By Robert Simonson
03 Jul 2012
Mr. Griffith died in the same state where he was born—in tiny Mount Airy, on June 1, 1926. It was also the home state of the fictional Mayberry, the setting of "The Andy Griffith Show," the gentle sitcom of small-town American life that ran from 1960 to 1968. Griffith play the hamlet's easy-going, sensible sheriff, a bit of a straight man to the village's assortment of mildly eccentric characters, including the excitable deputy of Don Knotts, credulous gas attendant Jim Nabors and town drunk Hal Smith. The series was phenomenally popular, never falling out of the top ten in Nielsen ratings, and ending its run in the number one spot.
After several unsuccessful attempts to return to series work, Mr. Griffith again hit paydirt with "Matlock," which ran from 1986-1995. Ben Matlock could have been among the folksy denizens of Mayberry. He was a country lawyer in Georgia, forever attired in a seersucker suit and armed with a twinkle in his eye. The series was famous, and sometimes mocked, for being extremely popular among senior citizens.
The role that brought Mr. Griffith to public attention was wildly different from the homespun, friendly ones he etched out on the small screen. In Elia Kazan's scathing 1957 social drama "A Face in the Crowd," he played Lonesome Rhodes, a charming but manipulative drifter who evolves into a dangerous demagogue when he is given a television program and becomes a populist hero to his fans. Critics applauded Mr. Griffith's vivid, frightening portrayal of a media personality run amok. However, the actor never played another role remotely like Rhodes, or, indeed, any character who was dislikable.
"Mr. Griffith does not have to condescend to Will Stockdale," wrote Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times. "All he has to do is walk on the stage and look the audience straight in the face. If the armed forces can not cope with Will Stockdale, neither can the audience resist Andy Griffith." The actor never lost that connection to his audience.
He returned to Broadway in 1959 to play the title character in a musical version of the Western film Destry Rides Again. It ran for 472 performances. Again, Mr. Griffith was nominated for a Tony.
He is survived by his third wife, Cindi, and two daughters. His first two marriages ended in divorce. A son predeceased him in 1996.