Andy Griffith: One of a kind

After just a few whistled notes of “The Fishin’ Hole,” the immortal theme song of “The Andy Griffith Show,” I am transported to the carefree summer days of my youth.

Andy Griffith
Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor

I memorized that tune, gained an appreciation for the show and developed a fondness for the characters watching midday re-runs in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Griffith’s passing from a heart attack at age 86 on July 3 put me in a reflective mood.

Pop culture has absorbed few Southern icons the way it has Andy Griffith’s television characters.

There are plenty of hayseeds and hillbillies played for laughs on the big and small screens, but these Southern-fried jesters aren’t elevated to the status of role models. These buffoons are anti-heroes at best, beloved maybe, but not respected.

It is my contention that Griffith will be the only Southern entertainer to occupy that lofty position.

In the 1960s, Andy Griffith and his cast of zany Southern archetypal characters inhabiting the fictional town of Mayberry, N.C., became part of American culture. Syndication will keep it that way in perpetuity. Griffith’s character, Andy Taylor, was likable in nearly every way: a widower trying to raise a son, faithful church choir member, shrewd law enforcement officer, dapper and available bachelor, a mellifluous singing guitar player and a patient friend and mentor.

When “The Andy Griffith Show’s” run was over, it appeared Griffith’s life on television was over, so strong was the impact of his portrayal of Sheriff Taylor. Conventional wisdom had it that he would be forever typecast. But Griffith had that quality that could be reshaped with a little aging.

Andy Griffith as Ben Matlock
Andy Griffith as Atlanta defense attorney Ben Matlock

By the time Griffith introduced us to Atlanta defense attorney Ben Matlock in 1986, we were ready for his reinterpretation of another Southern archetype – the wise but gruff older man whose experience gives him the advantage over brash adversaries who underestimate him.

As the nation aged and advertisers aimed their products at the World War II generation and the top-end of the Baby Boom, Matlock captured another zeitgeist and actually had a longer run than “The Andy Griffith Show.”

In the landscape of New Southern culture , there is no emerging replacement for Andy Griffith. This is an era of dark themes and Southern gothic storylines. We have an abundance of such characters as zombie fighters, vampires, detectives and football coaches. Lately, the trend has been toward reality TV shows that put Southern caricatures on display and give legs to negative Southern stereotypes.

But Andy and Ben were characters Southerners could be proud of. Yes, they became clichés in their own right, but being kindhearted, clever and musically talented aren’t attributes we Southerners mind.

These two characters, plus the many other memorable roles Griffith portrayed, will secure Griffith’s place in pop culture. Re-runs of “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Matlock” may even garner a larger ratings share now that Griffith has passed, and he will likely be so ubiquitous on cable that the question “Is Andy Griffith dead?” will be a popular Google search in a few years.

As the Facebook tributes and Twitter odes continue for this son of the South, it’s important to remember that Griffith was a person aside from his assumed TV personas. His passing causes grief, but more than that, it provokes gratitude.

Thanks, Andy, for giving the South – old and new – characters we can be proud of. I will appreciate you in reruns a little more knowing that you’ve left us.

What’s your favorite memory of Andy Griffith on television? Does the whistled theme song evoke childhood memories of eating supper around the television on TV trays on Monday nights? What’s your favorite Andy Griffith role? Were you a Matlock fan? Share your thoughts and memories by leaving a comment below