Andy Griffith was as American as the apple pies Aunt Bee baked, as fatherly as they come for television viewers and Southern to his soul.
Mr. Griffith, 86, died Tuesday at his home in Roanoke Island, N.C. The cause of death had not been released.
For more than 50 years, from Mayberry to Matlock and beyond, Mr. Griffith became the dream father of baby boomers and fantasy grandpa to their children, always bigger than the box making him a star.
Many kids watching The Andy Griffith Show in the 1960s wished they could drop a fishing line with Sheriff Andy Taylor of fictional Mayberry, N.C., or just sit and whittle, listening to him wisely drawl about what's fair in life and what isn't.
As we got older in the 1980s and '90s, more wary about the world, it was reassuring to have sly, courtly Ben Matlock looking out for innocent folks.
Andy and Ben were essentially the same character — steady, loyal, honest — and by all accounts a lot like the actor playing them. You can't fake such sincerity, explaining how both series — especially the Mayberry chronicles — remain staples of syndicated television and time capsules of simpler eras.
In the 1960s, The Andy Griffith Show was calm in the eye of a cultural storm, in a nation coarsely abandoning its down-home roots. Andy Taylor was a weekly, prime-time role model of fading innocence, an aw-shucks lawman rarely carrying a gun, bringing pot roast to jail guests and waiting before kissing his girlfriend, Helen Crump, anywhere but on the cheek.
A widowed, single father, Andy Taylor taught his son, Opie, life lessons with firm conviction and gentle guidance. Like the time Opie carelessly shot a bird with his BB gun, and Andy made him listen to hatchlings chirping for a mother who wouldn't return to her nest. Simple, timeless, like every other act of honesty on the show.
Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, who played Opie, on Tuesday recalled Mr. Griffith as a jovial collaborator whose easy-going style could deceive.
"There was a fantastic equilibrium between his love of laughter and jokes and funny stories and songs and all that, and then he could turn on a dime and be the utmost professional," Howard told Entertainment Weekly.
"If people who met him were to be surprised (to learn something about him) it would be this sort of simple commitment to excellence. This straightforward work ethic that he adhered to in a very unpretentious way with great humility and very few words."
Incredibly, Mr. Griffith never won an Emmy.
The strict moral code of Mr. Griffith's most famous role is steeped in North Carolina, where he was born poor in Mount Airy — the Mayberry prototype — raised devoutly Baptist and died wealthy, promptly interred on his Roanoke Island farm. Mr. Griffith first planned to use his baritone voice preaching in church, before music and acting pulled him away. In 1996, Mr. Griffith's devotions converged, winning a Grammy for the gospel recording I Love to Tell the Story: 25 Timeless Hymns.
Mr. Griffith's first show business success came in 1954, as a cornpone monologist describing men who "wanted this funny-lookin' little punkin' to play with" in the novelty recording What It Was, Was Football! Years later, I wore down the grooves on a 45 rpm recording of his hayseed persona describing the plot of Hamlet. You can find them on YouTube, and you'll laugh like the dickens, as Andy Taylor would say.
Hollywood beckoned the rising comedian, stage and TV star, although his debut in 1957's A Face in the Crowd wasn't the affable bumpkin fans expected. Director Elia Kazan cast him as Lonesome Rhodes, a country singer whose television celebrity leads to corrupt political ambition.
It's a scary performance that remains relevant each election cycle, in a role Kazan believed Mr. Griffith too nice to handle. Until he auditioned by imitating evangelist Oral Roberts performing a spiritual healing.
"At that moment, he and (screenwriter) Budd (Schulberg) could both see that I had a wild side," Mr. Griffith told the Los Angeles Times in 2005, the year he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. "So (Kazan) used that. He used that part of me to find the emotion of evil, the various thousands of moods that the man had."
Mr. Griffith's other early roles hewed close to folksy type, including a 1958 movie adaptation of his Broadway turn as Army Air Forces recruit in No Time for Sergeants. Those jobs marked Mr. Griffith's first collaborations with Don Knotts, who later became Andy Taylor's jittery deputy Barney Fife.
Everything changed after Oct. 3, 1960, when The Andy Griffith Show debuted on CBS, introducing America to the eccentrically good-hearted citizens of Mayberry. No time for movies until the series ended eight years later. By then filmmakers only wanted some variation on Andy Taylor's homespun niceness.
That changed in 2007, when Mr. Griffith was cast as cantankerous Old Joe in the indie comedy Waitress, doling out sage, risque advice to a single mother-to-be. An Oscar nomination, partly sentimental, was predicted by some critics but didn't happen. Mr. Griffith's late bloom ended with 2009's Play the Game, a senior citizen sex comedy flop.
This wasn't the Andy Griffith his fans wanted. That's how much pop culture changed since Mayberry's innocence, when rehearsing a barbershop quartet or planning a church social could fill a half-hour of television that thrilled. Almost all of Mayberry's finest are gone now — Goober, Aunt Bee, Floyd the Barber, Barney — and now Sheriff Andy, the upstanding citizen who bound them together.
He leaves behind a nation nostalgically whistling the The Andy Griffith Show theme, though mournfully now.
Information from Times wires and the Internet Movie Database was used in this report. Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.