Andy Griffith: He Had the Good Sense Not to Fight the Role That Defined Him for Generations

An appreciation: Slow-talkin', easygoin', good-hearted, folksy Andy — an accidental artist, and everybody's friend

"I fit in a real peculiar slot," wrote Andy Griffith in 1959.  At the time, he might have been right: He was a North Carolina-bred actor and occasional musician and comic who'd studied to be a preacher and made his film debut in "A Face in the Crowd," a tough Elia Kazan satire about a scheming country boy who becomes a TV star.

But before long, Griffith's slot didn't seem peculiar at all. The following year, "The Andy Griffith Show" debuted on CBS, and the next eight years presented an Andy Griffith that would come to be an indelible part of the television and pop culture of the era: slow-talkin', easygoin', good-hearted, folksy Andy.

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Griffith had the sense not to fight the role that defined him for generations; he occasionally ventured into darker waters in his work, but he knew that he would forever be Sheriff Andy from Mayberry. 

Andy Griffith and Don Knotts

And to all appearances he was fine with that from the time the show debuted until Griffith's death this week at the age of 86.

The accolades, for the most part, went elsewhere: Co-star Don Knotts won most of the Emmys for "The Andy Griffith Show" (the series' namesake was never even nominated), while Griffith's onscreen son Ron Howard went on to become a Hollywood heavyweight.

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Griffith was likewise ignored when the legal drama "Matlock" had a long and successful run on ABC; the series only landed four Emmy nominations over nine years, none for its star.

Griffith was certainly a star – but in a way he was the ultimate example of the way television doesn't raise stars up, it makes them our friends by putting them in our homes every week. And to all appearances, he rarely fought that.

Andy Griffith Shouts the Blues

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In fact, he embraced the folksiness even before he became known for it. In 1959, Griffith recorded a blues album on which he performed versions of songs like "The House of the Rising Sun" and "Midnight Special"; it was not his finest moment, but he was modest enough to give it an honest title: "Andy Griffith Shouts the Blues and Old Timey Songs."

And in the bio he provided for the disc's liner notes, he laid out his history with the same kind of aw-shucks charm he would later show on television. In a section titled "About the Artist," he grudgingly accepted the title:

"Used to be just people who could draw a picture were called artists. But now there are so many record companies, and TV shows and movies and all, that anybody who is fooling around with them and not doing any actual work is called an artist. So since they've loosened the requirements, I guess I'm one, too."

As for the bio he provided for the album, it was succinct (though the marriage he mentions ended in divorce after 23 years):

"I was born and raised in North Carolina — graduated from college in 1949 (by mistake), taught high school for three years (the students claim that was also by mistake), got married to Barbara Bray Edwards in 1949 (I did that on purpose and she has worked out so fine I expect I'll keep her on). And as I said before, to avoid having to work to work, in 1953 we moved to New York and I went into the field of entertainment."

That field did all right by him, and he by it.