The Andy Griffith Show

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The Andy Griffith Show

When Danny Thomas, the well-loved entertainer and benefactor of St. Jude's hospital for children, cast Andy Griffith as the affable slow-talking sheriff in an episode of The Danny Thomas Show (1953-65), he had no way of knowing that he was launching a phenomenon that would assume mythical proportions. In that episode, Thomas was given a ticket while traveling through the small town of Mayberry, North Carolina. Sheriff Andy Taylor, who also happened to be the justice of the peace, convinced the big city entertainer that Mayberry was a place to be reckoned with. Almost 40 years later, it still is. The show ran from 1960 to 1968, but by the end of the 1990s, more than five million people a day continued to watch The Andy Griffith Show in reruns on 120 television stations.

The genius of The Andy Griffith Show evolved from its characters. Each role seemed to be tailor-made for the actor who brought it to life. Mayberry was peopled by characters who were known and liked. The characters did ordinary things, such as making jelly, going to the movies, singing in the choir, and sitting on the porch on a summer night. No one accused Andy and Barney of commitment phobia even though they left Helen and Thelma hanging for years before marrying them. In point of fact, it took a reunion movie to bring Barney and Thelma Lou to the altar. It was simply accepted that people in small Southern towns behaved this way.

Five-time Emmy winner Don Knotts, as Barney Fife, became one of the most popular characters of all time. His slack jaw and pop-eyed look led to starring roles in several feature films, among them The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1965), The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), and The Reluctant Astronaut (1967). Knotts' comedic timing is without parallel. Little Ronny Howard played Taylor's son, Opie; he grew up to be Ron Howard, played freckle-faced teenager Richie Cunningham (1974-80) on Happy Days (1974-84) and later forged a successful career as a director (Apollo 13 (1995) and Cocoon (1985)). Jim Nabors played goofy neighborhood friend and gas station attendant, Gomer Pyle. The success of the Pyle character led to Gomer Pyle, USMC (1964-70) in which Pyle joins the Marines and becomes the bane of Sergeant Carter's life. After the demise of Gomer Pyle, USMC, Nabors hosted his own variety and talk shows and continued to perform in concerts and clubs. George Lindsey (Goober) became a regular on Hee Haw (1969-86) a hillbilly version of Laugh-In. However, it was Andy Griffith who provided the anchor for the show and who proved the glue that held its bumbling but well-meaning characters together. Without Andy, the characters might have been perceived as caricatures. After leaving the show, Griffith launched a second successful television series with Matlock (1986-95) playing a shrewd but amiable southern lawyer. He also returned to an old love and recorded two successful gospel albums.

The premise of the show was simple. Episodes would follow the life of Andy Taylor, a sheriff who provided law and order in a small southern town and who was raising his small son with the help of his Aunt Bee and various friends and neighbors. The plots were never complex; they involved the consequences of Opie killing a bird with his B-B gun, or Barney not being allowed to have bullets in his gun, or neighborhood friend Gomer making a "citizen's arrest," or Andy's fighting off the attentions of a mountain girl. The success of the show in the 1960s was understandable, for it poked fun at realistic human foibles. On the other hand, its continued success has been phenomenal. In the 1990s, fans all over the country band together in Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Clubs. On the Internet, a number of web pages have been devoted to the show and its stars. These sites include a virtual Mayberry community. Most surprising of all is the devotion of the Church of Christ in Huntsville, Alabama, who plan their Wednesday night services around watching old episodes of the show and applying its moral lessons to their religious beliefs.

Almost 40 years after its 1960 launching, the stars of The Andy Griffith Show have grown up and older. Some of them, including Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier), have died. Yet in the minds of many nostalgic Americans, the town of Mayberry will forever be populated: Andy Taylor will be the sheriff, and his deputy will be Barney Fife. Aunt Bee and her friend Clara will wrangle over who is the best cook. Gomer and Goober Pyle will continue to run the gas station. Floyd will cut hair on Main Street. Howard Sprague will work at City Hall. Otis will lock himself up after a drunk. Helen and Thelma Lou will wait for Andy and Barney. The Darlings will live in the North Carolina mountains. Whatever the underlying cause of its continued success, the town of Mayberry and its inhabitants have become part of the American psyche, reminding a jaded public of gentler, friendlier times. It may be true that you cannot go home again, but you can go back to Mayberry again and again.

—Elizabeth Purdy

Further Reading:

Beck, Ken, and Jim Clark. The Andy Griffith Show Book, From Miracle Salve to Kerosene Cucumbers: The Complete Guide to One of Television's Best Loved Shows. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1985.

White, Yvonne. "The Moral Lessons of Mayberry; Alabama Bible Class Focuses on TV's Andy Griffith." The Washington Post, 29 August 1998, B-9.