Beloved actor Andy Griffith dies at 86
RALEIGH, N.C.—It was all too easy to confuse Andy Griffith the actor with Sheriff Andy Taylor, his most famous character from "The Andy Griffith Show."
After all, Griffith set his namesake show in a make-believe town based on his hometown of Mount Airy, N.C., and played his "aw, shucks" persona to such perfection that viewers easily believed the character and the man were one.
Griffith, 86, died Tuesday at his coastal home, Dare County Sheriff Doug Doughtie said in a statement.
"Mr. Griffith passed away this morning at his home peacefully and has been laid to rest on his beloved Roanoke Island," Doughtie told The Associated Press, reading from a family statement.
Although he acknowledged some similarities between himself and the wise sheriff who oversaw a town of eccentrics, they weren't the same. Griffith was more complicated than the role he played -- witnessed by his three marriages if nothing else.
But that perception led people to believe Griffith was all that was good about North Carolina and put pressure on him to live up to an impossible Hollywood standard.
He protected his privacy in the coastal town of Manteo, by building a circle of friends who revealed little to nothing about him.
Strangers who asked where Griffith lived would receive circular directions that took them to the beach, said William Ivey Long, the Tony Award-winning costume designer whose parents were friends with Griffith and his first wife, Barbara.
Craig Fincannon, who runs a casting agency in Wilmington, met Griffith in 1974. He described his friend as the symbol of North Carolina.
That role "put heavy pressure on him because everyone felt like he was their best friend. With great grace, he handled the constant barrage of people wanting to talk to Andy Taylor," Fincannon said.
In a 2007 interview with The Associated Press, Griffith said he wasn't as wise as the sheriff, nor as nice. He described himself as having the qualities of one of his last roles, that of the cranky diner owner in "Waitress," and also of his most manipulative character, from the 1957 movie "A Face in the Crowd."
"But I guess you could say I created Andy Taylor," he said. "Andy Taylor's the best part of my mind. The best part of me."
Griffith had a career that spanned more than a half-century and included Broadway, notably "No Time for Sergeants;" movies such as Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd"; and records.
"No Time for Sergeants," released as a film in 1958, cast Griffith as Will Stockdale, an over-eager young hillbilly who, as a draftee in the Air Force, overwhelms the military with his rosy attitude. Establishing Griffith's skill at playing a lovable rube, this hit film paved the way for his sitcom.
He was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts Hall of Fame in 1992 and in 2005, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the country's highest civilian honors.
His television series resumed in 1986 with "Matlock," which aired through 1995.
On this light-hearted legal drama, Griffith played a cagey Harvard-educated attorney who was Southern-bred and -mannered with a leisurely law practice in Atlanta.
Decked out in his seersucker suit in a steamy courtroom (air conditioning would have spoiled the mood), Matlock could toy with a witness and tease out a confession like a folksy Perry Mason.
This character -- law-abiding, fatherly and lovable -- was like a latter-day homage to Sheriff Andy Taylor, updated with silver hair and a shingle.
In short, Griffith would always be best known as Sheriff Taylor from the television show set in a North Carolina town not too different from Griffith's own hometown of Mount Airy.
In 2007, Griffith said "The Andy Griffith Show," which initially aired from 1960 to 1968, had never really left and was seen somewhere in the world every day. A reunion movie, "Return to Mayberry," was the top-rated TV movie of the 1985-86 season.
Griffith set the show in the fictional town of Mayberry, N.C., where Sheriff Taylor was the dutiful nephew who ate pickles that tasted like kerosene because they were made by his loving Aunt Bee, played by the late Frances Bavier. His character was a widowed father who offered gentle guidance to son Opie, played by little Ron Howard, who grew up to become the Oscar-winning director of "A Beautiful Mind."
"His love of creating, the joy he took in it whether it was drama or comedy or his music, was inspiring to grow up around," Howard said in a statement. "The spirit he created on the set of `The Andy Griffith Show' was joyful and professional all at once. It was an amazing environment."
Don Knotts was the goofy Deputy Barney Fife, while Jim Nabors joined the show as Gomer Pyle, the cornpone gas pumper. George Lindsey, who played the beanie-wearing Goober, died in May.
Griffith and Knotts had become friends while performing in "No Time for Sergeants," and remained so until Knotts' death in 2006 at 81.
Knotts' widow, Francey Yarborough Knotts, said in a statement Griffith was in good spirits when she spoke with him June 1, his birthday.
"Don and I loved Andy very much," she said. "Andy and Don had a great friendship and a great creative partnership. Throughout their lives, they continued to have fun together and discuss the art of comedy and acting."
Nabors said he saddened to hear the news at his home in Honolulu.
"I talked to Andy a couple of weeks ago," he said. "I really don't know what to say. It's very personal."
"The Andy Griffith Show" was a loving portrait of the town where few grew up but many wished they did -- a place where all foibles are forgiven and friendships are forever. Villains came through town and moved on, usually changed by their stay in Mayberry. That was all a credit to Griffith, said casting director Craig Fincannon of Wilmington, who met Griffith in 1974.
"I see so many TV shows about the South where the creative powers behind it have no life experience in the South," Fincannon said. "All too often, they have a stereotypical perspective. What made `The Andy Griffith Show' work was Andy Griffith himself -- the fact that he was of this dirt and had such deep respect for the people and places of his childhood. A character might be broadly eccentric, but the character had an ethical and moral base that allowed us to laugh with them and not at them.
