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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Andy Griffith Show built North Carolina on the backlot

Illustration for article titled iThe Andy Griffith Show/i built North Carolina on the backlot

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodeswe examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

Earle Hagen was one of the most versatile of television’s important composers. He wrote full orchestral scores, jazz, rock—whatever suited the material. None of his major themes—for The Dick Van Dyke ShowI Spy, and the Mod Squad—sounded alike. In 1960, Hagen was given a new series about a small-town lawman surrounded by folksy kooks. He had the summer to think about it, and in the end, he responded to the character of the sheriff, a widower raising a small boy, more than the premise. “He was the kind of guy who’d whistle,” Hagen said of Sheriff Andy Taylor. He wrote the theme in an hour, and recorded it with just a guitar and a bass drum (for a jug-band flavor) as backup. Hagen whistled the tune himself. His 11-year-old son snapped his fingers on the track. Sheldon Leonard, the executive producer, loved the theme, and knew exactly what to play under it: just a single shot of Andy and his boy Opie walking down a wooded path, fishing poles slung over their shoulders. Unlike the opening credits of most situation comedies, there were no gags. The music and the images were warm, unpretentious, Rockwellian—a promise on which The Andy Griffith Show would deliver.

Andy Griffith was 33 when he started work on the show that bore his name—a show that would, alongside The Dick Van Dyke Show, become the essential sitcom of the early ’60s. A rustic monologist and singer who started on the “Rotary Club circuit” in his home state of North Carolina, Griffith had parlayed a specific, somewhat gimmicky act into multimedia success: hit comedy records, Manhattan nightclub engagements, Broadway stardom (in No Time For Sergeants, as a country boy who wreaks havoc in boot camp), and a movie career. Prior to the screen version of Sergeants, Griffith made an art film for Elia Kazan, the Method acting guru who directed Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. Kazan helped Griffith to shape A Face In The Crowd’s ferocious, amoral Lonesome Rhodes (supposedly based upon Arthur Godfrey) into an unforgettable avatar of show-biz venality. Nearly every character in Griffith’s career would be a variation on either Andy Taylor or Lonesome Rhodes.


But the star and his shrewd advisors—Richard O. Linke, the Capitol Records executive who had discovered Griffith and stayed on as his manager, and Abe Lastfogel, the head of the powerful William Morris Agency—understood how limiting the performer’s specialized persona could be. His third film, Onionhead, was a rip-off of No Time For Sergeants, and a deserved flop; his second Broadway show, Destry Rides Again, was a modest success at best. If versatility was not Griffith’s strong suit, then what he needed was a home where doing the same schtick every week was the key to popularity: television.

The Andy Griffith Show was an agency package, a common but little-understood way by which many early television shows were created. Powerful talent agencies, like MCA and William Morris, played matchmaker between their most powerful clients and sold them as a bundle to networks or movie studios, taking a 10 percent cut on the artists’ salaries as well as the license fee for the project itself. WMA put Griffith together with Sheldon Leonard, a character actor who had become the producer of the hit Make Room For Daddy (a.k.a. The Danny Thomas Show); eventually writer Aaron Ruben came onboard, becoming The Andy Griffith Show’s initial showrunner. The series was owned by the talent, not the network or the sponsor, a model that gave the top creative personnel a financial incentive to creating something lasting. Griffith himself retained the lion’s share of the profits—as much as 70 percent.

Leonard, along with writer Arthur Stander, conceived an episode of The Danny Thomas Show in which Thomas’ character passes through a small Southern town and tries the “Do you know who I am?” routine on its sheriff (Griffith), who is not impressed. It was one of television’s first backdoor pilots. The package was an easy sell to CBS, even though few of the elements were in place. Only Andy and Opie appeared in the Danny Thomas segment; although Frances Bavier had appeared in it, she played a different character than Aunt Bee, whose arrival in Mayberry would be the subject of The Andy Griffith Show’s debut episode. Barney Fife was the last major addition, born as an afterthought when Don Knotts, who had played a small role in the stage and film versions of No Time For Sergeants, saw the pilot and asked Griffith if Sheriff Taylor needed a deputy.

