Best TV Shows Ever: Part 1--The Andy Griffith Show
Andy Griffith (Right) and Don Knots as Sheriff Taylor and Barney
The Andy Griffith Show
There are many shows which are described as "beloved" but only a few which truly deserve that description. The Andy Griffith Show is one of those precious few. The long running series, which inspired two spin-offs (Gomer Pyle USMC; Mayberry RFD), has been rerun consistently since its initial run (1960-1968), always on the air somewhere. The series celebrated it's 50th anniversary in 2010. While it's true that many shows are still remembered decades after they aired but how many are remembered as fondly as the Andy Griffith Show?
The embryonic form of the classic show could be seen in "Danny Meets Andy Griffith", an episode of the popular 1950s series Make Room for Daddy (AKA the Danny Thomas Show) which served as the prototype for Griffith's own show.
Andy Griffith started out as a stand-up comic, who specialized in folksy southern humor, long before Jeff Foxworthy ever said "You might be a redneck". He was also a talented singer and guitar player and he appeared several times on The Ed Sullivan Show (The original American Idol) and the Steve Allen Show. He starred on Broadway in the service comedy "No Time for Sergeants" (1955) which was later adapted into a film, also starring Griffith. The character he played was a naïve but enthusiastic small-town hayseed who inadvertently causes chaos after being drafted. (The same premise would be used for Jim Neighbors several years later in the spinoff series Gomer Pyle USMC.) Griffith's performance so greatly impressed comedian Danny Thomas that he arranged for Griffith to appear in an episode of Make Room for Daddy, which introduced the world to the character of Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry. Also appearing in the episode as the sheriff's son was a tiny tot named Ron Howard, later to be cast as the star of Happy Days and then to become one of the top directors in Hollywood.
The Make Room for Daddy episode was a test-run for the Andy Griffith Show and the experiment went over so well that the network instantly rushed the show into production, produced by former actor Sheldon Leonard. The premise of the show follows the adventures of widower Andy Taylor as he juggles being a single father with his duties as sheriff of postage-stamp sized Mayberry North Carolina. Since crime is essentially non-existent in Mayberry, Andy's challenge comes from being the voice of sanity in a community full of hick-town oddballs and solving their problems with his homespun wisdom.
In the original blueprint for the series, Griffith was to play the same type of clueless philosopher as he did in his stand-up routine and in No Time for Sergeants. However, that plan changed with the inspired addition of Don Knots as the dedicated but inept Deputy Barney Fife. Knots, who'd appeared in No Time for Sergeants with Griffith and become good friends with him, was a last-minute addition to the show and it turned out to be the smartest move Sheldon Leonard and Griffith could have made. Knots was so brilliantly funny as the hapless but well-intentioned deputy that he stole every scene he was in. Leonard and Griffith decided to change the character of Andy Taylor to make him the sensible one who would have to clean up Barney Fife's messes. They worked together like a comedy team with Griffith as the straight man and Knots getting the laughs.
Along with Griffith, Knots and young Ron Howard (Who aged from 6-14 during his years on the show) the show had a large supporting cast. Most prominent among them was Francis Bavier as Andy's matronly Aunt Bea, who did Andy's cooking and cleaning for him, as well as baby-sitting Andy's son Opie while Andy was at work. Other significant cast members included wacky gas-station attendant Gomer Pyle (Played by Jim neighbors until he left the show for his spin-off series) ; Howard McNear as absent-minded barber Floyd Lawson, who can never seem to get sideburns quite even; and unrepentant town drunk Otis Campbell (Hal Smith) who obligingly surrenders himself to the sheriff on a weekly basis for public drunkenness and even locks himself in the cell. Later additions to the show were Gomer's mechanic cousin Goober Pyle (George Lindsey) who did the worst impersonations in history; Jack Dodson as humorless county clerk Howard Sprague. Aneta Corsaut as Andy's girlfriend and eventual wife Helen Crump; Betty Lynn as Barney's sweetheart Thelma Lou; the bizarre Darling clan, led by the stone-faced matriarch Briscoe Darling (Denver Pyle, also well know as Uncle Jesse on The Dukes of Hazzard); and the insane Ernest T. Bass (Played by Howard Morris, who spent 10 years working with Sid Caser on Our Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour); When Don Knots left the show in the fifth season, he was replaced for a short time by new deputy Warren Ferguson (Jack Burns), an equally inept assistant for Andy. However, the character didn't go over too well with the audience because no one could replace Don Knots on that show, so he was quickly dropped from the cast by Leonard. Many others would come and go during the show's eight-year run.
Among the series most popular episodes are: The show's only Christmas episode, rather unoriginally titled "The Christmas Story"; "The Pickle story", where Andy and Barney try to avoid eating Aunt Bee's kerosene flavored pickles; "Mr. McBeevee", in which Andy unjustly accuses Opie of lying about an imaginary friend who turns out to be real; "Man in a Hurry" finds a big city businessman with a type-A personality stranded in the most laid back town in the country; "Class Reunion" reunites Andy with his High School sweetheart; "Barney's First Car" finds Barney buying the ultimate lemon; "Dogs, Dogs, Dogs" finds the sheriff's office overrun with four legged visitors; "The Sermon for Today" sees the town of Mayberry trying to follow a Preacher's advice to savor the moment and end up driving themselves into a frustrated frenzy attempting to create a perfect night; "Barney's Sidecar" follows Barney's adventures as Mayberry's first motorcycle cop when he buys a World War One cycle to police the town with and drives everyone crazy; "The Haunted House" has Barney in the position where he has to put his money where his mouth is, after teasing Opie for being afraid to go into a supposedly haunted house and then becoming terrified when he has to go in there himself. "Opie the Birdman" is arguably the most famous episode of the series, and one of the most touching, as Opie learns a lesson about responsibility after accidently killing a bird, after which he is charged by his dad to raise the orphaned baby birds. There are so many great ones it's hard to select the best.
Years later, in 1986, came the TV reunion film Return to Mayberry, which reunited most of the surviving cast members in a nostalgic tale about Andy's return to Mayberry after many years away (When Andy Griffith quit the show after eight years, the adventures of the citizens of Mayberry were continued in Mayberry RFD, minus Andy, Helen and Opie who had moved away). Barney has also come back to Mayberry, bungling the job of temporary acting sheriff and finding himself chasing a lake monster, which Andy later reveals to be a hoax. And Andy becomes a Grandfather when Opie becomes a dad. Andy ends up back where he belongs when he regains his old job as Sheriff with Barney once again his deputy.
The secret to the success of the Andy Griffith Show is the gentleness at its heart. Andy is the friend and advisor to everyone, protecting them from their own mistakes. The people of Mayberry may be a bit odd but no one means any harm. The touching father/son bond between Andy and Opie is warm and loving. There is a wholesome feel to the show, which embraces old fashioned values of friendship, family, community and good will to everyone.
I wish there were more shows like this today. It has a message we can all use these days.