With his lanky build, boyish smile and winsome drawl, Mr. Griffith was one of the most recognizable figures on television for more than five decades.
During cultural turmoil, political assassinations and war in real America, he kept a comforting sort of order in Mayberry, although order was not hard to keep. Mayberry was a place where Sheriff Andy Taylor wore a badge but normally holstered no gun, where the local drunk turned himself in after drinking too much, and where a pickle-making contest qualified for a ruckus.
Thanks to syndication, “The Andy Griffith Show” has been in continual circulation since its original run and dominated Mr. Griffith’s long and varied career. He broke into the entertainment industry in the early 1950s with a country bumpkin monologue called “What It Was Was Football” and then starred on Broadway as a hapless Southern draftee in the hit comic play “No Time for Sergeants” (1955).
Mr. Griffith also starred in the 1958 film version of the Broadway play, but he showed dazzling potential as a dramatic performer in the 1957 movie “A Face in the Crowd,” directed by Elia Kazan and with a script by Budd Schulberg.
Mr. Griffith played Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a Southern vagrant-turned-television demagogue who is ultimately undone by his megalomania. The film has been venerated as a prescient look at the future of television and politics.
Mr. Griffith said that Kazan and Schulberg — the team behind such powerful films as “On the Waterfront” (1954) with Marlon Brando — were initially skeptical about casting him in “A Face in the Crowd.” He said they figured that he was not suited to the part because he was so good at playing likable hillbillies and seemed perhaps a bit too nice offstage as well.
Mr. Griffith said he was determined to prove he could play Lonesome Rhodes. He convinced Kazan by doing an impersonation of evangelist Oral Roberts conducting a “healing” of the director. Kazan, Mr. Griffith told the Los Angeles Times, “hired me the next day. . . . At that moment, he and Budd could both see that I had a little wild side — that is, I can create a wild side.”
He added that Kazan used that side “to find the emotions of evil, the various thousands of moods that this man had.”
But the role took a toll on Mr. Griffith. To play the part, he harnessed all the heartbreak and sting from having been called “white trash” while he was growing up in rural North Carolina. He took to smashing things, to feel Lonesome’s anger. He said that digging so deeply into the character, working in the Method acting style favored by Kazan, affected his marriage.