Sunday, October 03, 2010

 

“There’s three reasons why there’s so little crime in Mayberry…there’s Andy, there’s me and (pats gun) baby makes three…”

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
Over at my home base of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, I have a weekly feature entitled Mayberry Mondays, in which I watch an episode of Mayberry R.F.D. each week and dissect it with healthy doses of snark and cynical wit (or I’d like to think so, anyway). The idea for this venture came about when I obtained the entire run of the series a few years ago; I remember watching the show as a kid but the only thing I retained from the program was the opening credits, in which Ken Berry (as city council head and farmer Sam Jones) tosses a baseball back and forth with his TV son, Buddy Foster…and the little mook throws it a little too hard, breaking a window in a tool shed.

After watching twenty-some episodes of R.F.D. so far, it’s a little hard to define why I continue to do so because while R.F.D. isn’t a bad show it isn’t necessarily a good one, either. My favorite description of the series comes from a write-up at the Web site TV Party!: “If Mayberry R.F.D. was anything, it was evocative and insular. Even if there was no whip behind the cream, before you realized it, you were soaking in it.” Watching the series today, you can’t help but agree with one undeniable truth: it’s nowhere near as good as the show that spawned it, a landmark situation comedy series that premiered on CBS 50 years ago on this date on a Monday evening at 9:30 p.m. Eastern time: The Andy Griffith Show.


The “Andy Griffith” of the series’ title was a young actor-comedian who had grown up in a small North Carolina town known as Mount Airy, which many believe to be the model for the small town of the show known as Mayberry. Griffith’s original vocational plan was to be a minister, but he then changed his college major to music, graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1949. His music plans, however, were temporarily put on hold when he accepted a position teaching English at a high school in Goldsboro — but during his stint in academia, he also began to write. Composing folksy monologues in the style of Will Rogers, Griffith would record one of these — “What it Was, Was Football” — for a small record label and watch hit the Top 10 of the national record charts in 1954.

With the success of “Football,” Andy became a fixture as a comedian on the variety shows headlined by the likes of Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen, and a starring role in a U.S. Steel Hour telecast of a production entitled No Time for Sergeants would catapult him into the same part in a stage adaptation that same year, and later in a 1958 feature film adapted from the play. He would also land the starring role in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), about a homespun hobo who rises through the ranks of various media to become a dangerous demagogue until he is stopped by the very woman (Patricia Neal) who made him a household name in the beginning. The film has gone on to become one of the most important social documents of the 1950s, with Griffith’s performance a 24-karat gem (though woefully overlooked at the time).

Andy continued his appearances on television and accepted an offer to guest star in an episode of Danny Thomas’ hit sitcom Make Room for Daddy (which at the time had been re-titled The Danny Thomas Show) which also would serve as a possible pilot for a Griffith series, as conceived by Thomas' producer Sheldon Leonard and writer Arthur Stander. In “Danny Meets Andy Griffith,” the Danny Williams character (Thomas) runs a stop sign in a small NC burg and finds himself the guest of Sheriff Andy Taylor (Griffith) — who also handles duties as the town’s justice of the peace and editor of the local paper. The episode was well-received, and General Foods expressed interest in sponsoring what would become The Andy Griffith Show for the 1960-61 season.

In Griffith’s debut episode, we’re re-introduced to Taylor, a widower who’s just married off his longtime housekeeper to her fiancé — a situation that does not sit well with his young son Opie (Ron Howard), who’s even more chagrined to learn that Andy’s “Aunt Bee” (Frances Bavier) will be replacing her as head of the household. Aunt Bee tries everything to ingratiate herself with Opie but he rebuffs her at every turn — it is only as the episode comes to a close that the boy changes his mind and begs his father to make her stay, concerned that she’ll be venturing out into the world without being able to function without him.

Child actor Howard had played Griffith’s son in the Danny Thomas Show pilot and did such an incredible job that he continued on for the full series. In a world where sitcoms often featured children a little too precocious for their own good, Opie was a breath of fresh air. He was decent to the core, but every now and then he get into mischief and wander off the path before his stern but kindly father would steer him back on the straight and narrow. Bavier had also been in the pilot, though she played a different character — but as Aunt Bee, she would become beloved by the show’s fans and even won an Emmy as outstanding supporting actress in a comedy zeries in 1967.

