I was busy writing a column about politics when I heard - about an hour ago as I'm writing this - that Andy Griffith had died at 86. I never expected his death to feel like a big cultural shock, but it does, and I'm sure I'm only one of millions who feel that way.
The Mount Airy-born entertainer became an icon of sorts to many Americans, who knew him primarily through The Andy Griffith Show, one of the nation's most popular television series in the 1960s. Griffith was also a musician, singer, writer and star of the popular Matlock series, in which he played a country lawyer practicing in Atlanta. But for most people, when they hear the words "Andy Griffith," they think of Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, North Carolina.
To fans, The Andy Griffith Show's characters - Andy, Barney, Opie, Aunt Bee, Floyd the barber, Thelma Lou, Otis the drunk, Ernest T. Bass, and all the others - became so familiar, both during the show's initial run and later as the series was widely syndicated, they almost seemed like old acquaintances.
Many of the show's admirers are attracted to the small-town ambience and mores presented in the show - even fans who, like this writer, grew up in small Southern towns and knew firsthand just how fictional Mayberry, with its pervasive, level-headed wisdom, really was. And never mind that Mayberry was apparently one of the only North Carolina towns with very few African American residents. As a documentary about the show once explained, if black actors had been given substantial roles - and assuming at least some semblance of realism - it would not have been a comedy, considering the second-class citizenship forced on Southern blacks then. It almost certainly would not be syndicated today, either, so, you know, count your blessings.
Like many successful artists who left the region, Griffith had a complex relationship with the South. As a young man, he loved much about his native area but couldn't wait to get out. He was an educated sophisticate who became famous by pushing the Southern stereotype envelope, as in his early comedy routine, "What It Was, Was Football," in which a country bumpkin witnesses a football game for the first time. He was a relatively liberal Democrat beloved by millions who disagreed with his politics. And he was known to be prickly in private, much more often than, say, Andy Taylor, although many fans assumed he was the very embodiment of the good-natured wise man he played in both The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock.
I'll never forget the time the late Don Swan educated someone about Griffith. Longtime CL readers will remember Don, the photographer, filmmaker, activist and actor who took photos for this paper for years, while writing and co-starring in his hilarious cable show, Wild, Wild South. Once, Don and I were having lunch when a WWS fan came over and told Don that he was glad WWS mocked stereotypical southerners, "not like Andy Griffith, where they glorify them."
It was the only time I saw Don upbraid a fan. I'm paraphrasing Don, but here is roughly what he told the guy: "Andy Griffith is a genius. The show got laughs by using white Southern stereotypes, like the Goober character's 'dumb hick' stereotype. But having a character like Goober isn't glorifying a Southern stereotype - he's pushing the stereotype over the top, into ridiculousness. That's what I try to do with Red Helms (Don's character on WWS) - that's right out of Andy Griffith, but just pushed farther."
Whatever he was, Andy Griffith isn't someone our culture will forget anytime soon. His image, particularly that of the Taylor character, has become so entrenched, it's practically a cultural archetype. He's celebrated by everyone from old conservatives who revere "small-town values" and see Griffith as a throwback to the "good ol' days," to alt hipsters who reinvent the Andy Griffith Show's situations and characters all the time. (Think of the "Pink Floyd" t-shirts featuring a rosy Floyd the barber.) Perhaps best of all, think of (and if you haven't heard it, get it), the Nashville cult favorite band BR5-49 and their song "Me 'n' Opie," in which Andy's son and a friend sneak out to the "duck pond" to smoke pot and fool around, only to be joined soon by much of the rest of the show's cast. All I'm saying is that it's hard to find anyone who doesn't love, or at least have some fondness for, Andy Griffith's most famous character.
I mean, we're talking about Andy here. What's not to like?