Who doesn’t have a soft spot for Andy Griffith (who died last Tuesday)? You’d have to be pretty immune to benevolent paternalism to resist the down-home charm of Andy Taylor or most of the other roles he created.
Griffith’s career thrived primarily on TV. Yet some of his best work was in feature films, particularly when he was playing against type. Over the course of 53 years, he appeared in only about a dozen movies. Most of those roles were lovable types: in his last two movies he appeared as the voice of Santa Claus and a character referred to as “Grandpa Joe.” Sadly, the latter was in “Play the Game” (2009), his last big-screen part, and not much to write home about.
His work as less-than-admirable characters, of course, benefited precisely because of his down-home image. But that wouldn’t explain his impact in his first film, “A Face in the Crowd” — directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, who had previously collaborated on “On the Waterfront.” It came out in 1957, when Griffith was only well known on the stage. He played Lonesome Rhodes, a ne’er-do-well who becomes a folksy TV star after a serendipitous encounter with some sharp New York types. What they don’t discover until it’s too late is that Rhodes’s lovable exterior is a thin veneer disguising a scary demagogue, who goes crazy with power. The film essentially prefigures Glenn Beck and much of today’s talk radio.
It was one of his few starring roles, but later in his career he was memorable in supporting parts as shifty types in two other movies. In “Hearts of the West” (1975), he played a washed up Western novelist, who starts out moderately likable, then does some really reprehensible things, and finally redeems himself at the very end.
Ten years later, he was the out-and-out villain of “Rustlers’ Rhapsody,” an underrated Western spoof. It got little respect at the time, probably because writer-director Hugh Wilson had just had a breakthrough hit with the broad “Police Academy.” Tom Berenger is the central character, a singing cowboy in the 1880s, who goes from small town to small town, knowing exactly what will happen because the series of 50-some films about him never vary from a hackneyed story structure. Within this meta-framework, Griffith is hilarious as Col. Ticonderoga, the evil gay cattle baron terrorizing the apparently Chassidic sheep ranchers.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).