The one character that was not in the pilot would soon make Bavier’s win look like small potatoes. Actor-comedian Don Knotts, a familiar face to those who watched The Steve Allen Show weekly, had struck up a friendship with Griffith after working with him on the film version of No Time for Sergeants. He suggested to Andy that he needed a deputy, and so the character of Barney Fife was added to the show’s inaugural episode. The Barney character was an inspired comic creation; a nervous, hyperkinetic if well-meaning bungler who never seemed to grasp that hard-nose law enforcement methods were unnecessary in Mayberry (Andy himself didn’t even carry a gun — but Barney did, only he had to keep the ammo in his shirt pocket) because crime was practically non-existent. Barney was a clownish buffoon; a man who often acted before thinking things through and prone to putting both feet in his mouth…but Knotts was able to infuse the character with a genuine lovability — you couldn't help but want to protect him, even if it was from himself.

The comic interaction between Griffith and Knotts changed the course of The Andy Griffith Show, and for the better. In the first season, Andy was a lot like the Will Stockdale character he played in Sergeants, a grinning-from-ear-to-ear bumpkin — but he and series creators Sheldon Leonard and Aaron Ruben gradually came to the realization that his sheriff worked best as a straight man, reacting to the zanies around him. And there were no shortage of kooks in Mayberry: there was Otis Campbell (Hal Smith), the town inebriate, who had to be locked up every weekend after having been out on a toot — but Andy left the keys to his cell within reach when it was time for him to leave. There was barber Floyd Lawson (Howard McNear), a slightly befuddled sort who looked at the world around him with a mixture of awe and wonder. There was good-natured Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), the local mechanic and gas pump jockey who wasn’t the shiniest wrench in the tool box but possessed a sweet naïveté that made up for his intellectual shortcomings. (Gomer, introduced in the third season, would soon reach Barney-like popularity and be rewarded with the program’s first spin-off, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. — which found the aw-shucks mechanic serving a hitch in the Marine Corps.) Many of the people who populated Mayberry were often present for only a single episode, but some of them were brought back for encores and a handful — notably crazed hillbilly Ernest T. Bass (Howard Morris) and the Darling family, headed by patriarch Briscoe Darling (Denver Pyle) — seem as though they were on every week…even though they weren’t.

Shifting Andy Taylor to straight man status often provided unexpected complications for the show’s writers, because while they were making certain that Sheriff Andy maintained his role as Mayberry’s sage it was difficult to build comic situations around him because it was the other characters’ jobs to look foolish — not his. Every once in a while, the program’s scribes would make Andy wrong about something in order to keep him in the comic mixture (and from becoming too good to be true) — but even when he was wrong, he was usually right. A good way to work Andy into the plots was generally feature him at odds with one of his girlfriends, of which he had several on the show — druggist Ellie Walker (Elinor Donahue) was prominently featured in the first season, and many of the stories focused on her attempts to get Mayberry’s citizens to adapt to “city ways” when they were perfectly happy doing things the way they had always done. Ellie disappeared not long afterward, allowing Andy to “play the field” but when schoolteacher Helen Crump (Aneta Corsaut) was introduced in a March 1963 episode, the sheriff had found his steady (and eventually, the woman who would become Mrs. Andrew Jackson Taylor). Barney’s girlfriend was Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn), a woman who apparently had no last name (just like Madonna and Cher), though he would frequently flirt with diner waitress Juanita Beasley (a character often referenced but never seen) on the telephone.