Like so many of the great sitcoms, from M*A*S*H to The Office, The Andy Griffith Show worked out its growing pains on-screen during a first season of trial and error. Griffith proved to have higher standards and a better sense of how to showcase his own talents than any other early sitcom star—even notorious micro-manager Lucille Ball. He opposed Leonard’s original premise—which had Andy Taylor wearing different hats (literally) as the town’s lawman, justice of the peace, and newspaper editor—as “too homey.” His Andy would just be the sheriff, and a down-to-earth one at that: No hat, no tie, no gun.


First-season Andy retained some vestiges of Griffith’s No Time For Sergeants persona and his comedy albums—one of which, a country-fried attempt to decipher Romeo And Juliet, was incorporated into the early episode “A Feud Is A Feud.” “I was supposed to tell funny stories about people around the town and be very Southern, very rural, and very mountain,” Griffith explained. But that plan evaporated as soon as the cameras rolled on the second episode, the Barney Fife-centric “The Manhunt.” Knotts’ spider-limbed, rubber-faced aptitude for physical comedy convinced Griffith that he should mute any of his own exaggerated mannerisms and play the straight man. By the time the series reached its classic period, Griffith’s deadpan reactions were the payoff for many bits. When Barney buys a clunker in “Barney’s First Car,” the big laugh comes from the sight gag of the steering column slowly unscrewing itself. Knotts’ wide-eyed take is set up as the topper, but the real topper is Griffith’s bland delivery of the line, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything like that before.” It was Griffith’s restraint that allowed Andy Taylor to take on mythic proportions—as an iconic father figure and a symbol of fair-minded authority—that no one envisioned at the outset.

Committed to his new role as a straight man, Griffith put out a call for more funny characters “as fast as we could find them.” Amiable drunk Otis Campbell (Hal Smith), easily flustered Floyd the barber (Howard McNear), and dumb-but-sweet-natured mechanic Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) became Mayberry mainstays. Griffith discovered Nabors performing in a Los Angeles nightclub, and some other characters (like Jack Prince’s Rafe Hollister and Jack Dodson’s Howard Sprague) were created for actors about whom Griffith became enthusiastic. Other, broader characters—the proper Englishman Malcolm Merriweather (Bernard Fox), hillbilly family the Darlings, and feral mountain man Ernest T. Bass (Howard Morris)—were used sparingly, so as not to upset the show’s increasingly delicate balance between realism and wackiness. For Griffith, the distinction between small-town and rural humor was important, which is why Ernest T. and the Darlings were always described as having “come down from the mountains.”


The most vexing problem was a leading lady for Sheriff Taylor. Father Knows Best’s Elinor Donahue had been signed to a long-term contract as town druggist Ellie Walker, but left after a dozen episodes. Uncomfortable with on-screen intimacy, Griffith went through the motions opposite several other actresses until, finally, series writer Jim Fritzell recommended his girlfriend, Aneta Corsaut. Corsaut, cast as Opie’s teacher Helen Crump, was a self-described feminist who quarreled with Griffith over women’s lib during her first episode. That gave Griffith the idea of how to play off Corsaut’s unusual persona—low-key but with a simmering temper—and Helen became Andy’s steady date. With Corsaut in place (complementing Betty Lynn as Thelma Lou, Barney’s girl since late in the first season), The Andy Griffith Show completed its A-list ensemble, although the series always suffered for lack of a strong female lead comparable to The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Mary Tyler Moore. “The ladies had to fight for personalities,” said Corsaut.

At the same time the cast filled out, Leonard and Ruben were finding the small corps of writers who could handle the show’s delicate tone. The team of Jack Elinson and Charles Stewart were the best of the original lineup—they originated running gags like Barney’s one bullet, which he had to keep in his shirt pocket—but they were surpassed by Harvey Bullock and the team of Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, who between them wrote nearly all of The Andy Griffith Show’s most beloved episodes. Consciously, the writers eschewed easy one-liners and platitudes. “Most of those family shows sickened me. Father Knows Best and Danny Thomas, with that sermon at the end. Those shows represented American life in a dishonest way,” said Greenbaum. “They gave it back to us for the rewrite and they had taken all the jokes out,” recalled writer Arnold Margolin of his first script. “We came to realize that Andy Griffith was not a show that did jokes. All the humor [came] out of character.”


