Andy Griffith, one of the stars who put CBS on top of the TV world in the 1960s with an easy-going but culturally-packed sitcom that ran for eight seasons during that stormy decade in American life, died Tuesday at 86 at his North Carolina home in Roanoke Island.
Like Fred MacMurry, whose range ran from the feature film "Double Indemnity" to TV's "My Three Sons," Griffith was far more than just another TV actor from the early days of the medium. Before TV and Sheriff Andy Taylor, he was Lonesome Rhodes in Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd," And he found renewed TV fame in the 1980s and '90s as Harvard-educated attorney Ben Matlock. His longevity alone would warrant comment and appreciation.
But "The Andy Griffith Show," which ran from 1963 to 1968, is what he is rightfully being most remembered for today. His folksy, reassuring and steady persona not only sold the show as entertainment, it also led millions of viewers to believe in the deeper psychic and fantasy aspects of the community called Mayberry over which he presided as Sheriff Taylor Monday nights on CBS.
The years during which the sitcom ran were among the most transformational and turbulent in American life. From the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 through the nation's deepening involvement in the Vietnam War and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and subsequent urban riots of '68, the nation underwent a profound cultural revolution. And during times of such social upheaval in the real world, fantasy depictions often tied to a fondly-remembered, idealized past offer deep escapist pleasure.
That was "The Andy Griffith Show."
If viewers were troubled at dinnertime by CBS News showing images of civil rights marchers being beaten by Southern enforcement officers, they were reassured in prime time by the always-present sense of fair play that Sheriff Taylor brought to dealing honestly and decently with all the denizens of Mayberry. Griffith's likeability made viewers like more than just Mayberry and the show, it gave the audience a reason to believe in the forces of law and order and southern life at a time when they were under assault in social reality.
I am not saying that's a good or a bad thing. I'm just saying that's one of the cultural ways TV worked in American life during its time of near-total dominance, and stars like Andy Griffith were the vehicles used to sell such fantasies and values. For comparisons in the world of feature film, think Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart as embodiments of the fundamental decency of American life.
The myth of Mayberry was created so effectively through Griffith's persona that it endures today with pilgrims still wanting to visit the touchstones they saw on TV. Mount Airy, Griffith's North Carolina birthplace, responds to that by promoting itself online as a real-life Mayberry through its connection to the actor.
Griffith's TV sheriff still holds a place in the American psyche more than four decades after the sitcom left the airwaves. And that's the best testimony to the kind of work Griffith did.
If you want to read more about Griffith, here's an excellent interview done by Mike Sragow, my colleague at the Sun, in connection with Griffith's last feature film role.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times