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Andy Griffith, Mayberry Sheriff, Lawyer Matlock, Dies at 86

Andy Griffith, Sheriff of Mayberry, Gospel Singer
Andy Griffith is seen in his uniform as sheriff Andy Taylor on, 'The Andy Griffith Show,' in the late 1960s. Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Andy Griffith, who played the sheriff of Mayberry on television in the 1960s and the folksy criminal defense attorney Ben Matlock two decades later, has died. He was 86.

He died yesterday at his coastal home on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, and was buried there, according to Dare County Sheriff J.D. “Doug” Doughtie, citing a statement from the family. No cause of death was given.

In a variety of roles during his career, Griffith perfected the persona of the country hick who prevailed through an abundance of common sense, a keen sense of humor and moral decency, and those who underestimated him usually paid a price.

He appeared on Broadway and in films before being cast in CBS’s “The Andy Griffith Show” as a southern small-town sheriff riding herd over his young son Opie and his bumbling deputy, Barney Fife. He returned to television in 1986 as a smart, down home criminal defense attorney in “Matlock.”

“I was an awful shy, scraggly, homely kid, and I’d fall over imaginary objects and trip myself up with my own big feet,” Griffith said, according to author Terry Collins in “The Andy Griffith Story” (1995).

One day he said he realized he could make people laugh.

“As long as everyone was going to laugh at me anyway, I might as well put myself in the position where I could control the laughter,” he said. “I turned a disadvantage into an advantage, and in doing it, I changed my whole life.”

Traffic Stop

The pilot of “The Andy Griffith Show” was an episode of “The Danny Thomas Show” in which Danny Thomas was stopped for speeding by Griffith, who played a wise and gentle Sheriff Andy Taylor in Mayberry, North Carolina.

Mayberry’s population included Floyd the barber, Goober the auto mechanic and Otis the town drunk.

“Most of these characters were hicks, playing comic foils to the sagacious Andy,” the Museum of Broadcast Communications said. “Without much real police work to attend to, Andy’s true job was protecting these and other citizens of Mayberry from their own hubris, intemperance and stupidity.”

As a widower and the father of Opie, played by Ron Howard, who lived with Aunt Bee, a motherly character portrayed by Frances Bavier, he earned the No. 8 ranking of TV Guide’s list of “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time,” in 2004.

On the set, Griffith had a legendary temper directed at actors who arrived late, unprepared or who tried to act under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

‘Forever Grateful’

The show, which won five Emmy awards for acting for comedian Don Knotts, who portrayed Fife, and one for Bavier, remained in the top 10 from 1960 to 1968, according to Nielsen Holdings NV.

Griffith’s “pursuit of excellence and the joy he took in creating served generations and shaped my life,” said Howard, through a verified Twitter account, who went on to direct Oscar- nominated movies, including “A Beautiful Mind,” which won four Academy Awards including best picture in 2002. “I’m forever grateful.”

Andy Samuel Griffith was born on June 1, 1926, in Mount Airy, North Carolina, a rural area with quarries and producers of tobacco and furniture products. His father, Carl Griffith, worked as a carpenter in a furniture factory and his mother, Geneva, was a homemaker.

Griffith changed his mind about becoming a minister when he joined the Carolina Playmakers, a theater troupe at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied music before graduating.

Broadway Debut

He started his career by writing and performing humorous monologues such as “What It Was, Was Football,” in which a backwoods youngster at his first game describes boys running up and down a “cow pasture” in “the awfulest fight I have ever seen in my life” and “these purty girls a-wearin’ these little-bitty short dresses and a-dancin’ around.”

A recording of the monologue was released in 1953 and led to television appearances on the Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen shows.

His first Broadway performance, portraying country bumpkin Will Stockdale in the 1955 version of “No Time for Sergeants,” earned him a Tony nomination.

Two years later he showed a darker side in his film debut in “A Face in the Crowd,” co-starring Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau and Lee Remick. Griffith’s portrayal of hick-turned-media demagogue Lonesome Rhodes is an “astonishing, sinister performance,” said New York Times film critic Dave Kehr.

He earned a second Tony nomination, for best actor in a musical for his performance in “Destry Rides Again” in 1959.

After Mayberry

Once he started playing Sheriff Taylor, television became Griffith’s main stage and springboard to fame. He patrolled the streets of Mayberry, aided by Knotts’s Deputy Fife, until 1968.

Griffith’s attempts to find another hit TV series with “The Headmaster,” in which he played a stern school principal working with troubled youths, and “The New Andy Griffith Show,” in which he was the mayor of a small North Carolina town, failed after their initial seasons.

He spent the rest of the 1970s appearing in made-for-TV movies and the occasional mini-series. In 1981, he received an Emmy nomination for a made-for-TV movie, “Murder in Texas.” He didn’t win.

“I was disappointed in not winning the Emmy not so much for anything else except you feel like such a damn fool sitting there on TV,” he said, according to Collins. “It would be nice to have one when my mother comes over or a cousin comes to visit, but I can manage without it.”

Attorney Matlock

Three years later, Griffith played a prosecuting attorney in the mini-series “Fatal Vision,” a role that set the stage for the hour-long crime drama, “Matlock.” The popular show, which ran from 1986 to 1995, occasionally brought the Mayberry regulars back together.

“Matlock has real feet of clay. This character is very cheap,” Griffith said, according to Collins. “He thinks he looks great in these gray suits. He thinks he has a wonderful figure. It’s fun for me. I really love to play this part and allow this character to have all these weaknesses.”

When Griffith accepted the People’s Choice Award for Matlock, he said it was his favorite role. He also was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the group that awards Emmys.

Griffith won a Grammy in 1996 for his gospel album, “I Love to Tell the Story,” and President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.

His career was put on hold in 1983 when he contracted Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Griffith recovered although he couldn’t walk for seven months. He had heart bypass surgery in May 2000.

Griffith married Barbara Bray Edwards in 1949 and they had two children, Dixie Nann and a son, Andrew Samuel Griffith Jr., known as Sam, who died in 1996. The couple divorced in 1972. His 1975 marriage to Solica Cassuto also ended in divorce. He has been married to Cindi Knight since 1983.

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