EDITOR'S NOTE: One of the most beloved TV stars of all time, Andy Griffith, died July 3, 2012, at the age of 86. Griffith became a television icon first as the star of his own hugely successful comedy series in 1960, "The Andy Griffith Show," playing a kind-hearted small-town sheriff, then again later in another popular series, "Matlock," in 1986. We interviewed Griffith for this cover story in 2005, which generated some of the most overwhelming reader feedback of any story we every published.
While growing up in Mount Airy, N.C., Andy Griffith never wanted to be an actor. He wanted to be a preacher instead.
In Sunday School class, he would sing "Jesus Loves Me" so loudly and out of tune that his classmates would turn and stare. Eventually his vocals improved and he was asked to perform a solo of "Sweet Hour of Prayer "at Haymore Memorial Baptist Church, where he served as a bell ringer for several years.
His interest in music intensified after he discovered the nearby Grace Moravian Church, a Protestant organization that originated in Moravia (now the Czech Republic) and has a large presence in North Carolina.
"When I was 14, I got a slide trombone from the Spiegel catalog and had no idea what to do with it," recalls Griffith, an only child. "We didn’t have a music program in my school in Mount Airy."
The foreman of the furniture factory where Griffith’s father worked told him about a pastor who taught boys how to play horns, so Griffith rode his bicycle to the home of the Rev. Ed Mickey. "He didn’t know about slide trombones, but I had a book that came with my horn," he says. "When I first got that horn, I tried to pick out "The Old Rugged Cross." I don’t think I got it, but I approached it. He said, ‘Leave this book and come back next Wednesday.’ I did and he started teaching me. Within about two months, I played a solo in church. It was great."
His relationship with the pastor led to his desire to preach, and his involvement with music changed his life forever.
"When I was in high school, I was not athletic, we didn’t have money, and I was not a good student," he says. "But when music came into my life, with the trombone and the singing, I became somebody. That is, I became an individual, where an athlete is a real individual or a fine student is a real individual.
"My grades improved and everything improved," he says. "I am very proud that years ago I was able to start a music program in our little school here in Manteo, where I live. I bought all the instruments for them, and then later I paid the teacher’s salary for 11 years. They have a nice band here now."
Griffith began his college career majoring in sociology at the University of North Carolina, but he soon became inspired to change his major. "I was singing onstage in Gilbert and Sullivan (productions) and studying music," says Griffith, who lived near the music department building and was a glee club member. "I went to the bishop and said, ‘Can I major in music and still be a minister?’ and he said no. I went back and prayed over it for a couple of weeks, and I went back to the bishop and said, ‘I’m going to major in music.’ So that was it." After graduating in 1949, he married Barbara Edwards (with whom he later had two children—Sam and Dixie Nan) and became an after-dinner speaker on the men’s club circuit before becoming a professional actor.
"God has been part of my life, part of my decision and the cause of success," he says. "I suppose I have thought about this many times: perhaps God has—and I thank him for it—a reason for me not to go into the ministry. I wouldn’t have been any good at it anyway. He led me these different ways, including teaching for a while, and he gave me an idea one day to write a comedy monologue on a song that Johnny Ray sang called "Please Mr. Sun," and I got laughs. I said, ‘Wait a minute. I think I am onto something here.’"
His success with his Southern comedy monologues led to regular appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show in the 1950s. He appeared in the film and 1955 Broadway play No Time for Sergeants, and made his film debut in 1957’s A Face in the Crowd.
But it was his role as Andy Taylor, a folksy sheriff and single father, in The Andy Griffith Show that made him one of the most beloved television performers in history. On that Top 10 show, which aired from 1960 until 1968, Taylor served as the surrogate father to many of Mayberry’s colorful characters, including bumbling deputy Barney Fife (played by Don Knotts), inebriated Otis (Hal Smith) and simple-minded Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors.)
In retrospect, the show served as a vehicle for Griffith to subtly preach his message of knowing right from wrong to his TV audience. In fact, Sunday School classes across America began using The Andy Griffith Show as part of their regular lesson plans a few years ago, which pleases Griffith. "I just wondered how they would do it," he says. "They take that tiny little message that we tried to tell and relate that to a Bible passage.
"We tried to have a little message in every episode," he says. "We all enjoyed that, and it wasn’t all my idea. Even in the Matlock show, I tried to have a little something."
Last year, Griffith was voted by TV Land cable network as the No. 1 television father of all time. The network airs The Andy Griffith Show at least twice a day, and it remains one of the network’s most popular programs. "Andy is certainly as popular as any single star," says Tom Hill, TV Land’s creative director. "He’s probably right there with Lucille Ball. He is just timeless.
"He’s the No. 1 TV dad in my book," Hill says. "Certainly as many dads face the problems of dealing with kids, they ask the question, ‘What would Andy do?’"
However, Griffith dismisses any notion that he should be viewed as a role model or father figure.
