Rick Armstrong is a TV producer and photographer for WRAL's Health Team.
In covering news in North Carolina since I started in the WRAL newsroom in 1982, I've been fortunate to enjoy a few brushes with fame. There was no more exciting "in-person" meeting than with Andy Griffith. That's right, Andy, Ange – or as Barney also called him, "Big Fella." The news of his passing today brought a rush of memories.
Andy Griffith is and always will be a local hero from Mount Airy. He actually owes a special debt to Capitol Broadcasting Company, in particular, WRAL radio.
When Fred Fletcher had his morning show on WRAL, he loved to play funny bits from comedy records. In 1953, he came upon Griffith's recording of "What it Was Was Football."
It was actually recorded in Raleigh for the Colonial label and eventually sold 50,000 copies, but it only got regional exposure at first. He voiced the part of a country bumpkin who is caught up in a crowd rushing into a college football game. When he finally saw the inside of the stadium he exclaimed,
"And what I seen was this whole raft of people a-sittin' on these two banks and a-lookin' at one another across this pretty little green cow pasture. Somebody had took and drawed white lines all over it and drove posts in it, and I don't know what all ..."
Fred Fletcher recounts his part in giving Griffith national exposure in his book "Tempus Fugit." He knew Don Comstock with Capitol Records and sent him a copy of Griffith's record.
Comstock played it for a national sales manager with Capitol. They sent representatives to Chapel Hill to meet with Orville Campbell who produced the record. They gave him a $5,000 advance for the rights and then signed Andy to Capitol.
That sparked his invitation to The Ed Sullivan Show and then some movies and of course, getting his own TV show.
The football bit also became part of a tradition in WRAL's TV sports segments every year just before the start of college football season.
My good friend Jay Jennings, who began as a sports photographer in 1981, put together a photo essay using Griffith's classic bit matched to video at various games from the year before. It was a big viewer favorite.
I should also mention that WRAL's TV 6:00 newscast in the early '80's benefitted greatly from airing the Andy Griffith Show reruns at 5:30.
Those were the days when we achieved an audience share above 50. That means that of all TV sets turned on in our market area, more than 50 percent were watching our newscast – due partly to arguably the best TV situation comedy of all time.
I've never grown tired of watching it, especially the earliest seasons shot in black and white. Griffith was the chief creative force of the show.
I recall long trips with Bill Leslie as we pursued folksy "Spirit of Carolina" stories in the mid- to late '80's.
Bill often told me about his frustrations trying to land an interview with the legend. Griffith had a home in Manteo. He had slowed down, spent less and less time in California. However, he never responded to media interview requests.
He wanted to spend his retirement years on the Carolina Coast close to where he began his acting career in the long running outdoor drama, "The Lost Colony."
He played the part of Sir Walter Raleigh. Locals in Manteo say Griffith didn't have much patience with people taking pictures, asking for autographs or shouting, "Hey Sheriff."
It certainly would be a huge "get" for anybody to land the "Griffith interview." It would probably get a full 30 minutes in prime time if he agreed to do it. He never did.
That is until August of 2002. Gov. Mike Easley arranged a huge media event to herald the opening of the new 64 Bypass from Mann's Harbor to Manteo, which included the new Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge.
The bypass cut a good 30 minutes off the drive from the state's mainland to Roanoke Island. I was assigned to cover the opening of the new bridge and word was that Andy Griffith himself, a good friend of Easley's, would be on hand.
Now I figured I would be a total failure as a news guy if I didn't at least make an attempt to interview Griffith. It would be a great feather in my cap if I could somehow manage to pull it off. And boy, wouldn't Bill and David Crabtree be jealous!
Griffith was scheduled to make a few remarks at the podium, but questions from reporters were NOT on the agenda.
There was a thick crowd in front of the stage and the news cameras were set up a good 50 feet back on risers. As the speeches began to wind down, I quickly took the camera off my tripod, pitched it upon my shoulder and carefully worked my way around the crowd near the only steps coming off the stage.
There he was, Andy himself coming down right in front of me. I kept my right eye fixed on the viewfinder while my left eye tracked him down the steps. I lurched forward with the microphone which I held out in my left hand and I blurted out – "Mr. Griffith – can I ask you a quick question?"
I didn't give him a chance to say no. I was already rolling and he probably thought, "Well, he'll probably air video of me giving him the cold shoulder if I don't, so I better give in this one time."
I would have. And he did.
I wanted him to share his memories performing in The Lost Colony play. I wanted to ask him what he thought about modern sitcoms that rely so much on off color humor. "The Andy Griffith Show" won generations of devoted fans with clean humor, a focus on character development, poignant human experience, true to life father-son moments, children acting like real children rather than snarky miniature comedians.
I wanted to ask him if he'd ever seen Jay's video version of his classic football routine, or if he knew that Fred Fletcher was the one who got him his first big break – and I really wanted to ask why he hadn't answered Bill Leslie's pleas for a long sit down interview.
However, I knew I only had time for a quickie – a single shot – one question that I could use in connection with the event. Instead of all the marvelous questions I wanted to ask, this is the one that came out: "How will this new bypass and bridge change Manteo?"
As if I really cared.
He answered, "Oh, I think it will benefit this whole area. It's gonna take traffic off the north end. It's going to bring people over here, as they said, 30 minutes earlier. It's going to be fantastic."
Then he turned and left. I had my sound bite. It wasn't much. We used it on the air that night.
The only local TV interview ever granted by Andy Griffith (until six years later when Scott Mason talked to him about The Lost Colony drama) - and it wasn't with David Crabtree or Bill Leslie. Heck, even Charlie Gaddy would have come out of retirement for an Andy interview!
But this one was all mine –as short and unsatisfying as it was.
Now that he's gone, that brief moment with Andy will be one that I'll cherish forever.