As Americans awoke on July 3rd and prepared to celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, it was with the news that America had lost one of its greatest citizens.
Andy Griffith had died.
I was too busy to watch the news that day and the next, so I didn’t hear about it until late Thursday, two days after he was gone at age 86.
I was saddened to the core.
In my mind, Andy Griffith stood high on a pedestal and represented the best of what Hollywood and the acting business had to offer, in stark opposition to what we see too much of on TV today.
Andy hearkened back to a much simpler time in America, or at least that’s what my rose-colored memory recalls.
TV was black and white and most of the programs had a positive message, a productive life’s lesson. It was a time when the good guys wore white hats and won, most of the time. And if the bad guys won, they got their come-uppance in the end.
I first remember seeing Andy Griffith playing country bumpkin Will Stockdale in “No Time For Sergeants,” a movie released in 1958. I was just a kid, and I don’t recall details of the show; I just remember that Andy was funny. He made me laugh.
Then, of course, came the role he was most known for: Andy Taylor, the sheriff in Mayberry. He and Barney (Don Knotts, another one of the good guys) and Opie put Mayberry on the map–and it wasn’t even a real town.
I have vivid memories of watching those shows as a tween and teen. I remember wanting to be just like Andy–honest and Solomon-like, strong-willed but always able to solve peoples’ problems with common sense and simplicity.
I didn’t understand then what a single dad meant, and to this day I don’t know how Andy became widowed–I think his wife died giving birth to Opie, but I can’t swear to that and I don’t think it was ever explained in the show.
It didn’t matter. What mattered is how he fathered Opie, with kindness and love, teaching him life lessons one episode at a time.
The impact on the real Opie, Ron Howard, was so powerful that Howard now credits his experiences around Andy as having the greatest defining effect on his life.
“Andy was at the heart of all those great object lessons, as the show and the way the show was created really took on his sensibilities,” Howard said after Andy’s death.
Andy reinforced what my parents and church and schools told me: Honesty is the best policy, treat others as you would have them treat you, protect those you love, be proud of your country, work hard. Was it red, white and blue, apple pie and baseball? Absolutely, and it was good.
Then there were Andy’s relationships with other characters–and they were all “characters”–on the show.
There was his bumbling deputy/best friend Barney (Knotts, who died in 2006), with one bullet in his shirt pocket, his big-city cop attitude and his bug-eyed comedy.
How about Aunt Bea, who (in the first episode after the pilot) came to live with Andy to help care for Opie? She took on the “mothering” duties for Opie.
Who can forget Gomer, the simpleton mechanic who went on to accidently become a TV-Marine with his own show (Gomer Pyle, USMC). Or Goober, Gomer’s cousin.
The list of memorable characters wouldn’t be complete without the nosy barber, Floyd; the persistent town drunk, Otis; Earnest T. Bass, the trouble-making mountain man; Andy’s various girlfriends, the most memorable being Miss Crump; and on and on…
These were all great supporting characters, memorable, but it all hung on Andy; without Andy, there was no show, no cohesion. They would have just been random characters wandering around a little North Carolina township.
The Andy Griffith Show ran for eight seasons between 1960 and 1968; but it lives on forever, not only on cable TV, but in the minds of most people who followed it back then, and now.
I suppose in real life Andy had his flaws; he was married three times, divorced twice. He started school aiming to be a preacher, but changed his major to music, which he was quite good at as a bluegrass and gospel guitarist and singer.
Much later in his career it was revealed that, off-camera, he and Aunt Bea didn’t get along very well.
In most of his roles he plays a down-home country boy because that’s what he was; born an only child on June 1, 1926 (same day and year as Marylyn Monroe) in Mt. Airy, N.C.; he slept in dresser drawers at relatives’ homes until his parents could afford to buy a house.
Growing up, he learned to use a flair for comedy his father had passed on to him to overcome his poorness–he made his peers laugh so they didn’t judge him.
Along his career he was a writer, producer, director, actor, musician; he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 by Republican President George W. Bush. (Andy was a Democrat.)
But to me, all that real-life stuff is unimportant. What I will always remember is Andy Griffith, sheriff of Mayberry, father of Opie.
What is important to me is what Andy represented–a good man doing his best.
I realize now that I grew up trying to be like Andy. I wanted to be known as a good man–all my faults and foibles aside, in the final analysis of my life, I wanted to be known as a good man.
Andy’s world was very different from mine, very different from the world today; but in many ways it was the same. He grew up during World War II, Korea, Vietnam. Bad things were happening around him.
But somehow he managed to be consistent, steady as the Rock of Gibraltar, always ready with homespun wisdom, solutions to any problem, ready to fight injustice.
As I think about it, he did it because he was always able to take complex problems and break them down, get to the root.
He kept things simple.
He was a good man doing his best.
Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine, who also served until recently in municipal parks and recreation, lives in Peachtree City, Ga., and can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email email@example.com.