In 1964, in the middle of his eight-year role as the jovial sheriff of Mayberry, Andy Griffith tells Post writer Donald Freeman that he refused to do anything he could not do well. Over the course of his 86 years, Andy Griffith played many roles: actor, writer, director, producer, and singer. And in all these things he succeeded.
I Think I’m Gaining On Myself
January, 24, 1964—Shortly before the start of the current television season, a cluster of stars assembled in CBS’s Hollywood studios to rehearse a TV special puffing their shows. At a lunch break, as Andy Griffith munched a sandwich and brooded over his script, Lucy Ball approached and asked. “You play golf, Andy?” Griffith shook his head. “You should,” she advised, “It would do you good.” Then the redheaded comedienne eyed Griffith more closely and added, “But you don’t do anything you don’t do well, do you?” And then Lucy wandered off, leaving Griffith with his script, his sandwich and a few moment of unsettling introspection.
Recalling the incident, Griffith said later in a drawl once described as sounding like six miles out in a Carolina swamp, “It’s true—Lucy knew what I’ve just found out about myself. All my life I’ve been thrown into situations I couldn’t always master—riding a horse, teaching school, getting adjusted to new places, new situations. … Mostly, if I couldn’t do something right I’d quit to save myself embarrassment. It drives me crazy not to be able to do something well. And I drive people around me crazy, trying so hard, being so intense. Sometimes I like to give my wife fits with this rebellion I’ve got going on inside. The only good thing is, I think I’m gaining on myself.”
Inhabited by a group of happy eccentrics, Mayberry (on his Andy Griffith Show) is modeled loosely after Griffith’s own hometown of Mt. Airy, N.C. The half-hour show, a curious combination of hip and homespun, not only commands a weekly audience of 35 million, but it also lays claim to occupying a place on TV’s top-10 list almost since its launching in 1960.
Where Sheriff Taylor is gregarious, Griffith, something of a loner, holds to an unconscionably suspicious nature. “It takes Andy eight months to decide if he likes you,” says a former associate on the show.
Set against Taylor’s benign self-assurance, Griffith is a fearsome worrier, so petrified by social situations that he avoids most big Hollywood functions. “I feel I just might not be able to cope,” says Griffith. “I wish I could be like Andy Taylor. He’s nicer than I am—more outgoing and easygoing. I get awful mad awful easy.”
Griffith freely admits to what seem to him monumental shortcomings, among them a tendency to keep public emotion at arm’s length. “It’s the way we mountain people are,” he tries to explain. “My own grandpappy never showed big emotion but once in his life. Lying on his deathbed, he suddenly got up and kissed my grandma gently on the check—he’d never been seen before even to touch her! Then he took back to his bed and died. One emotional act in his whole life, but no one ever forgot it.”
When Andy looks back on his childhood, he sometimes assumes a prismatic double vision. One moment he recalls “the fun we kids had in the summer kickin’ rocks and lyin’ to each other in that wonderful slowed-down time between dusk and dark.” In the next, he speaks of himself as a skinny, gawky, rejected, unathletic kid hurt by his nickname of “Andy Gump” and remembers that once, when he was 11, someone called him “white trash.”
Griffith is still pointing his career toward pictures once his TV series ends—in two more years, by Andy’s present estimate. [It ran for four more years, finally going off the air in 1968—ed.] Meantime, as he expands as a man and an actor, Griffith thrives in what another rural comic, Pat Buttram, has called the best of all possible worlds—”a southern accent with a northern income.”
But Griffith wants to explore all avenues. Once, aboard an airliner, Griffith turned to his manager. “Say, you think I oughta lose my southern accent?” he asked seriously. “Sure,” the other shot back, “if you want to try another line of work.”
Significantly, Griffith now finds himself increasingly coming to grips with a truth which a fellow North Carolinian, the author Thomas Wolfe, set down long ago as the title of his novel “You Can’t Go Home Again.”
Andy has admittedly tried to do just that. This past summer, however, after vacationing [in North Carolina], his outlook seemed sharply altered. “I used to think, ‘Oh, boy, in two years I finish the series and then we retire to Manteo,'” Andy said. “Well, that’s not the way it works. A man changes in thirty-seven years—he learns, he observes, he grows. I still love North Carolina with all I’ve got, but the truth is, I know now that Los Angeles is my home. A man has to live where he competes, and I know now that I’m going to have to work and compete in show business—it’s the only thing I do well.”