“I know that I cannot live without some comedy in my life,” says Andy Griffith, whose skills as a comedic actor were displayed from 1960 to 1968 in The Andy Griffith Show and who now stars as a clever Georgia lawyer in the seventh season of Matlock.
“Matlock cannot be compared to the Griffith show in any way,” Griffith says. “Basically, Matlock is a courtroom mystery, and within that framework we have drama and, whenever possible, comedy.
“The Andy Griffith Show was a comedy, while some episodes were little dramas that had comedy in them.”
Fred Silverman, who is currently co-executive producing Matlock with Viacom Productions in its first season on ABC, says, ‘Andy is the consummate actor. He can do anything. On top of that, he’s got great personal appeal, which is what makes a star. He combines acting skills and personal magnetism.”
Born and raised in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, Griffith graduated from the University of North Carolina before becoming a high school teacher for three years and creating his own music-and-comedy act.
In 1953, Griffith recorded a comic monologue for a local record company that led to a Capitol Records contract and an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in early 1954. Griffith’s routines included “What It Was, Was Football,” which he performed with great success in nightclubs and on television.
“I started as a stand-up,” Griffith recalls, “a dangerous way to start. I did a long monologue and if it wasn’t working I was dead. Fortunately, most of the time it worked.”
In 1955, Griffith played Pvt. Will Stockdale in The United States Steel Hour’s adaptation of the comic novel No Time for Sergeants. His performance was so popular that he repeated it on Broadway and then starred in the movie version.
His next role, in Elia Kazan’s classic film A Face in the Crowd, was widely praised and established Griffith’s reputation as a first-class actor. As well as appearing on several television variety programs in the late 1950s, Griffith returned to Broadway for the musical version of Destry Rides Again.
“During the run of Destry, Sheldon Leonard came to me with an idea for a series to be spun off The Danny Thomas Show,” Griffith remembers, “in which I was to play the sheriff in a small town who was the justice of the peace and editor of the paper. I thought it was a little gimmicky, but I liked Sheldon so much I asked him to come back a second time.”
The spin-off episode won instant approval, and within months The Andy Griffith Show was at the top of the ratings. For the next eight years, the show was one of the nation’s most popular programs. When Griffith decided to leave the program, it still ranked among the top shows. Currently, the series is distributed internationally by Viacom and is seen on stations around the country and on TBS.
“I fought for a single point of view for that show,” Griffith recalls. “I was to be the center of gravity, the one who caught all of the other characters before they hit the ground and hurt themselves. Very early, I realized that all the other characters should be funny and that I should play it straight. That decision made the show and allowed us to add other comedic characters. We could feature any one of them. I was simply the straight man who they couldn’t do without.”
Ron Howard, who was five years old when he was cast as Griffith’s son in the series, recalls, “When Andy and I did Return to Mayberry in 1986, I could see from an adult perspective a number of things that I remembered from the series. Time and again I remember Andy saying, ‘The show’s got to be funny, but I don’t want to have to laugh at the character’s expense. These people we’re depicting don’t have a lot of education or much sophistication, but they’re good people. This is not a show about making fun of country people.’ And he policed that. One of the reasons the show has endured is that Andy brought such integrity to it on a day-to-day basis.”
In 1968, Griffith left his own series but became executive producer of the show that took over its time period, Mayberry R.F.D., which ran for three years.
“I thought it was time for me to move on,” Griffith remembers. “But when you do something well for a long time, people in our business tend to think that’s all you can do. So once the Griffith show was over, I couldn’t get a job for a long time. I then realized I had to go the other way. I had to prove I was an actor and play something other than what I normally played. I went out to get heavies because I figured that might turn things around for me and, in fact, it did. Many people still think I’m an ‘Aw, shucks’ guy, but I’m not. I’m an actor. However, I recognize what I can and can’t play.”
Until he began Matlock in 1986, Griffith appeared in several series, specials, feature films and TV movies. His miniseries include Washington: Behind Closed Doors (as Lyndon Johnson), Centennial, and Murder in Texas.
In the early 1980s, Griffith’s career was interrupted when he developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an acute paralytic disease. During a two-year struggle with the disease he suffered a painful paralysis of his legs. When he resumed his career, he appeared as the prosecuting attorney in Fatal Vision.
Griffith recalls the connection between his work in that miniseries and the father-daughter lawyer series that Silverman was developing. Griffith is also a co-executive producer of Matlock.
“Matlock is based on the lawyer I played in Fatal Vision,” Griffith says. “Brandon Tartikoff [then president of NBC Entertainment] saw something he liked and called Fred Silverman and said, ‘See if Griffith would play a lawyer in a series.’ Ben Matlock is a great deal of fun for me to play because the character can go in any direction. This man is so crafty, so smart, so cheap and so vain. He thinks he looks wonderful in his awful gray suit. He thinks he has a wonderful figure, and he doesn’t. He thinks he’s it. And he’s as cheap as anything. Matlock’s vanity is funny, so we play into it every opportunity we get.
“Once in a while we have a comedic character, and I play straight for him. But half the time I do the comedy on my own. I do anything I can to lighten up the show a little. But there have been moments of high drama. I consider each of the courtroom scenes a separate theatrical piece.”
Howard notes, “Andy is a very dynamic personality, which makes him a great heavy. He’s got a powerful voice, strong presence and strong eyes. He plays an easygoing character well, but he is no stranger to intensity. His acting is born out of the honesty of the character and situation. That kind of an actor is a double threat because he has enough of a sense of humor to know how to phrase a joke, but then it is even easier for him to turn around and play a straight character. It doesn’t surprise me at all to see Andy delivering powerful dramatic performances.”
Says Griffith, “I’m going to work as long as I can remember my lines and stay on my feet. I want to be an actor.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Andy Griffith's induction in 1992.