The Andy Griffith Show had an efficient weekly schedule, instituted by Sheldon Leonard, that privileged script development. After filming from Monday through Wednesday, the cast and crew would gather for table reads of both the following week’s script and the one after that. (Friday was a rehearsal day.) All the actors were invited to contribute suggestions for the next episode, and those brainstorming sessions often lasted until after dark. As for the advance script, Ruben himself would spent the week fixing whatever problems emerged during the initial reading. “Much improved, much improved,” Griffith would invariably say at the next table read. Leonard dropped in to offer occasional suggestions that earned him a reputation as a story construction wizard. “He’d say, ‘Oh, I remember that story from The Ann Sothern Show. And this is why it worked and this is the problem,’” said Margolin. Out of that process, already more collaborative than the industry norm, a substantial, very atypical role as an uncredited writer emerged for Griffith (and, to a lesser extent, Knotts). The star sat in on meetings with writers in the mornings and evenings, and worked on rewrites with Ruben during the weekends.

The best episodes were marvels not only of subtle, character-driven writing, but of meticulous construction that allowed humorous incidents to build and build. The classic “The Pickle Story” turns on both Andy and Barney’s desire not to hurt Aunt Bee’s feelings, and on the complications that arise from Andy’s very practical plots to avoid eating her “kerosene cucumbers.” In “Citizen’s Arrest,” a famous scene has Gomer getting a ticket for a U-turn and then triumphantly turning the tables (“Citizen’s ah-RAY-yust!”) when Barney commits the same offense. The joke plays because, in a meticulously laid out speech, Barney has just told Gomer exactly how and why to make a citizen’s arrest. Andy upholds the ticket, and Barney overreacts by locking himself in jail and quitting. Andy, and later Gomer, bend over backward to reconcile with Barney, even as he refuses to back down from a hypocritical, authoritarian stand. The last scene, in which Andy nonchalantly files Barney’s letter of resignation with all his other letters of resignation, is not just a great punchline; it’s a way of reassuring the audience of Andy’s loyalty to his friend, even when Barney is at his worst. “They’d think about Andy and Barney’s relationship as very simple and transparent,” Griffith said of the writers. “It was actually very complicated.”

Griffith and Ruben insisted on grounding the show in reality, both emotional and geographical. Although Mayberry’s whereabouts were unspecified at the outset, Griffith—over Sheldon Leonard’s objections—began to place it in the region where he had grown up by dropping in references to nearby cities and towns: Siler City, Asheville, Raleigh. “Mount Pilot,” the metropolis closest to Mayberry, was also fictitious, although its name suggested both Mount Airy, Griffith’s home town, and nearby Pilot Mountain.


Griffith and Knotts (the latter a son of West Virginia farmers) bonded over their similar backgrounds, and pushed to recreate the slow rhythms of the little towns they grew up in, where people would sit around for hours, just visitin’ and talkin’ about nothin’ in particular. The producers resisted at first, Knotts recalled, but soon realized that such plotless scenes were what made the show unique. One of the best episodes, “Man In A Hurry,” was in effect a manifesto on behalf of the show’s placid front-porch aesthetic. In it, an officious out-of-towner huffs and puffs through town, trying to arrange for car repairs on a Sunday. By the end of the day, he’s so charmed by Mayberry that he contrives an excuse to extend his stay. Griffith felt that, although the series was explicitly set in the present day (television sets and shiny Fords were seen in every episode), it was really a disguised portrait of small-town life in the ’30s. That element of built-in nostalgia, Griffith suspected, was key to The Andy Griffith Show’s appeal.

