Andy Griffith, whose folksy portrayal of the wise and good-humored sheriff of Mayberry in the classic 1960s situation comedy “The Andy Griffith Show” made him one of television’s most beloved stars, has died. He was 86.
Griffith, who decades later experienced another round of TV popularity starring as a crafty Atlanta defense attorney on “Matlock,” died Tuesday morning at his home in Manteo, N.C., his friend and former president of the University of North Carolina, William C. Friday, told the Los Angeles Times. The cause was not immediately determined.
A former North Carolina high school music teacher, Griffith launched his career as an entertainer in the early 1950s by writing and performing comic monologues for civic clubs that he delivered in an exaggerated Southern drawl that was once described as “sounding like three yards out on a Carolina swamp.”
As the Harvard-educated lawyer on “Matlock,” which had a nine-year run on NBC and ABC in the 1980s and ‘90s, Griffith maintained his down-home sensibility. As an actor, he learned early on to play to his strengths.
“Any time I try to play anything that doesn’t come natural, I’m just plain bad,” he once told TV Guide.
As Sheriff Andy Taylor, his most famous role, he was just plain good.
Griffith was starring in the Broadway musical “Destry Rides Again” in 1959 when he told his agent that he was ready to try a TV series.
Sheldon Leonard, the producer of “The Danny Thomas Show,” teamed with a writer to develop an idea for a series that would exploit Griffith’s homespun image: having him play the small-town sheriff of a mythical North Carolina town called Mayberry.
Serving as the series’ pilot was a guest spot by Griffith in early 1960 on CBS’ “The Danny Thomas Show” in which Sheriff Taylor picked up nightclub entertainer Danny for speeding through Mayberry on his way to Miami.
“The Andy Griffith Show” made its debut that fall with Ronny Howard as the widowed Taylor’s young son, Opie; and Frances Bavier as his matronly Aunt Bee. The series quickly became one of the decade’s most popular shows and ran for eight seasons.
Comic actor Don Knotts, who had played a supporting role in the Broadway and film versions of “No Time for Sergeants” that Griffith had earlier starred in, had seen his “Danny Thomas Show” episode and called to suggest that Andy Taylor should have a deputy.
The addition of Knotts as the incompetent but full-of-bravado Barney Fife quickly shifted the balance of the show.
“I was supposed to have been the comic, the funny one,” Griffith told the Times in 1993. The series, he said, “might not have lasted even half a season that way, but when Don came on I realized by the second episode Don should be funny and I should play straight to him.”
The unflappable Andy and the all-too-excitable Barney became one of television’s greatest comedy duos.