Thursday, July 5, 2012

Andy Griffith, More Than Just "A Face in the Crowd"

When television icon Andy Griffith passed away Tuesday, he left an indelible image as one of the strongest father figures ever on TV. With his performance as Sheriff Andy Taylor on "The Andy Griffith Show" throughout the 60s (and still repeated on TV frequently), Griffith established himself as a warm, reliable, wise and engaging TV presence. Sheriff Andy was a great dad to little Opie (Ron Howard) and a pillar of Mayberry, North Carolina.

Andy Taylor may've been a sheriff, but crime-solving was not the basis of the show. You can tell from the front of the  DVD collection that this show was about family. As well as as food. Aunt Bea and her pies, Opie, and a sense of down-home humor were at the heart of "The Andy Griffith Show."

In the 80s and 90s, he moved into "shrewd country lawyer" territory with "Matlock," where he got the chance to lose his temper and even swear occasionally as he and his team figured out who really committed the crimes ol' Ben Matlock's clients were accused of. He never lost a case, and this time out, had a great relationship with a daughter instead of a son. The warmth and humor he showed in "The Andy Griffith Show" were a big part of the appeal of "Matlock," as well.

Griffith was born and raised in North Carolina, just like Andy Taylor, and he earned a degree in music from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He got his start with "hillbilly" humor, doing monologues like "What It Was Was Football," which you can hear at Entertainment Weekly, among other outlets, in the wake of his passing.

After that, Griffith appeared on TV in a one-act teleplay called "No Time for Sergeants," a homespun comedy (written by Ira Levin, based on the book by Mac Hyman) about a rube named Will Stockdale who is drafted into the Air Force. Even though Will drives everyone around him crazy, especially his sergeant, he prevails with a big grin, wide-eyed innocence and guileless country down-home ways. It was a precursor of sorts to Jim Nabors' Gomer Pyle character, who spun off from "The Andy Griffith Show" to do a dim-bulb-country-bumpkin-in-the-army show of his own. And probably also a role model for Kenneth the NBC page on today's "30 Rock."

The short TV version of the play was a part of the United States Steel Hour, and that 50-minute broadcast has been preserved at the Internet Archive. You can see it for yourself right here.

Griffith moved to Broadway with a full-length version of "No Time For Sergeants," earning himself a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play in 1956, as well as a Theatre World award as a promising newcomer.

"No Time for Sergeants" was also made into a movie in 1958, with Griffith again playing the hick who turned the Air Force upside-down, with Nick Adams, Johnny Yuma himself, cast against type in the role of Stockdale's tiny buddy with coke-bottle glasses.

But "Sergeants" was not Griffith's film debut. Instead, that was the searing "A Face in the Crowd," Budd Shulberg's cynical and prophetic look at the intersection between mass media and politics, at how easily the message can be manipulated, at the meteoric rise of a charismatic demagogue who can fool a whole lot of the people a whole lot of the time.

Schulberg wrote the script and Elia Kazan directed this sharp, prescient film.

In what was a major departure from Griffith's trademark aw-shucks good guy roles, he went dark and scary as Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, a shiftless guy playing his guitar for pennies in Nowheresville, Arkansas, who suddenly rises to fame and fortune based on his bucolic everyman status. Ol' Lonesome is a lot more canny than he looks, and he parlays some attention on local radio into TV appearances, a consulting gig for an unsympathetic candidate, and from there, he vaults into national influence as a media darling and political power-broker.

Griffith turns in an aggressive and pretty darn impressive acting performance as the cunning yokel with a thirst for fame. If all you know him as is kindly Sheriff Andy or sincere lawyer Ben Matlock, Lonesome Rhodes may be a shocker. Under his affable hayseed exterior, Lonesome is venal, immoral, manipulative and vulgar. And he commands the spotlight, loving every minute of his position as a country-fried Pied Piper to a gullible public. Griffith grabs onto the character of Lonesome Rhodes with both hands, blasting through the movie with an energy and a sense of presence that cannot be denied.

Five years after the McCarthy hearings, three years before Nixon and his five o'clock shadow lost a debate to handsome JFK, 20 years before Ronald Reagan played his telegenic cards, 1957's "A Face in the Crowd" should have served as a warning of exactly where we were headed. We've added more media, but we're living in the world screenwriter Schulberg foresaw, where politics, money, entertainment and media are so firmly intertwined that our candidates have given up any pretense that they're not actors spouting catchy taglines in front of set pieces, scrambling over each other to take whatever positions their backers and handlers like the best.

Turner Classic Movies airs "A Face in the Crowd" at 12:45 am local time tonight (or tomorrow, if you're being precise). If that's past your bedtime, this one is definitely worth setting the DVR. It's a warning bell as well as a testament to the fact that Andy Griffith was a fine actor and a lot more than just a kindly Southern dad who knew how to keep Opie and Barney in line.

Tonight's slot on the schedule was already in place before Griffith's death this week, but TCM has now added a whole evening of Andy Griffith programming on July 18th. They'll show "A Face in the Crowd" again at 7 pm central time on the 18th, followed by "No Time for Sergeants," "Hearts of the West" and "Onionhead."


  1. A very timely welcome reminder (and alert to TCM), Julie. Thanks!

    I read the play "No Time for Sergeants" at a time in my life when I read just about every one of the new plays as they appeared in hard covers. I wonder if it's ever done any more. It's a type that's just about vanished now: a large-cast multi-scene show (more than 20 scenes if I recall right, some very short, and none of your newfangled abstract or unit sets either, all flats and backdrops) -- really like a musical without songs.

    And the casting of his gawky buddy interests me too. On TV it was someone named Eddie LeRoy, who seems to have had a one-decade TV/movie career). On Broadway I was sure it must have been Don Knotts, it seemed so clearly the source of their partnership on "The Andy Griffith Show." But no -- Knotts was in the cast all right but in a small role. Ben Whitledge was played by Roddy McDowell. And in the movie, as you say, Nick Adams.

    I'm very glad the marathon includes "Hearts of the West." I have very fond feelings for that one and its low-key atmosphere. Griffith plays half against type in that one, and the leads are the young and charming Jeff Bridges and Blythe Danner.

  2. Thanks for this tribute & review of his works. I watched A Face in the Crowd pretty recently, and was impressed by his performance and disturbed by the provocative movie, just as you say!