We, the children of television, grew up believing in the human warmth and genuine kindness of "Sheriff Andy Taylor" of Mayberry, N.C.
His character, portrayed by former-Southern-standup-comic-turned-actor Andy Griffith, was a treasure of small-town Americana where all the Anglo-Saxon citizens were protected by the good ol' boy "sheriff without a gun" (the pilot's actual title).
Many years later in the real life Mayberry called Lumberton, North Carolina, Michael Jordan's daddy would be shot in cold blood, targeted by two young boys from Sheriff Andy's fishing hole, primarily because he was a black man driving a new Lexus.
(Author's note: Several commenters have reacted to my calling Lumberton the "real life Mayberry." I should have said "Mayberry-like." But I do know the origins of Mayberry. While fans say it was based on Mount Airy, Andy had been quoted saying he used to visit Mayberry, Virginia, as a child -- 22 miles north of Mount Airy. In a more recent interview he stated that Mayberry was invented by Artie Stander, one of the show's writers and not based on any specific place.
(As for Lumberton, it was never believed to be a contender, but it was perceived as "Mayberry-like," pleasant and safe -- which is why the violence was so disturbing. And James Jordan's killers were interracial.)
Closer to the true Andy Griffith is the 1957 Elia Kazan directed motion picture "A Face in the Crowd," written by Budd Schulberg. Both Griffith and Kazan told me different accounts while riding with me in my first agency-owned Volvo.
Kazan and Schulberg had wanted Marlon Brando, but two weeks into shooting, everyone agreed it wasn't working, and when he finally walked, Kazan was desperate enough to agree to meet Griffith at William Morris at the behest of Abe Lastfogel.
Andy says it took place at the restaurant Gallagher's in New York. Kazan was impressed by Griifth's authentic Southern charm and confidence. He couldn't, however, control his curtain chewing.
In "Face," Griffith's character evolves from dissolute jailbird to the heights of show business idolatry and politics until he's ultimately revealed for what he is. It's a very over-the-top performance by a motivated, if very green, actor.
The present North Carolina-based actor and star of the WMA packaged "Matlock" (1986-1995) has always made industry "evil lists" for enthusiastically serving as captain of mean spirit, hostility and vitriol.
WMA also packaged "Return to Mayberry," and I invested seven years attempting to sell this reunion movie with all necessary elements attached. I finally succeeded in 1986 while learning what the star was really like.
At one point, a line producer was needed and Andy entered my office, closing my door and announcing, "Go get a guy, but make sure he's not a Jew."
Andy knew I was Jewish, he had made the same "secret" directive to Fred Silverman, his "Matlock" partner, that was his point. But where did it originate?
Did it have something to do with his three agents, the creator, pilot writer and producer of his hit show and all of his writers being Jewish? A student of jazz and Dixieland, did he realize that composer Earle Hagen's theme for his second hit show "Matlock" was totally Klezmorim-inspired -- i.e. Jewish Jazz?
Some believed it to be a neurological "tick" like Tourette's. It just "came out" -- he really didn't mean it.
"Do not tell Sheldon Leonard about this," was my first red flag from Griffith. Former actor Leonard had been a favorite of Abe Lastfogel who set him up with Danny Thomas as producer-director and now instructed him to create a series for Griffith. Twenty some years later, Andy didn't want Sheldon, the show's creator, involved.
Hal Ross and I had signed Thom Mount and company and, knowing Thom was born and raised in North Carolina.
I thought it would be a perfect match to bring his youthful perspective to a new look at Mayberry.
I brought Mount and Griffith together, and they appeared to get along. NBC gave the script a go-ahead and a writer, Charles Rosen, from "Beverly Hills 90210" was signed to write.
His draft turned out to be Mayberry on Acid.
"Andy Taylor" is visiting his hometown, which has become a certified speed trap, headed by a corrupt black sheriff and Andy finds, when he finally arrives that no one has time for him, least of all his beloved son Opie. It was a dark and dismal "return."
Rosen tried again and the second draft was even darker.
When Andy learned that he could run this ship without Mount and Rosen, he was thrilled.
He told NBC that he was bringing in his old team and tracked down Harvey Bullock and Everett Greenbaum who were happily still alive.
They met, talked story and began to write. Andy added to their draft with scenes and dialogue that were incorporated into the shooting script. He then chose Bob Sweeney, also from the original show, to direct.
Viacom, run by an always positive Tommy Tannenbaum, was the natural home for Mayberry, as they owned the original series. Andy's new draft had the quiet heart and soul of the original series and was ordered to production.
After a pre-telecast industry screening, to which I wasn't invited, Norman Brokaw called me to say that Andy and his wife, Cindi, were on the phone, the screening was a great success and that Steve White, the head of NBC movies came up to Andy and said "he would never work with Arthur again."
Norman asked for an explanation. Since Steve was one of my closest friends, I was anxious to respond, but before I could speak, Andy's wife, Cindi, blurted out "Now, Andy, that's not what he said at all." Norman asked "... then what did Steve White say?" Cindi responded "He said to Andy ... where's Arthur? Shouldn't you call him and thank him?"
Many of you are aware that "Return to Mayberry" was the top-rated television movie of 1986 and the third highest rated TV movie of all time with a 52 share. (You think "Roots" was the highest rated TV movie? Think again. It was a close battle between "The Day After" and "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island.") So much for substance.
Speaking of the day after, the morning after "Mayberry" aired, it was already 10 a.m. when Jerry Katzman called. I had a wager running with my assistant, Beth Shapira, how long it would take Katzman to call to congratulate me.
But the head of TV packaging wasn't happy. "What have you done? I have Harvey Shephard, (the former CBS programming chief) on the line demanding to know why CBS didn't get 'Mayberry' since it was the obvious choice! Why did you bring it to NBC?"
He had actually raised his voice. "I brought it to NBC last," I answered. "CBS got it first and passed."
"Who at CBS?" "Peter Frankovich", I answered.
It was easy to remember as he complained when I pitched; "We just bought 'Route 66' and 'Mr. Ed' reunions, and I don't think even they work. I have no feeling for 'Mayberry' and I don't believe the audience does either."
With his answer, and Peter assuredly getting a visit from the dull and vacant Shephard, I still awaited the TV head's praise. I'm still waiting.