"Don’t pay any attention to that; that is a persona," he says. "I am not any favorite dad; I am not any kind of all-American person. I am just a 79-year-old person. I worship, and I am kind of private.
"Like all people, I’m not happy all the time. I have ups and downs like everybody, but God, through Jesus and prayer, keeps me afloat. It fills me with joy. Even though sometimes you are not filled with joy. Sometimes you are down.
"I am a man, like any other man. I have many failings. My son died of an overdose when he was 36. I was not a good father to him. My daughter is doing well. She has three children of her own and is doing well. So I have failed in many ways."
He divorced Barbara in 1972, the same year that he launched a production company that produced movies and TV series. The next year, he married Solica Cassuto, whom he divorced in 1981. In 1983, he was diagnosed with Guillian-Barre Syndrome, an inflammatory disorder of the nerves that can lead to paralysis, and was not able to walk for seven months.
It was during his divorced years that he found his way back to God and music. "I went away, like many people do," he says. "When I really got back into it was one Christmas, when I was living alone. I was very lonely, and I called up somebody—I forget who, maybe somebody’s secretary—to find out if anybody might be doing The Messiah in Los Angeles."
He found out a church in nearby Glendale, Calif., was in rehearsals for the production, so he asked if he could sing with the group. "The man said, ‘I might be doing some passages you don’t know,’ and they did, and I really had to work," Griffith says. "That Sunday morning we came to sing The Messiah with a full symphony in the church. Boy, did that experience get me back into it! I started going to that church every Sunday, and I did for years."
In 1986, he began producing and starring in Matlock, a TV show featuring Griffith as Ben Matlock, a down-home attorney with homespun common sense. The show aired until 1995 and taped its last three seasons in Wilmington, N.C., which allowed Griffith to move back to his home state.
Although his work was temporarily curtailed because of his illness, he starred in several Matlock specials and several television movies. He also released several albums–including the 1997 million-seller Just As I Am: 30 Favorite Old Hymns–won a Grammy in 1996 for "I Love to Tell the Story," and wrote several books. His most recent project, Bound for the Promised Land, is a 64-page book and CD of his favorite songs, such as "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," "Softly and Tenderly" and "Sweet Hour of Prayer."
"They have been meaningful to me all my life," he says. "Those contemporary hymns are for the young people." Griffith remains humble about his singing abilities. "I don’t have a good ear, and it takes me awhile to get a hymn in tune," he says.
He and his wife, Cindi, whom he married in 1983, now live in Manteo (pop. 1,052), where they regularly attend a Methodist church, where he’s known as "just Andy." "We are all friends here," he says. "Once in a while a tourist will come in and point me out, but most of the times I just go to church to worship. Sometimes people will ask for an autograph, and I’ll say, ‘Not here in church; this is for worship.’ I enjoy worship; I have to worship. That is why I go."
He leads a simple life of writing, singing and spending time with friends. "I have to be honest: I go to sleep at 8 o’clock, so I don’t see much television," he says. "Last night they had a mini-marathon of the Griffith show, so I stayed up until 9 and watched three of those.
"We are building a house, and it is coming along," says Griffith, who lives on 63 acres on Roanoke Island. "We live quietly here. You wouldn’t think that I had ever been on television.
"I went over and visited some friends yesterday, and I can’t walk very far anymore," he says. "So I get around on my property here with a Gator, a gasoline-run six-wheeler that goes through all terrain.
"My health is fine. I had quadruple bypass surgery four years ago. I was dying at that time, but God wasn’t ready to take me, and my wife saved my life."
Despite his recent forays into recording, he still would like to take on a few more acting jobs. "That is the reason I bought a house back in California, and I haven’t had an acting job in two years.
"I was offered a part in a picture that will probably be successful, but I thought the language was a little strong, so I passed on it. I didn’t think I could use that language and sing these hymns in the daytime. Something will come along. God will provide something."
Griffith Honored with North Carolina Statues
TV Land cable network honored Andy Griffith by creating two bronze statues inspired by The Andy Griffith Show and placing them permanently in North Carolina.
In 2002, the network unveiled a statue of the character Andy Taylor going fishing with his son, Opie (played by Ron Howard), in Pullen Park in Raleigh, N.C. "Andy had seen the sketches and photos, but when we privately showed him the statue, you could just see that he went back to that time when he first met Ron Howard," says Rob Pellizzi, TV Land senior vice president. "You could just see him relive that. He kept rubbing Opie’s hair on the bronze. It was just a great moment of him reconnecting with his life."
About a year later, the network installed a similar statue near the Andy Griffith Theater in Mount Airy, N.C., Griffith’s hometown.
"The relationship between a father and son was a very elemental, important and warm connection that people relate to and was a great subject of a tribute," Pellizzi says of the show. "The appeal of the show was its warmth and certainly its humor. It’s about the values, a simpler time, an inner wisdom and country common sense, with all of these things rolled into one character that people relate to."