"And Andy Griffith's the reason for that."
The show became one of only three series in TV history to bow out at the top of the ratings (The others were "I Love Lucy" and "Seinfeld."). Griffith said he decided to end it "because I thought it was slipping, and I didn't want it to go down further."
His quiet public life didn't prevent Griffith from exhibiting a fine sense of humor. Both Long and Fincannon recalled Griffith's sneaky tendency to show up unexpectedly. In 1974, Fincannon was an actor in the outdoor drama, "The Lost Colony," where Griffith had gotten his start in acting decades earlier.
"He would sneak into the choir and stand and sing as a choir member in the show, and people in the audience had no idea," Fincannon said.
When Long and his two siblings were grand marshals in the Manteo Christmas parade, Griffith showed up in his 1932 roadster convertible to drive them. No one recognized Griffith, wearing glasses and a knit cap, until he said "Merry Christmas" to the crowd, Long said.
When asked in 2007 to name his favorite episodes, the ones atop Griffith's list were the shows that emphasized Knotts' character.
"The second episode that we shot I knew Don should be funny and I should play straight for him," Griffith said. "That opened up the whole series because I could play straight for everybody else. And I didn't have to be funny. I just let them be funny."
Griffith's generosity toward his castmates paid off richly for those fellow actors, particularly Knotts.
Sheriff Taylor was ever-indulgent with the twitchy, bug-eyed Deputy Fife, and loved joshing with him just for good sport. The result was five supporting-actor Emmys for Knotts.
"What are the state police gonna think when they get here and find we got an empty jail?" rants Barney in one episode, as always worried about appearances. "They're gonna think this is just a hick town where nothing ever happens!"
"Well, now," Taylor says calmly, "you got to admit: That's about the size of it.
Letting others get the laughs was something of a role reversal for Griffith, whose career took off after he recorded the comedic monologue "What It Was, Was Football."
That led to his first national television exposure on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1954, and the stage and screen versions as the bumbling draftee in "No Time for Sergeants."
In the drama "A Face in the Crowd," he starred as Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, a local jailbird and amateur singer who becomes a homespun philosopher on national television. As his influence rises, his drinking, womanizing and lust for power are hidden by his handlers.
"Mr. Griffith plays him with thunderous vigor," The New York Times wrote. The Washington Post said, "He seems to have one of those personalities that sets film blazing."
Griffith said Kazan led him through his role, and it was all a bit overwhelming for someone with, as he put it, just "one little acting course in college."
"He would call me in the morning into his little office there, and he'd tell me all the colors that he wanted to see from my character that day," he recalled in 2007.
"Lonesome Rhodes had wild mood swings. He'd be very happy, he'd be very sad, he'd be very angry, very depressed," he said. "And I had to pull all of these emotions out of myself. And it wasn't easy."
His role as Sheriff Taylor seemingly obliterated Hollywood's memory of Griffith as a bad guy. But then, after that show ended, he found roles scarce until he landed a bad-guy role in "Pray for the Wildcats."
Hollywood's memory bank dried up again, he said. "I couldn't get anything but heavies. It's funny how that town is out there. They see you one way."
More recently, Griffith won a Grammy in 1997 for his album of gospel music "I Love to Tell the Story -- 25 Timeless Hymns."
In 2007, he appeared in a critically acclaimed independent film, "Waitress," playing Joe, the boss at the diner. The next year, he appeared in Brad Paisley's awarding-winning music video "Waitin' on a Woman."
"Few people in this world will ever have more influence on our lives than Andy Griffith," Paisley said in a statement. "An actor who never looked like he was acting, a moral compass who saved as many souls as most preachers, and an entertainer who put smiles on more faces than almost anyone; this was as successful a life as is pretty much possible."
Griffith stepped back into his Sheriff Taylor role in 2008 when he appeared in a pro-Barack Obama campaign video directed by Howard and featuring the former child star chatting with Griffith and other former TV colleagues.
Griffith was born June 1, 1926, and as a child sang and played slide trombone in the band at Grace Moravian Church. He studied at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and for a time contemplated a career in the ministry. But he eventually got a job teaching high school music in Goldsboro.
His acting career began with the role of Sir Walter Raleigh in Paul Green's outdoor pageant, "The Lost Colony," in Manteo. The pageant was about Raleigh's failed attempt to establish an English colony on Roanoke Island, where Manteo is located.
Griffith helped Long's father build the house where the family lived in a community of bohemian artists with little money, sharing quart jars of homemade vegetable soup with each other.
He and his first wife, Barbara Edwards, had two children, Sam, who died in 1996, and Dixie. His second wife was Solica Cassuto. Both marriages ended in divorce. He married his third wife, Cindi Knight Griffith, in 1983.
"She and I are not only married, we're partners," Griffith said in 2007. "And she helps me very much with everything."
Griffith also suffered over the years with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that can cause sudden paralysis. In 1987, he told the Associated Press that he wore plastic leg braces during the making of "Return to Mayberry."
"I've stopped wearing the braces," he said then. "They squeaked and the soundmen could hear them. I took them off and never put them back on. I have pain, but I'm 100 percent OK. But the pain's been with me so long I almost don't notice it."
He had suffered a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 2000.
AP Television Writer Frazier Moore and Entertainment Writer Jake Coyle, both in New York, contributed to this report.
Martha Waggoner can be reached at --http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc