Actor, NC icon Andy Griffith dies

Andy Griffith, who parlayed his youth in rural North Carolina into an award-winning television and film acting career, died Tuesday. He was 86.

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MANTEO, N.C. — Andy Griffith, who parlayed his youth in rural North Carolina into an award-winning television and film acting career, died Tuesday at his home in Manteo following an illness. He was 86.

His family said he has already been buried on his Roanoke Island farm. The quick burial was planned in advance, according to the Twiford Funeral Home.

"It was his and his family’s wishes. It wasn’t just on a whim. They just wanted a private, intimate service with close family and friends," said David Twiford Jr., who added that there is no law in North Carolina that a person must be embalmed before burial.

"Andy was a person of incredibly strong Christian faith and was prepared for the day he would be called home to his Lord," his wife, Cindi Griffith, said in a statement. "He is the love of my life, my constant companion, my partner and my best friend. I cannot imagine life without Andy, but I take comfort and strength in God's grace and in the knowledge that Andy is at peace and with God."

Best known as Sheriff Andy Taylor in "The Andy Griffith Show," which ran for eight seasons on CBS in the 1960s, Griffith became an iconic television father figure. Two decades later, he played a crafty Southern lawyer in the NBC and ABC show "Matlock."

"His pursuit of excellence and the joy he took in creating served generations (and) shaped my life," actor Ron Howard, who played Griffith's son, Opie, on "The Andy Griffith Show," wrote on Twitter Tuesday morning.

"I'm forever grateful. RIP Andy," Howard wrote.

People across North Carolina and the nation had similar reactions for a man many considered a role model and symbol of North Carolina.

"Andy Griffith graciously stepped into the living rooms of generations of Americans, always with the playful charm that made him the standard by which entertainers would be measured for decades," Gov. Beverly Perdue said in a statement. "In an increasingly complicated world, we all yearn for the days of Mayberry. We all will miss Andy, and I will dearly miss my friend.”

Former Gov. Jim Hunt called Griffith "pure North Carolina" and said he cared about the people in the state.

"We're so fortunate to have Andy, and we're all better people because he was one of us in North Carolina," Hunt said. "The man has done so much good. He's brought so much excitement and fun and goodness. That's the kind of thing that means a lot. So, when you think of Andy, you just smile."

“Andy was a true North Carolina icon who introduced many people across the country and across the world to our great state for the first time," U.S. Sen. Richard Burr said in a statement. "While his passing is sad, the legacy he leaves through his work on television and in his community will remain timeless, and future generations will be able to enjoy and appreciate his talent for years to come.”

A woman who dropped flowers off at the "Andy and Opie" statue in Pullen Park in Raleigh said she always watches reruns of "The Andy Griffith Show" when she feels homesick and needs pleasant memories.

Jim Togni, a Syracuse, N.Y., fan who also visited the Raleigh statue, said he and his son used to mimic the opening of the show, where Griffith's and Howard's characters would walk to a fishing hole.

"We used to take walks every day, and I would whistle the theme song from the beginning and he would pick up a rock and give it a toss," Togni said, adding that the show shaped his image of the South.

"The people are just like the people on Andy Griffith. Friendly, jovial, good with a joke," he said.

Sam Ellis, who grew up in Sanford, said Griffith's characters reflect the best of North Carolina.

"You always saw at the base of it what it is that make North Carolina great. It is absolutely our culture and fundamentally what it is to be a North Carolinian," Ellis said.

"It embodies the society we grew up in in North Carolina. I think that's why North Carolina means a lot, because of Andy Griffith and the things that he did," fan Debbie Coulby said.

"Andy Griffith has become synonymous with North Carolina," fan Carlton Howard said. "When I traveled around the country, people say, 'Are you from Mayberry?' And I say, 'No, but I know where it is.' Everybody thinks Mayberry's a real town."

Beginnings in comedy, music

Griffith first discovered his talent for acting and comedy while growing up in Mount Airy. He said he became the class clown in school to protect himself from bullies.

While he was in high school, a Moravian minister taught him how to play trombone and other musical instruments, as well as how to sing. He considered becoming a minister himself, but decided instead to major in music at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The musical training led to parts in Gilbert & Sullivan musicals at UNC, and Griffith also performed in "The Lost Colony" outdoor theater productions in Manteo during summers. After graduation, he landed a job as a choral teacher at Goldsboro High School but continued performing in "The Lost Colony," eventually landing the role of Sir Walter Raleigh.

Producers of "The Lost Colony" said they would dim the lights before Tuesday night's performance in honor of Griffith.

After three years at Goldsboro High, Griffith quit teaching and began performing variety shows for civic groups statewide with his first wife, Barbara Edwards, who had been a "Lost Colony" actress. Edwards would sing in the shows, and Griffith would perform comedic monologues.

During one of the monologues, he made up a story about a country bumpkin trying to explain the first football game he had ever seen. Someone asked him to record the bit, and "What It Was Was Football" became a nationwide hit.

The recording paved the way to Broadway for Griffith. He landed the starring role of Will Stockdale in the play "No Time for Sergeants" on television, stage and film between 1955 and 1958. Actor Don Knotts also starred in the stage and film versions, leading to a long friendship between the two.

Griffith showed his acting range in 1957 when he was cast as megalomaniac Lonesome Rhodes in director Elia Kazan's film "A Face in the Crowd." To beat out other actors for the role of the power-hungry entertainer, Griffith said, he acted like a faith healer during a dinner with Kazan to convince the director he had the intensity for the part.

Road to Mayberry

Despite his film success, Griffith expressed a desire to get into television, and his agent approached producer Sheldon Leonard and actor and producer Danny Thomas about finding a role for him. Leonard developed the idea of "The Andy Griffith Show," which began as a sketch on Thomas' TV show.

Frances Bavier as Aunt Bee, Howard as Opie and Griffith were initially the only regulars on the show. But when Knotts saw the program's pilot on TV, he quickly asked to join cast as Deputy Barney Fife.

"What made that show a hit was Don Knotts," Griffith said later. "It was too homey (at first). When Don joined the show ... I knew he should play the comic and I should play the straight-man, and that made all the difference."

The character of Sheriff Andy Taylor routinely dispensed common-sense wisdom to his son and other residents of Mayberry, the fictional town where the show was based, and people passing through town.

"On the show, people thought he wasn't acting and that Andy Taylor was just naturally him," Knotts said later. "He was so good that he made it look natural. He was acting. It was a fine performance. Andy never got credit as a writer, but he was involved with the story line of every episode."

Although many people have equated Mayberry with Griffith's childhood home of Mount Airy – Mount Airy continues to play up the parallels for tourists – he said Leonard initially conceived Mayberry as a generic Southern town. Because Griffith wanted a more concrete setting, he began dropping references to Raleigh, Siler City and other North Carolina locations into the scripts.

"Mayberry really was the star of the show," Griffith said.

The slow pace of the show, the down-home characters and the moral lessons of many episodes provided a cultural anchor for a nation caught in the whirlwind changes of the 1960s.

"Though we never said it and though it was shot in the '60s, it had a feeling of the '30s," Griffith said in a 1996 interview. "It was, when we were doing it, of a time gone by, and we were very careful to keep our characters pure."

Knotts left the show after five years, and Griffith said he quickly tired of the show after that, although he stuck with it for another three seasons.

"It was becoming like a regular situation comedy, and I felt I wasn't holding up my end," he said.

More than 40 years later, the show still has generations of fans who watch syndicated reruns.

"We didn't know when we started it that it was going to last that long and influence so many people," he said.

Career revival

Griffith's career began to lag after he left the show, as movies and TV miniseries he appeared in didn't score big with fans.

"I wanted to prove that I could play something else," he said, "but there were 249 episodes out there of 'Mayberry,' and it was aired every day. It was hard to escape."

During this period, his marriage to Edwards ended, and he also married and divorced Greek actress Solica Cassuto.

In the early 1980s, his career suffered another setback when he developed a rare neurological disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome. The illness left him paralyzed from the knees down for several months.

Nearly 20 years after "The Andy Griffith Show," Griffith finally returned to weekly television as the title character in "Matlock" after an NBC executive saw him in a production and asked him to star as a Southern lawyer in the new series.

"I loved the character of Matlock," Griffith said later. "Matlock was very bright. He was very cheap. He was very vain. All the things I'm not. I enjoyed the character a lot."

He said he never worried about the nuances of law in the show. He concentrated on making the episodes entertaining and often got into arguments with the prosecutors and judges in the shows.

NBC sales executives wanted to kill the series early on, citing bad demographics, but programmers liked the series and kept it on the network for six years. When NBC finally canceled the series, ABC picked it up and aired it for another four years.

The move to ABC also led to episodes being filmed in Wilmington, which allowed Griffith to commute from his home in Manteo.

After "Matlock" went off the air in 1995, Griffith retreated to Manteo, spending most of his time with his third wife, Cyndi Griffith. He won a Grammy Award in 1997 for a gospel music album and occasionally appeared in a movie, but he was seen most often in political ads for Democratic candidates during election years.

Griffith said he decided early on to be a Democrat because he endured ridicule and schoolyard beatings as a child since his father was a vocal Republican in Mount Airy. Among the candidates he supported were Govs. Mike Easley and Beverly Perdue and President Barack Obama.

He also spoke briefly at Easley's second inauguration in 2005 and read a poem his wife wrote for Perdue's inauguration in 2009.

In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded Griffith the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, in recognition of his achievements.

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