How did Andy Griffith have such an impact on so many of us?

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How does an actor playing in a black-and-white sitcom become a magnet for generations?

By Steve Doyle

In the eight awful days since God summoned angel Andy Griffith to the top of Mount Pilot and told him his baritone was needed among the heavenly hosts, I have read perhaps 10,000 words, watched about six hours of episodes, introduced a neophyte to What It Was Was Football and immersed in countless Internet comments about how this sole and soulful if sadly unacclaimed actor possibly could have risen to be an icon for two generations.
I have considered every phrase about how The Andy Griffith Show – and let’s agree here and now that this is the hallmark of the body of work of this multitalented entertainer – spoke to us as plainly as did Andy Taylor to his son, Opie.
I’ve parsed theories about how in about 23 minutes each week a sitcom most valued for its episodes in black and white ignored the colorful cultural trauma of its day – civil rights, Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, sex, drugs and even the comet that was the Beatles – to bore in on what is at the essence of everything: real human interaction.
I’ve reflected on just about everything about Andy Griffith – all the books on my shelves, images in my mind and trivia and examples that I have stolen and used for personal gain – I’ve given it my very best thought time, and this is where I simply am left:
Andy Griffith was the most important person in my life whom I never met.
I could type that again in boldface, italics and underscored, but still the letters will not form words that adequately relate what is in my heart. That failure is frustrating and befuddling, for there are few subjects that I feel I know as well as the saga of this simple character in the timeless teleplay.
The evidence is simple: The announcement of his passing interrupted the discussion of the day on Joe B. & Denny, and before I fully grasped that, a coworker had sent me a text. I immediately called my mother, who I knew loved Andy Griffith almost as much as she does me (OK, maybe an exaggeration, but, remember, he can sing!).
His death wasn’t stop-the-world news like when Kennedy was shot, the space shuttle exploded or the towers fell, but in the hearts of children of the 1960s and countless others who followed, we were saying good-bye to an omnipresence, a life thread, a defining milepost on our journey.
Elvis is long gone. Mickey died young. Roy Rogers rode off into the sunset. And now Andy Griffith has taken all his wonderful sidekicks to the new location of Floyd’s Barbershop.
I can tell you with absolute clarity when I fell in love with the talents of this man.
I was in second grade when CBS introduced The Andy Griffith Show to my world, assigning it to the 9:30 p.m. time slot on Monday, squeezed among other notable comedies, such as its parent, The Danny Thomas Show.
And that quickly became an important fact, because it served as a great carrot in my personal development. You see, believe it not, I was a bit loquacious in school, and in my day, conduct was just as big a grade on the report card as reading, writing and arithmetic (explain to the young ones what that is). And I wasn’t very good at conduct. In fact, I’m ashamed to say, it kept me off the honor roll a time or 20.
My folks, of course, tried rudimentary parenting processes (translate as you will), which worked for short and painful bursts, of course, but when I was allowed to stay up and watch Andy Griffith only if my report card carried the requisite letters, there was a marked improvement in my deportment.
See, I told you, he had a profound impact on my life.
I won’t pretend to say that the eight years Andy Taylor was sheriff of Mayberry left my conduct crime-free, but he didn’t need his gun to improve my effort any more than he did to collect cow thieves or pot-shot-taking farmers. I was like Otis on Saturday night: Andy taught me to act on instinct.
To be sure, I have admired every piece of acting Andy Griffith ever undertook – from his Gomer Pyle-sque role in No Time For Sergeants to the overpowering and somewhat shocking, Oscar-worthy effort in A Face In The Crowd, to movies in which he played a minister, a sheriff, a man who flew his homemade rocket into space, a country police chief and, of course, the seersucker-wearing attorney Matlock – and I even have purchased his musical CDs.
But in my practical world, it was Andy Taylor who left me with examples, who illustrated kindness and patience, provided threads to be woven into stories of my own and who brought forward ego-defining trivia contests.
Perhaps it was Andy’s true role that most affected my life’s role: parenting. All of my children have watched and can recall episodes of Andy that stuck with them, sometimes, I’m sure, to mollify me, and I sometimes have leaned on Andy for guidance and insight.
On Friday, in 90-something degrees, I found my 5-year-old daughter sitting on the sidewalk on Main Street helping a gimpy-legged sparrow to drink from a paper cup, trying to ensure that this young and fragile bird would survive a busy place and unseemly temperatures and perhaps join its brethren in a nearby tree.
And it moved me to share with her on Sunday afternoon a sermon from Andy Griffith through an episode that I knew she would embrace and thought she would understand: the story of “Opie The Birdman,” in which he rescues and mothers three baby birds he accidentally had orphaned with a shot from his sling.
She was rapt in watching and, afterwards, looked up at me with wide eyes as I asked her if she understood.
“Their mama is dead, and he’s taking care of them,” she said resolutely.
And it was then and there that I knew that Andy Griffith has passed along through me to yet another generation a lesson on love, concern and life that would resonate and repeat in her Technicolor world.
No, I never met Andy Griffith, but if I did – or when I do – the message will be simple: Thanks for all you did for me.