1960 to 1968 and never really left television, living on for decades in reruns. Almost 20 years later, a reunion movie titled “Return to Mayberry” was the top-rated TV movie of the 1985-86 season.
The series became one of only three in TV history to bow out at the top of the ratings. The others were “I Love Lucy” and “Seinfeld.” Griffith said he decided to end it “because I thought it was slipping, and I didn’t want it to go down further.”
Though he was not associated with Las Vegas as a live performer, Griffith did at least once have the distinction of headlining Caesars Palace. After his TV comedy’s final season, Griffith, Don Knotts and Jerry Van Dyke co-headlined the Circus Maximus showroom in late July and early August of 1968. “TV’s big three… in one big show!” the advertisements proclaimed.
In a 2007 interview with The Associated Press, Griffith said he was neither as wise nor as nice as the sheriff. He described himself as having the qualities of one of his last roles, that of the cranky diner owner in “Waitress” and also of his most manipulative character, from the 1957 movie “A Face in the Crowd.”
“But I guess you could say I created Andy Taylor,” he said. “Andy Taylor’s the best part of my mind. The best part of me.”
Griffith’s skill at playing a lovable rube was first established on a comedic monologue titled “What It Was, Was Football,” about a bumpkin attending a college football game.
That led to his first national television exposure on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1954 and the stage and screen versions of “No Time for Sergeants,” a production that cast Griffith as Will Stockdale, an overeager young hillbilly who, as a draftee in the Air Force, overwhelms the military with his rosy attitude.
His television career slowed down in the 1970s but resumed in 1986 with “Matlock,” a light-hearted legal drama in which Griffith played a cagey Harvard-educated, Southern-bred attorney with a leisurely law practice in Atlanta.
Decked out in his seersucker suit in a steamy courtroom (air conditioning would have spoiled the mood), Matlock could toy with a witness and tease out a confession like a folksy Perry Mason.
This new character – law-abiding, fatherly and lovable – was like a latter-day homage to Sheriff Andy Taylor, updated with silver hair. The show aired though 1995.
Griffith was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts Hall of Fame in 1992. In 2005, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the country’s highest civilian honors.
In a statement Tuesday, President Barack Obama said Griffith’s characters “warmed the hearts of Americans everywhere.”
Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Mike Weatherford contributed to this report.