The Andy Griffith Show
When Danny Thomas, the well-loved entertainer and benefactor of St. Jude's hospital for children, cast Andy Griffith as the affable, slow-talking sheriff in an episode of The Danny Thomas Show (1953–1965), he had no way of knowing that he was launching a phenomenon that would assume mythical proportions. In the episode, Thomas was given a ticket while traveling through the small town of Mayberry, North Carolina. Sheriff Andy Taylor, who also happened to be the justice of the peace, convinced the big-city entertainer that Mayberry was a place to be reckoned with. More than five decades later, it still is. The show ran from 1960 to 1968, but by the end of the 1990s, more than five million people a day continued to watch The Andy Griffith Show in reruns on 120 television stations. In the 21st century, scholars are still assessing the impact of the program on American popular culture. Despite receiving some criticism for its lack of racial and ethnic diversity, for the most part the show continues to be seen as a positive influence on the American public.
The genius of The Andy Griffith Show evolved from its characters. Each role seemed to be tailor-made for the actor who brought it to life. Mayberry was peopled by characters who were known and liked. The characters did ordinary things, such as making jelly, going to the movies, singing in the choir, and sitting on the porch on a summer night. No one accused Andy and Barney of commitment phobia even though they left Helen and Thelma hanging for years before marrying them. In point of fact, it took a reunion movie to bring Barney and Thelma Lou to the altar. It was simply accepted that people in small southern towns behaved this way.
Five-time Emmy winner Don Knotts, as Barney Fife, became one of the most popular characters of all time. His slack jaw and pop-eyed look led to starring roles in several feature films, among them The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1965), The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), and The Reluctant Astronaut (1967). Knotts's comedic timing was without parallel. Little Ronny Howard played Taylor's son, Opie; he grew up to be Ron Howard, played freckle-faced teenager Richie Cunningham (1974–1980) on Happy Days (1974–1984), and has since forged a successful career as a director with hits such as Apollo 13 (1995) and A Beautiful Mind (2001). Jim Nabors played goofy neighborhood friend and gas station attendant, Gomer Pyle. The success of the Pyle character led to Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (1964–1970), in which Pyle joins the marines and becomes the bane of his commanding officer's life. After the demise of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Nabors hosted his own variety and talk shows and continued to perform in concerts and clubs. George Lindsey, who played Goober on the series, became a regular on Hee Haw (1969–1986), a hillbilly version of Laugh-In. However, it was Griffith who provided the anchor for the show and proved to be the glue that held its bumbling but well-meaning cast together. Without Andy, the characters might have been perceived as caricatures. After leaving the show, Griffith launched a second successful television series with Matlock (1986–1995), playing a shrewd but amiable southern lawyer. He also returned to an old love and recorded two successful gospel albums.
The premise of the show was simple. Episodes followed the life of Andy Taylor, a sheriff who provided law and order in a small southern town and who was raising his young son with the help of his Aunt Bee and various friends and neighbors. The plots were never complex; they involved the consequences of Opie killing a bird with his BB gun, Barney not being allowed to have bullets in his gun, neighborhood friend Gomer making a “citizen's arrest,” or Andy's fighting off the attentions of a mountain girl. The success of the show in the 1960s was understandable, for it poked fun at realistic human foibles. On the other hand, its continued success has been phenomenal. Since the 1990s fans all over the country have banded together in Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Clubs. On the Internet, a number of websites, including a virtual Mayberry community, are devoted to the show and its stars. Most surprising of all is the devotion of the members of Church of Christ in Huntsville, Alabama, who plan their Wednesday night services around watching old episodes of the show and applying its moral lessons to their religious beliefs.
More than fifty years after its 1960 launching, the stars of The Andy Griffith Show have grown up and older. Some of them, including Andy himself, Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier), and Barney Fife, have died. Yet in the minds of many nostalgic Americans, the town of Mayberry will forever be populated: Andy Taylor will be the sheriff, and his deputy will be Barney Fife. Aunt Bee and her friend Clara will wrangle over who is the best cook. Gomer and Goober Pyle will continue to run the gas station. Floyd will cut hair on Main Street. Howard Sprague will work at City Hall. Otis will lock himself up after a drinking binge. Helen and Thelma Lou will wait for Andy and Barney. The Darlings will live in the North Carolina mountains. Whatever the underlying cause of its continued success, the town of Mayberry and its inhabitants have become part of the American psyche, reminding a jaded public of gentler, friendlier
times. It may be true that you cannot go home again, but you can go back to Mayberry again and again.
Elizabeth Rholetter Purdy
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Vaughan, Don Rodney. “Why The Andy Griffith Show Is Important to Popular Cultural Studies.” Journal of Popular Culture 38, no. 2 (2004): 397–423.
White, Yvonne. “The Moral Lessons of Mayberry; Alabama Bible Class Focuses on TV's Andy Griffith.” Washington Post, August 29, 1998, B-9.