As it happens, I grew up in a small town in central North Carolina, albeit in the ’80s rather than the ’60s or the ’30s. By that time, Cary, North Carolina, was part of the mass culture, as full of shopping malls and Pizza Huts as anywhere else in the United States. And yet The Andy Griffith Show was still our show: The only one, in 40 years of television, that had taken a real stab at depicting our corner of the world. Local stations reran the show constantly, and there were fan clubs, newsletters, and conventions. Cast and crew came across the country to speak and meet fans. Two of the actors—Frances Bavier and Betty Lynn, who still signs autographs at the Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy every month—even retired in North Carolina, despite having no other connection to the state beyond their TV characters.


And yet, if one starts to pick away at how truly North Carolinian the entirely Los Angeles-lensed The Andy Griffth Show really was, the facade crumbles in a hurry. The accents are all wrong: Jim Nabors and George Lindsey (his replacement, as Cousin Goober) were Alabamans, Knotts’ West Virginian twang was slight, and the rest of the cast wasn’t Southern at all. The dusty Franklin Canyon trails that surrounded Myers Lake looked nothing like the verdant North Carolina piedmont, and the show’s Culver City backlot was too dilapidated and barren to convincingly simulate any small-town Main Street. And the writers and producers were mostly Jewish and city-bred, the children of immigrants, raised a world away from the rural South. “You hunt much?” Griffith asked a flabbergasted Aaron Ruben upon their first meeting. The cultural gap was deep indeed. “I’d never been down South in my life,” Ruben said—and nobody ever bothered to go and take a look, apart from Bob Sweeney, the series’ most important director. A certain universality was brokered: Ruben translated one of his father’s Yiddishisms into an old saying for Aunt Bee, and Greenbaum picked his Ozarks-bred wife’s brain for regional color. (In the Ozarks, a “goober” was something decidedly obscene.) Ruben kept a six-volume set of North Carolina folklore in his office, and of course Griffith corrected anything that sounded phony. But the series’ authenticity was always conditional. The Andy Griffith Show peddled an ersatz South to Southerners who knew better, and yet we ate it up, threadbare as its truth was, because its vision of our lifestyle was so beguiling—and so flattering.

One person who foundered on the shoals of these contradictions was Andy Griffith himself, who—alone among the principal cast—usually shunned public appearances connected to The Andy Griffith Show. For fans, Griffith’s reluctance to go home again could be heartbreaking—and mystifying. In 1985 he publicly criticized a 14-year-old fan-club president’s campaign to get a North Carolina town renamed Mayberry as “enormously embarrassing,” and in interviews went out of his way to dispute claims that Mayberry was based on his home town of Mount Airy. “He’ll have to be 115 years old,” he joked about a local barber who claimed to have cut his hair when Griffith was a child. If there was a Rosebud behind Griffith’s ambivalence, it may have been the memory of the Mount Airy girl who called him “white trash” when he sought to court her as a teenager. For Griffith, an awkward youth who was often picked on and was self-conscious about being from “the wrong side of the tracks,” growing up in Mount Airy was “not all positive.” The Andy Griffith Show was Griffith’s fantasy of how small-town life should be, not the story of his life. When the real world tried to lay claim to what he had created, Griffith cried foul.


He had a point. It’s not very Mayberry-like for a town to turn itself into Mayberry in order to attract tourists, and it’s bizarre to see Southerners—as I have—emulate The Andy Griffith Show’s courtly gentility in the same way that modern-day gangsters might mimic The Godfather or Scarface. Bizarre, but not unnatural, for that was what Griffith had built: an idealized little town so inviting that a fan couldn’t help but want to wish Floyd’s barbershop or the Griffiths’ front porch into existence. Mayberry was “the grown-up’s Oz,” thought Aaron Ruben. Late in his life, Griffith was more conciliatory, returning to Mount Airy for the first time in 45 years to speak at the dedication of a parkway in his name. “People started saying Mayberry was based on Mount Airy. Sure sounds like it, doesn’t it?” Griffith said—ambiguously. Living in Mayberry, that’s something Barney Fife would try to do. Andy Taylor, with his wistful grin? He’d know better.

Next time: Erik Adams is hanging out, down the street, doing the same old thing he did last week with That ’70s Show.


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