Andy Griffith played good-hearted, even-tempered men so well and so often that his occasional visits to the dark side were all the more electrifying. He actually started his movie career on the nastiest of notes, starring in Elia Kazan’s 1957 masterpiece A Face in the Crowd as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a drifter-turned-network TV star whose cracker-barrel homilies and jokes belie his caustic cynicism and monstrous ambition.
It’s a performance on par with Marlon Brando’s in Kazan’s On the Waterfront or James Dean in the director’s East of Eden. Revisited today in light of Griffith’s many roles in the vein of Mayberry Sheriff Andy Taylor and folksy lawyer Ben Matlock, his Lonesome Rhodes is shocking, pure id, and one of the scariest characters in the history of American film.
I bring this up because I don’t believe Griffith, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 86, always got his due. He played characters like Sheriff Andy, the calm and patient hub around which Mayberry’s harmless loonies swirled, with so little apparent effort that people assumed he wasn’t even working. But he did work, and he was a complicated man.
I got a little insight into that man in 1979, when Griffith did some publicity interviews as the star (and saving grace) of Salvage 1, an ABC adventure series that’s among the several short-lived attempts to repurpose his folksy side. When I asked him why he had chosen this particular vehicle, he surprised me with his candid, sarcastic answer. “Well,” he said, pausing long enough to flash his famous grin and give me just a hint of a wink, “there’s only so many hours a day you can pick up dog hockey in the front yard.”
Griffith’s first claim to fame was as a comic monologist, his material usually in the same vein as his biggest recorded hit “What It Was, Was Football,” in which he takes a satirically countrified approach to describing an familiar event or topic.
He remembered going to theatrical auditions in New York in the mid-1950s and announcing to casting directors that he was going to “do Romeo and Juliet.”
“Which scene?” they’d ask.
“The whole thing,” he’d say.
“You’re going to perform all of Romeo and Juliet?”
“Naw,” he’d say, “I’m gon’ tell it.”
Telling it and other classical pieces in his unique style got him the lead as deceptively simple good ol’ boy Will Stockdale in No Time for Sergeants, which became a hit on live TV, Broadway and eventually film. It also established a Griffith persona that TV audiences would come to love – and expect.
We talked a bit about typecasting – he felt he’d become a victim of it but understood why – and it led me to bring up Pray for the Wildcats. Now regarded as cult classic, it’s a 1974 ABC Movie of the Week, sort of a low-desert Deliverance that marked Griffith’s first venture back into Lonesome Rhodes darkness after leaving behind Barney Fife, Goober Pyle, Floyd the Barber and all the other genial, goofy Mayberry characters. In Wildcats, he was cast as a macho corporate executive who demanded that three advertising men who wanted his account join him on a Baja Peninsula motorcycle trek. (Believe it or not, the ad men were portrayed by William Shatner, Brady Bunch dad Robert Reed and evangelist-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner.) The adventure turns into a life-and-death ordeal, and Griffith’s character reveals himself to be a sociopath, a maniacal, lascivious creep.
“You made my skin crawl,” I told him. I meant it as a compliment, and he took it as such. And he told me with an air of confidentiality that the night after they had shot one particular scene — his character comes on like a drunken satyr to a hippie girl in a Baja dive, grinding his pelvis against her backside – he had a nightmare in which he was strangled Don “Barney” Knotts and beat his face to a bloody pulp. He said he woke frantic, disoriented, in a sweat. He got to a phone as quickly as he could and called his dear friend and costar to make sure he was all right.
Once he had confirmed Knotts was alive and well, he said, “I got on the phone to my therapist,” who talked him through the nightmare, explaining that he was killing a vestige of the kindly character that had come to be his bread and butter.
“Wait, wait, just a second,” I said. “You have a psychiatrist?”
He flashed another of those grins and cocked his head to one side in a way that made me feel kind of like Opie getting a life lesson from his dad. “Yes, I see a shrink,” he said. “I’m not Andy Taylor. I’m an actor.”
And so he was.