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Griffith created a legendary character

Andy Griffith’s broad shoulders carried a heavy load for more than 50 years. In 1960, he created an iconic fictional character so noble that today, church groups still seek moral guidance in Sheriff Andy Taylor’s every televised word, deed and gesture.

And over the years, when Griffith insisted that Mayberry, the perfect little town he invented, was absolutely not based on his hometown of Mount Airy, N.C., fans nodded, winked, said “Sure, Andy, whatever you say,” and went right on believing what they wanted to believe.

What they wanted to believe was that around the next bend or over the next hill was a place like Mayberry and a man as fair, wise and decent as Sheriff Andy.

Griffith died Tuesday at 86.

There is no tougher role in show business than living up to the persona you created. Those who live in the public’s adoring and unrelenting gaze quickly learn they are expected to always be the character the public loves. Woe unto the one who deviates from that script. Andy Griffith found that lovable Andy Taylor was a tough act to follow.

Andrew (or Andy, as some of the reference sources insist) Samuel Griffith was born the son of a furniture factory worker, Carl Lee Griffith, and his wife, Geneva Nann Nunn Griffith, on June 1, 1926, the same day as Marilyn Monroe. He grew up with other hardscrabble mill kids on the wrong side of the tracks at 711 Haymore St. in Mount Airy.

While he enjoyed the usual small-town summer delights of rock-kicking, cloud-counting and such, there was enough hard times and spirit-crushing prejudice in that blue-collar Surry County town that once he left, his return visits were few.

Griffith, like Thomas Wolfe and legions of other talented small-town kids from this state, invented himself at Carolina. He put aside intentions to become a Moravian minister like his mentor and changed his major to music. He was elected president of his fraternity and met Barbara Bray Edwards, from Troy.

They graduated and were married in 1949.

“No Time for Sergeants,” starring Andy Griffith as the innocently goofy Will Stockdale, aired in March 1955. It was on Broadway by October of that year. It featured an unknown actor named Don Knotts as a character named Manual Dexterity.

The show ran on Broadway for 796 performances and earned Griffith a Tony nomination as Best Featured Actor. Most of the Broadway cast followed the show to Hollywood, where it was reborn as a movie in 1958.

‘It’s Andy’

Nightclub comedian Danny Thomas had a popular television sitcom in the late 1950s. In 1959, he hit on an idea for an episode that seemed amusing: The fast-talking and often abrasive New York comic he portrayed would be driving his family through the rural South. They’d get pulled over in some hick town by a redneck cop. Hilarity, and a healthy dose of offensive regional stereotyping, would ensue.

“Name ain’t Clem. It’s Andy, Andy Taylor” were the first words spoken by the character who was on the verge of an eight-year reign in television’s Top Ten.

Griffith may have perfected the bumpkin bit, but when it came time to negotiate a contract for a spinoff series based on the country lawman he’d created, he and agent Richard O. Linke played big-city tough. They held out for a deal that gave a rookie series actor 50 percent of what became “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Through 249 episodes, from the Oct. 3, 1960, black-and-white debut, when Aunt Bee replaced Rose as the family’s new housekeeper, to the color finale on Sept. 22, 1968, when an Italian family moved to Mayberry to help Mayor Sam Jones work his farm, “The Andy Griffith Show” was as about as good, popular and wholesome as television ever got.

The show ripened smoothly from its early days, when the ah-shucks, hee-haw Griffith tried too hard to be funny with his over-the-top Southern shtick. It was in the second year when he became the straight man and turned the day-to-day comedy labors over to his band of merry madcaps like rock-chunkin’ Ernest T. Bass, town drunk Otis Campbell, the weirdly Zen-like barber Floyd Lawson and sweet Aunt Bee.

Griffith was a stickler for authenticity. The North Carolina he created on the show would be the North Carolina he knew and the one he wanted the world to see. A typical Griffith decision: the occasional state highway patrolman who stopped by the Mayberry jail wore authentic North Carolina Highway Patrol insignia.

Oh, and there was a deputy named Barney. Don Knotts won the Emmy award as best supporting actor for five straight years for his hijinks. No one ever did that before.

But you already know all there is to know about North Carolina’s all-time most favorite show, don’t you? And if you don’t, it’s still on television every day, 52 years after its debut.

“The Andy Griffith Show” set a standard for excellence that would prove difficult for Griffith to equal. It was so popular — it was No. 1 the day it left the air — that anything that came after it had to be a disappointment. And so it was with Griffith’s career. It would be charitable to say the ’70s were not his favorite decade.

He tried with three series in the 1970s: “The Headmaster,” “The New Andy Griffith Show” and “Salvage One.” Each had their moments but no audience.

And then there were the awful made-for television movies with titles like “Winter Kill,” “Street Killing,” “Deadly Game” and the one that was so bad it is almost funny, “Pray for the Wildcats.” The former sheriff of Mayberry was now a motorcycle-riding psychopath in Baja California.

In 1972, Andy Griffith and Barbara Edwards were divorced. He married Solica Cassuto in 1973 and divorced her 1981. In 1983, with his career going nowhere and his personal life in shambles, Griffith was stricken with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a neurological disorder.

The disease paralyzed him, and for a time it seemed he would never walk again. But the bad career choices, the failed marriages, the illness and even the drug-related death of his son Sam at age 36 would soon be put behind him.

In 1983 he married Cindi Knight. In 1984, he was cast in the role that was to be his redemption.

Ben Matlock

Griffith was cast as federal prosecutor Victor Worheide in the made-for-television blockbuster, “Fatal Vision.” It was the story of the famous Jeffrey MacDonald/Green Beret murders at Fort Bragg, and those who knew the real-life principals knew how on-target Griffith’s meaty portrayal of Worheide was. It was the best straight acting he’d done since Lonesome Rhodes almost 30 years earlier.

That role led to his rebirth as a television icon, this time as a Southern lawyer in a rumpled seersucker suit named Ben Matlock. Off and on from 1986 to 1995, Griffith’s Matlock was wise, cranky, stubborn, funny and 100 percent Andy. Those who knew the actor said he was much closer to Matlock’s persona than he ever was to TV’s beloved sheriff.

Griffith came home to North Carolina in the 1980s, at peace with his life and career. He moved “Matlock” to Wilmington and still took a few outside acting jobs when they suited him.

He also became heavily involved in recording gospel music. He won a Grammy Award in 1997 for “I Love to Tell the Story: 25 Timeless Hymns.”

Griffith mellowed in his later years. His reputation for a hot temper faded with his youth. He quietly and without fanfare seemed to forgive Mount Airy for its slights by showing up for the dedication of U.S. 52 as the Andy Griffith Parkway in 2002. It was the first time he had returned to his hometown in 45 years. He and Cindi even spent the night in his boyhood home.

During the dedication ceremony, Griffith, then 76, said, “I’m proud to be from the great state of North Carolina. I’m proud to be from Mount Airy. I think of you often, and I won’t be such a stranger from here on out.”

Then he said what the home folks had wanted to hear for a long time. “People started saying that Mayberry was based on Mount Airy,” he said with a smile. “It sure sounds like it, doesn’t it?"

Also in 2002, a statue of Sheriff Andy Taylor and son Opie was erected in Raleigh’s Pullen Park. The inscription is the perfect summation of the show they made famous and, in many ways, the role the public demanded Andy Griffith play for the rest of his life: “The Andy Griffith Show — A simpler time, a sweeter place, a lesson, a laugh, a father and a son.”

In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded Andy Griffith the Presidential Medal of Freedom for, well, just being Andy.