Television icon Andy Griffith, known for playing characters who wore their decency like a badge, has died. He was 86.
The Dare County, N.C., sheriff's office confirmed that the star of "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Matlock" had died, soon after his friend, former University of North Carolina president Bill Friday, broke the news to local news station WITN.
The actor came to be known as America's sheriff for personifying small-town values with their emphasis on family and community.
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"Andy was a person of incredibly strong Christian faith and was prepared for the day he would be called Home to his Lord," said his wife, Cindi, in a statement. "He is the love of my life, my constant companion, my partner, and my best friend. I cannot imagine life without Andy, but I take comfort and strength in God’s Grace and in the knowledge that Andy is at peace and with God.”
Ron Howard, who played Griffith's son on "The Andy Griffith Show" before starring in "Happy Days" and becoming an Oscar winning director, paid tribute to his television dad on Twitter.
"His pursuit of excellence and the joy he took in creating served generations & shaped my life. I'm forever grateful. RIP Andy," Howard wrote.
President Obama expressed his sorrow as well.
"Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Andy Griffith this morning," he said. "A performer of extraordinary talent, Andy was beloved by generations of fans and revered by entertainers who followed in his footsteps. He brought us characters from Sheriff Andy Taylor to Ben Matlock, and in the process, warmed the hearts of Americans everywhere. Our thoughts and prayers are with Andy’s family."
Griffith first came to prominence on Broadway in the 1950s in the army comedy "No Time for Sergeants" and the musical version of "Destry Rides Again."
He would reprise his country bumpkin role in "Sergeants" for the 1958 film version, earning rave reviews and propelling the film to the top of that year's box office winners.
But his film debut in 1957's "A Face in the Crowd" (pictured, right) mined a darker side of Griffith, one that he largely abandoned in favor of more mainstream entertainment.
Working with legendary director Elia Kazan, Griffith gave his finest dramatic performance as Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, a drifter who is discovered by an ambitious producer and transformed into a national television phenomenon. With his folksy bromides and populist rhetoric, Rhodes seemed to presage such modern boob tube bloviators as Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann. The film itself was a sly commentary on the power of television that was way ahead of its time.
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Yet it was television that would launch Griffith into the pop culture pantheon. Playing Sheriff Andy Taylor, a widower trying to raise a young son, on the long-running "The Andy Griffith Show," the actor found the perfect vehicle for his easy-going delivery and comic talents.
Mayberry, the fictional North Carolina town where Taylor represented law and order, was populated by village eccentrics like hapless deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), naive gas station attendant Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), and his cousin Goober (George Lindsey), who was childlike but a brilliant mechanic. Griffith provided the show's center of gravity; his gift was to be a proxy for the audience and to respond to the antics around him instead of providing the spark to the lunacy.
The show ran for eight seasons and nearly 250 episodes before wrapping up in 1968. Although it remains his most iconic role, Griffith's generosity as an actor may have worked against him when it came to awards -- he was, amazingly, never nominated for an Emmy for his work as Taylor.
But popular culture had moved very far away from the bucolic Mayberry, and throughout the 1970's and early 80's, Griffith struggled to establish another show as successful as "The Andy Griffith Show." Among his failed efforts were "Headmaster" (1970), "The New Andy Griffith Show" (1971) and "The Yeagers" (1980).
As he neared his sixth decade, he finally found the right vehicle in "Matlock," a legal drama that ran on NBC and ABC from 1986 to 1995. Griffith portrayed a folksy criminal defense lawyer with a penchant for courtroom dramatics and a love of hot dogs. The accent was the same as Taylor's, but unlike the small-town sheriff, Matlock was a brilliant attorney with a worldliness and wiliness that allowed him to translate to modern viewers.
In addition to his acting career, Griffith was a successful recording artist. He recorded several hit albums of Christian hymns for Sparrow Records and earned a Grammy Award for his work. Perhaps his most famous recording is "The Fishin' Hole," the jaunty theme song to "The Andy Griffith Show."