Don Knotts would go on to win five Emmy Awards as outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series for his portrayal of Barney Fife, and by the beginning of the sixth season he had decided to leave the show and seek his fortune in feature films, where he did quite well. (He made occasional guest appearances as the Fife character in Griffith’s remaining three seasons.) Knotts’ departure coincided with the show’s first season filmed in color — and for many fans of Andy Griffith, that is when the series, to use the modern vernacular, “jumped the shark.” Many of the program’s most-beloved characters often went off in search of greener pastures and while to their credit the show’s writers didn’t replace them with carbon copies, the new characters never really caught fire, either. When Gomer left for the Marines, his filling station job was taken over by his cousin Goober Pyle (George Lindsey) — who was just as slow as his famous relative but lacking Gomer’s endearing innocence. Floyd the barber disappeared for a short time before reappearing (actor McNear had suffered a stroke while working on the show, and he was eventually able to return though his lack of mobility kept him either sitting or standing next to his barber chair) but when he left for good at the end of the seventh season the character of fix-it man Emmett Clark (Paul Hartman) was brought in as a weak substitute. (A commenter at my blog has tabbed Emmett as “the anti-Floyd.”) County clerk Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson) also was introduced in mid-season of year six but remains a lukewarm quantity in the opinion of many of the show’s fans….some find him funny, some do not.

But the character who suffered the gravest indignity of them all was Warren Ferguson (Jack Burns), Andy Taylor’s new deputy. Replacing one of the most popular characters in sitcom history was going to be a thankless job, and though comedian Burns would later distinguish himself as a first-rate joke writer and partner to comic actor Avery Schreiber, his Warren never really fit in with the Mayberry crowd — he was a pickle in the middle of a Charlotte russe. The start of the sixth season also saw a new influx of writing talent, who switched the course of the show from character-based comedy to situations that often examined the banalities and odd minutia of small-town life.

With the passage of time, even Andy Taylor began to change. He gradually morphed from a folksy philosopher into a man seemingly annoyed by the rubes around him, much in the manner of Eddie Albert’s Oliver Wendell Douglas on Green Acres. Part of that annoyance, of course, was that Griffith was marking time until the end of his contract — he missed working with Knotts on a regular basis and he also was anxious to make the leap into films as his former deputy had done. Even though The Andy Griffith Show was the No. 1 ranked show among Nielsen families in its final season, its star was ready to move on. The final four episodes introduced the character of Sam Jones (Ken Berry), a farmer who was elected head of Mayberry’s city council and in a new series entitled Mayberry R.F.D. would follow in Sheriff Taylor’s footsteps as the voice of wisdom and reason, surrounded by the rest of the Griffith Show’s castoffs.

Andy Griffith’s post-Griffith Show project, Angel in My Pocket (1969), was both a financial and critical flop…and television’s favorite small-town long arm of the law eventually headed back to the small screen with a series called Headmaster that started out strong in its debut episode but lost viewers quicker than water through a sieve. A second attempt, The New Andy Griffith Show, suffered the same fact, plus it didn’t help that it was too much like the old Andy Griffith Show; its inaugural episode even featured appearances from Goober, Emmett and Barney Fife…despite the fact that Andy was an entirely different character, with a new last name (Sawyer), a job (mayor) and all that entails. Meanwhile, in the town he abandoned, life continued on pretty much as normal until the end of the 1970-71 season when — despite the show’s continued respectable ratings — CBS cancelled it to rid itself of its “rural” taint.

As a kid who vegetated in front of a television set from the very moment I learned how to turn it on, I can’t ever remember a moment when I wasn’t spending time with the folks in Mayberry — and it’s hard to believe that the show is celebrating its golden anniversary today, still entertaining television audiences  in perpetual reruns. It’s a show that soldiers on for several reasons; it depicts small-town life the way we’d like to remember it, it features a cast of engaging and beloved characters…and most of all, it’s still funny. You can’t pay any sitcom a higher compliment than that.

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Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. would like to be able to brag that his hometown of Ravenswood, WVa. was just like Mayberry — but in all honesty, it was a bit more like Peyton Place.

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Comments:
When I was in junior high, before I had to go to the bus, the only thing on other than awful local news was Mayberry R.F.D. and I really came to despise that show. By the way, before Jack Burns partnered with Avery Schreiber, he had a successful comic pairing with George Carlin.
 
I didn't know that Burns and Carlin were once a team; I remember Jack and Avery's short-lived ABC series and was really sad to see it cancelled--that may have been my introduction to how fickle television can be sometimes.
 
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