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Griffith recalls a simpler time, a sweeter place

Monday, November 10, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Like a parent who slips and calls a child by a nickname, Andy Griffith tried to address the Oscar-winning director at his side as Ron.

Andy Griffith, left, and Ron Howard star in "The Andy Griffith Show Reunion: Back to Mayberry" on CBS.

"I called him Ronny for all his young years, and he doesn't seem to mind. I guess that was the hardest part for me, to remember to call him Ron," Griffith says, his Southern accent still as strong as one of Aunt Bee's lip-puckering pickles. For eight years in the 1960s, Griffith and Ron Howard played father and son on "The Andy Griffith Show."

Today, Griffith is 77 and busy with a new collection of songs and stories called "The Christmas Guest," a signature edition Martin guitar (his name inlaid in pearl between the 19th and 20th frets) and a just unveiled bronze statue in Raleigh, N.C., honoring him and Howard. The former Opie Taylor is married, the father of four and a respected director with an Academy Award for "A Beautiful Mind."

In July, the pair joined Don Knotts and Jim Nabors for "The Andy Griffith Show Reunion: Back to Mayberry," airing from 8 to 9 p.m. tomorrow on CBS. Knotts was the bumbling Deputy Barney Fife, while Nabors' Gomer Pyle was a gas station attendant who eventually joined the Marines.

The special takes Griffith and Howard back to the same dusty patch near the old fishin' hole where the opening was filmed in Franklin Canyon in the Hollywood Hills -- initially in black and white and, later, color -- and then to a replica of the courthouse where the sheriff worked.

Griffith, connected with reporters from his home in Roanoke Island, talked about the show's eternal appeal.

"Our central theme was love, and I think that has made it enduring more than anything else. And then, we had the best writers in town, and our characters were so well defined, and we didn't do anything for jokes, everything was character comedy. ... It's a place that people want to return to, I think. It's a quiet, gentle place."

Griffith pauses to find the inscription on the plaque at the bottom of the statue just unveiled in Pullen Park in central Raleigh. "It says, 'A simpler time. A sweeter place. A lesson. A laugh. A father and a son.' I guess that's the best way I can answer that."

Like television viewers everywhere, Griffith has his favorite episodes, including "Barney's First Car," "Citizen's Arrest" and "Opie the Birdman." That last episode, in which Opie kills a bird with a slingshot, is one that fans frequently want to talk about, Howard says in the special.

Television viewers seem to have an insatiable appetite for reunion specials, and "Andy Griffith" fans are no different. "Well, the show was popular when it was out, and so people want to see what we look like now, and we do look different than we did then. This statue that TV Land made, it looks exactly the way Ron Howard and I did over 40 years ago."

With his silvery-to-white hair and fuller face, Griffith looks more like his TV character of Ben Matlock than Andy Griffith. "Andy Taylor was just a nice man. Ben Matlock was very vain, very cheap, very bright and he was a lot different from Andy Taylor... I loved playing them both," he says of the man in the sheriff's uniform and the lawyer in seersucker suits.

On the show that bears his name, Griffith found himself serving as straight man, quite happily. "Originally, I was supposed to be funny. I noticed on the second episode that Don should be funny and I should play straight for him. That set the scene for me to play straight for everybody else, and I loved it. And I think that helped to make the show work."

When the series went beyond the five-year run Griffith once talked about, Knotts accepted an offer to make movies for Universal Studios.

"I didn't try to talk him out of it ... I was very sad to see him leave. He left a hole in the show that could not be filled. We tried to put a deputy on; it didn't work out. The last three years of the show, we just spread the comedy out among a lot of other characters. We were always very character driven, but I did miss Don very much."

One element of Southern life that the show never managed to portray well was racial diversity. "We did have one black actor play a lead role in one show. We tried in every way to get that to happen and we were just unable to do it. I heard [producer] Aaron Ruben say recently he wished we had tried harder, but we were unable to do it at that time, and I'm sorry about it, too."

Griffith, who doesn't watch much TV comedy but endorses "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Seinfeld" reruns, isn't sure if his signature show could be made today.

"My friend Aaron Ruben says no, he doesn't think it could be made today, and I don't know whether it could or not. ... We had to be careful what we said and what we did in those days, and people can pretty well say and do anything they want to, now. It seems like you have to say more and do more all the time."

That wasn't the case when he was a boy in Mount Airy, N.C, stretching a quarter from his mother into a day's entertainment. "I could go to the movies for a dime and go to Snappy Lunch and get a hot dog for a dime, and a bottle of pop for a nickel, and I remember those days very well."

Although legend has it that Mount Airy was the model for Mayberry, the truth isn't quite so straightforward. Griffith credits producers Sheldon Leonard and Ruben, along with a list of very fine writers for shaping the mythical town.

"And then I would mention names of people in Mount Airy and places in Mount Airy like Snappy Lunch, so the people in Mount Airy got to saying, 'Well, it was based on Mount Airy,' and that's gone on so long that I guess it just was based on Mount Airy, but our writers and Don Knotts and me, it was our imagination."

The imagination took flight without interference from CBS or sponsor General Foods. The network "came once a year to say hello and General Foods had a man on the stage who never bothered us or did anything to interfere, and it was a wonderful working relationship, I have to tell you. It was great. We just went to work everyday. It was like getting up to go home."

To Mayberry, where Aunt Bee made the best fried chicken, Barney kept his gun's bullet in his pocket, and a guitar-playing lawman and his boy could sneak away for a little fishin' now and then.

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at or 412-263-1632.

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