When I was living in Alabama in the 1990s, I hired a gardener, a good ol' boy in his late 20s named Rodney. Handsome, with a goofy smile and country drawl, Rodney could have been a resident of Mayberry, the fictional North Carolina town where Sheriff Andy Taylor — Andy Griffith’s doppelganger — lived and kept the peace.
I knew that Rodney had been battling a drug addiction, and that I probably shouldn't become too friendly with him. But he seemed like such a sweet guy, and he loved my dog. And he had a great curiosity. Although he was not well educated, he loved history and was always reading books on the subject.
One day Rodney told me he knew by heart every episode of The Andy Griffith Show, which he had only seen in reruns. “My favorite,” he told me, “is the one where Opie kills the mother bird with his sling shot and Andy makes him raise the orphans she left in the nest. I cry every time I see that one.”
Rodney told me he never listened to his parents, who had given up on him. But he sure listened to Sheriff Taylor, every chance he could.
A lot of us did.
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Andy Griffith was a natural-born storyteller. He started his show business career as a monologist telling long stories from the point of view of a rural back woodsman.
His eponymous show may not been a very real portrait of a Southern town in the 1960s, but it did drill down to our hearts and emotions. Sheriff Taylor always delivered his message of taking the higher road without sounding morally superior. He used his downhome wisdom and observant eye to sagaciously guide Aunt Bea and Opie to make the right decisions. The Andy Griffith Show holds up in endless reruns because it embraces subtlety. There are no cheap put-downs for the sake of a laugh. The small-town characters who live in Mayberry have a poignant truth about them that makes them believable, even at their zaniest. Griffith knew how to exaggerate in just the right proportions.
From age 12 to 18, I watched The Andy Griffith Show every week. The opening theme song still plays in my head. I think that whistle plays in every boomer’s head.
When I was in my mid-20s and working at the San Francisco Examiner, I got to meet my TV idol. It happened unexpectedly, on a September afternoon. It’s a plot point in my life I’ll never forget.
When I came back to the newspaper office from lunch, I was met by a very familiar face: Andy Griffith, sitting all by himself on the couch in the reception room. Wearing a checkered sports coat, open shirt and cowboy boots, he looked very relaxed. I approached him.
“Who are you waiting to see?” I asked him, trying not to appear too star-struck.
“No one in particular,” he replied. “I was in town today and thought I’d take a chance and drop by. I have some projects I’d like to talk to someone about.”
Determined to claim this interview for myself, I rushed to my desk and grabbed a notebook.
Success-wise, not a lot was going on at this point in Griffith’s career. His last TV series had been Headmaster, in which he played the dean of a prestigious private school in California, a character that didn’t jibe with his rural image. The show didn’t survive the 1971-72 season. “It should have been flushed down the toilet,” Griffith told me. Matlock was still 11 years down the road.
The projects that Griffith wanted to talk about included a TV pilot (which never got picked up), his role as a boozed-out cowboy in the movie Hearts of the West, which had just wrapped, and a Las Vegas nightclub act he was working on, “where I come out and tell stories from home.”
None of these projects, it seemed, were in need of urgent publicity. I think he just wanted to gab, as if he had moseyed into Floyd's Barber Shop. Like Sheriff Taylor, Griffith was completely authentic. Folksy but smart; shy but not withdrawn. When I summoned a photographer to snap his picture, he willingly obliged. “Nice to meet you,” he told the photographer, shaking his hand and smiling warmly.
When I'd ask Griffith a question, he'd sometimes stand up and walk around the room while giving his answer. Even if the public didn't see a difference between Andy Griffith and Sheriff Taylor, the actor knew where one left off and the other began.
“Remember how in my show if little Opie did something wrong we’d have a heart-to-heart talk and it would all work out?” he said to me. “Well, in real life that’s not always the case. When my son was 11, I caught him smoking a cigarette. I tried the Sheriff Taylor talk. A little later I caught him at it again. This time I gave him living hell. A few years later I found a pack of cigarettes he had hidden in one of his boots. I was exasperated. This time I told him if he wanted to kill himself, then go ahead. You know what he did? He went out, bought a carton of Marlboros and charged it to me. Can you beat that?”
In the last few days there’s been a lot of tributes to Griffith from performers who worked with him, and from neighbors and townsfolk who knew him on Roanoke Island. They all echoed Randy Travis’ words: “The most likeable man I’d ever met.” Ron Howard gave an interview the other day saying that after The Andy Griffith Show went off the air, Griffith never stopped being a part of his life. “He was like a favorite uncle to me,” Howard said.
Great storytellers touch everyone’s lives, and can even change them. When I saw that Griffith had died, I immediately thought of Rodney, the gardener. I hope he’s still listening to Sheriff Taylor.
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