Andy Griffith arrived on the big screen in 1957 with expectations for a legendary career. His performance in Elia Kazan's A Face In the Crowd invited comparisons to Marlon Brando and James Dean. The studio pitchmen, with a hint of hyperbole, called his debut performance, "One of the best characterizations ever put on the screen, in the whole history of motion pictures."
Griffith's enduring legacy was not that of a movie star. Whereas Dean's light shone brilliantly for a short time before it was extinguished, and Brando blazed a path with such reckless abandon that excess ultimately engulfed his brilliance, Griffith directed his energy into a slow, steady, controlled burn. After a few post Face follow-up films, Andy found his way to television, where his acting talents perfectly melded with the still-emerging form, and where he crafted one of the most enduring careers the medium has ever known.
His legend was formed on the small screen from 1960-1969 as mild-mannered Sheriff Andy Taylor in "The Andy Griffith Show" show and "Mayberry R.F.D" - tell me you don't you hear the whistle of the theme song in your head. Griffith's other great success came two decades later as the titular country lawyer Ben Matlock on T.V.s "Matlock" from 1986-1995. In between these benchmarks, Griffith appeared in dozens of TV movies, guest spots on series, and cameos in films.
That nothing in the career that follows compares with the effervescent brilliance of Face begs the question:
Did Kazan so perfectly subvert the "nice guy" persona, that it took Griffith a career of wholesome to overcome, or was the characterization so spot-on, that Griffith's career as the archetypal nice guy a testament to his brilliance as an actor?
See for yourself as TCM remembers Andy Griffith, who died today at 86, on Wednesday July 18th with A Face In the Crowd at 8:00 p.m., followed by:
10:15 p.m. - No Time for Sergeants (1958) - with Myron McCormick, Nick Adams, Murray Hamilton and Don Knotts. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy.
12:30 a.m. - Hearts of the West (1975) - with Jeff Bridges, Donald Pleasance, Blythe Danner, Alan Arkin, Richard B. Shull, Herb Edelman, Alex Rocco and Marie Windsor. Directed by Howard Zieff.
2:15 a.m. - Onionhead (1958) - with Felicia Farr, Walter Matthau, Erin O'Brien, Joe Mantell, Ray Danton, James Gregory and Joey Bishop.
Note: Special shout out to my NYU Cinema Studies alum (and Atlantan) Melissa Love for her insights on this piece. I can't see Andy Griffith without first thinking of Melissa. She was hip to Andy waaaaaaay before it was cool.
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