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Jim "Gomer Pyle" Nabors, who owed his entire career to Andy Griffith, once told me about the first time the two ever met, after Andy had seen his nightclub act in the early 1960s.
"I don't know what you do," Andy told the young singer-comedian. "But you do it very well."
For Andy Griffith, who died July 3 at age 86, there may have a level of self-recognition in that observation. Ten years earlier, Andy himself had exploded into the public eye with a gentle kind of standup humor, a conversational style that ran counter to the brash Borscht Belt brand of comedy that was then the rage. In his down-home, aw-shucks manner, Andy told, most famously, of his chance visit to a football game in which, by his estimation, a "bunchful of men . . . take that punkin, and run from one end of the cow pasture to the other without either gettin' knocked down or steppin' in somethin'."
That's not to say that Andy always played it safe. In his very first movie, 1956's A Face in the Crowd, he played one of the screen's truly dark characters: a manipulative, cynical hayseed who uses his good-old-boy persona to become a TV demagogue. If you haven't seen A Face in the Crowd, rent it - Griffith is such a convincing villain you'll momentarily forget the 60 years of universal goodwill he nurtured afterward.
In the years surrounding A Face in the Crowd, Griffith honed his sweet country boy character in No Time for Sergeants, a TV play that became a Broadway hit and finally a successful motion picture (I remember my mother telling me about having seen the play at the Alvin Theater, and looking back I think she might have been a little bit in love with Andy). Sergeants was such a smash Andy was clearly stuck with his smiling, small-town persona for good. And for a couple of years, that seemed like it might become his show-biz epitaph.
But Danny Thomas and his TV producer pal Sheldon Leonard saw something there. They devised a whole show around Andy, setting it in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina - modeled after Andy's real home town, Mount Airy. Sheriff Andy Taylor was introduced in an episode of Thomas' series Make Room for Daddy, and everything fell into place, as Andy would say, from the git-go.
Surrounded by colorful characters like Nabors' Gomer Pyle, Don Knotts' Deputy Barney Fife, and Frances Bavier's Aunt Bee, Andy was the calm center in an escalating whirl of weekly low-key misunderstandings. No matter how old the citizens of Mayberry were, