To some he will forever be Sherriff Andy Taylor, the wise father of Ron Howard’s Opie in The Andy Griffith Show. Others may remember him as Matlock, his other iconic TV role. But Andy Griffith was more than just two TV parts – he conquered screens big and small, and also won acclaim on the stage. He has died at the age of 86 in North Carolina.
Born in the state in 1926, Griffith gravitated early on to performance, music and the arts. Though he went to college studying to be a preacher, he shifted his major to music and joined the Carolina Play Makers. After graduation, he taught English for a few years at a local high school, while also indulging in his passion for writing.
Griffith began his career proper as a comedy monologist, with a keen ability to deliver long, amusing stories, which led to a successful comedy album. A move to television followed with roles in TV movies and teleplays, including No Time For Sergeants, which transferred to Broadway and saw him nominated for a Tony.
In 1957, he made his big film debut, delivering a blistering performance in A Face In The Crowd for director Elia Kazan. The story of a drifter who becomes a performer and TV host, before his rising ambition propels him towards both political power and his own downfall, it serves as a cautionary tale that rings true even today.
But his movie work would be eclipsed in 1960 when he first appeared as Sheriff Andy Taylor in an episode of TV sitcom Make Room For Daddy. It served as a pilot for what became The Andy Griffith Show, which then ran between 1960 and 1967, though Griffith left the show in its last year to pursue other projects.
While he starred in other shows in the intervening years (and took some time off to deal with health issues), Griffith would return to TV screens in a big way as country lawyer Ben Matlock in the show built around his character. That series ran from 1986 to 1995.
Ron Howard, writing in the LA Times on the day of Griffith’s death remembers him fondly. “He was known for ending shows by looking at the audience and saying 'I appreciate it, and good night.' Perhaps the greatest enduring lesson I learned from eight seasons playing Andy's son Opie on the show was that he truly understood the meaning of those words, and he meant them, and there was value in that. Respect. At every turn he demonstrated his honest respect for people and he never seemed to expect theirs in return, but wanted to earn it.”