So many people wanted to place Andy Griffith in the past, in a place
that never really was. Griffith himself preferred to live in the present.
There was surprise and some disappointment when in 2008, Griffith reteamed with his TV son, Ron Howard, to reprise their roles in a black-and-white, tongue-in-cheek, pro-Obama video message. The president, in a statement mourning Griffith, who died on Tuesday, said, “A performer of extraordinary talent, Andy was beloved by generations of fans and revered by entertainers who followed in his footsteps.”
Griffith supported another Democrat, N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue, in her campaign. Counting down the days of her lame-duck tenure and fresh off the GOP legislature’s successful override on three bills she vetoed, she said in her statement: “Throughout his career, he represented everything that was good about North Carolina: a small town boy and UNC graduate who took a light-hearted approach to some of the attributes he grew up with and turned them into a spectacularly successful career.”
In 2010, an ad in support of health care legislation seriously dented Griffith’s approval numbers in his beloved North Carolina, a poll showed. Which was enough of a shock that a Democratic consultant suggested to the News & Observer, “It's a good time to call up Barney Fife.”
I get the feeling Griffith didn’t crave a sidekick at those moments; he mainly made up his own mind about things like that. If he had done what a lot of folks, including me, wanted, he would have starred in more films like 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd.” That Elia Kazan classic revealed a dark heart beneath the lead character’s country charm while making prescient points about the dangers of media manipulation and the unleashed egos of the powerful. Griffith instead preferred to serve up Southern comfort that confounded stereotypes without rocking the
Griffith said in interviews that Mayberry was meant to be a throwback – and it was no doubt an escape for many – though its portrait of loving, understanding parents and respectful children who learned from their wiser, slyer elders was subversive in its own way. Perdue said, “In an increasingly complicated world, we all yearn for the days of Mayberry.”
In the idealized small town of Mayberry, reminiscent of Griffith’s own Mount Airy, N.C., hometown, not much happened. When “The Andy Griffith Show” made its television debut in fall of 1960, of course, history-making change roiled the actor’s own North Carolina, with the image of Southern sheriff a ways off from Andy Taylor’s folksy friendliness.
Earlier that same year, four students from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro challenged segregation with the first sit-in, at a F.W. Woolworth lunch counter.
Mixing rose-colored fiction and real life, it would be nice to think Floyd the barber would have given those nice young men a shave and a haircut in Mayberry.
But not even Griffith believed that. A former colleague told me about a call back from Griffith to answer a question on race that he had stumbled on in an interview; it was about his decision to skirt that particular lesson in “The Andy Griffith Show.” It would have been the one thing Sheriff Andy could not have solved in a half-hour, he figured, so he left it alone, my friend reported.
But the man who thought a long time about that question lived to see his home state give a close victory to the black man he supported.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3