Andy Griffith, best known for his portrayal of Mayberry’s Sheriff Andy Taylor, died Tuesday. The real question is why the death of an actor most famous for a show that ended its run on television in 1968 is so much in the news?
To be sure, the show was much beloved, having ended its run at number one in the ratings and never falling out of the top 10 most popular shows in the nation.
And Griffith did go on to other successes, including his long-starring role as television attorney Matlock. Also, we live in a culture always hungry for news of celebrities, but still, something more is going on.
After all, one could easily point out that what most people are mourning is not the loss of the real person, Andy Griffith, who they never knew, but the character Andy Taylor, who never really existed! That’s actually crazy…or is it?
In fact, it’s not crazy at all. The idea that “artificial” representations create “real” emotions is what makes art work. And given the character created by Griffith, the era in which he created him, and the age in which we live, the attention his death his receiving is not only reasonable, it’s instructive.
While Mayberry never really existed, Griffith’s Sheriff Taylor embodied very real values – values which actually transcended the deep divides which tore the nation apart during the years the show aired from 1960 to 1968. The word used by Griffith to describe what his character and the show were all about that value was “love.”
At a time when families were often pulling away from each other and the term “generation gap” become popular, Andy Taylor was a loving and successful father, and single no less! Even more powerfully, Andy Taylor was a loving lawman at a time when the common image of a southern sheriff was likely to be Alabama commissioner of public safety Bull Connor or Lawrence Rainey and Cecil Price, infamously involved in the murders of civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.
Andy Griffith reminded viewers of what was possible when people lived lovingly, even as the nation was living through a time of remarkable hatred. And even though the setting was an idealized place that never existed – one in which there were no murderous tensions and problems were always resolved by the end of the episode, the love which created those resolutions could be practiced anywhere.
Andy Griffith created aspirational television. In our era of so-called reality TV, it’s probably worth asking ourselves not only which is more valuable, but which is more real.
Is it more real for production companies to stage situations in which real people would otherwise not find themselves, in order to provoke responses they would otherwise not have, or, could it actually be more real to create a non-existent community in which actors portray the values most people wished animated their real lived lives?
For Andy Griffith, that was a no-brainer. I think it is for the rest of us to, and that is why so many people are paying so much attention to death of an actor whose best-known character passed from the screen more than 40 years ago.