Most actors are lucky to have one iconic TV role in their lifetimes. Andy Griffith, who died on Tuesday (July 3) at age 86, had two, in addition to a big screen career that included one of legendary director Elia Kazan’s powerful, prophetic cautionary tales about the power of TV, “A Face in the Crowd.”
WITN News reported that paramedics were called to Griffith’s Dare County, North Carolina, home on Tuesday, where they found the actor dead.
Griffith is best known for his role as the genial sheriff of the fictional town of Mayberry on the long-running “The Andy Griffith Show,” which not only made Griffith a star, but also helped launch the career of actor/director Ron Howard, who played the sheriff’s son, Opie. The show ran from 1960-1968 and though its iconic whistling theme song and his character became a part of TV history, Griffith was never nominated for an Emmy during his run.
Born Andrew Samuel Griffith on June 1, 1926, in Mount Airy, North Carolina, Griffith was an only child who cultivated a love of acting from an early age, graduating with a degree in music from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 1949. He went on to star on Broadway and graduated to the movies in 1957 with Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd.”
The movie tells the tale of the folksy drifter Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes who is discovered by a talent scout and lifted to fame in a national TV show and a role as a media coach for an ambitious presidential candidate. The rise-and-fall of Rhodes, whose arrogance and cynicism about his audience eventually get the best of him, is a still relevant tale of the wages, and costs, of instant fame, the power of TV and the capacity for Americans to forgive and forget the trespasses of their Hollywood heroes.
The “Griffith Show” was spawned from a 1960 appearance on the Danny Thomas show “Make Room for Daddy” and turned into the role of a lifetime for the actor. Playing widower Andy Taylor, Griffith radiated a wholesome good-heartedness that endeared him to the audience and helped make the show a hit. It also featured rubber-faced character actor Don Knotts in the role of bumbling deputy and Andy’s best friend, Barney Fife. While Griffith never scored Emmy gold, Knotts won five straight Emmys for his work.
Griffith left the show in 1968 over a contract dispute and went on to star in a series of lesser-known series throughout the 1970s. He hit the jackpot again, though, in 1986 with the role of genial, sometimes-cranky country criminal defense attorney Benjamin Matlock. The legal drama ran on NBC from 1986-1992 and on ABC from 1992-1995.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree, who showed off his pipes in “Crowd,” “Matlock” and “Griffith,” was also a recording artist, releasing more than a dozen albums of gospel hymns and country and bluegrass tunes.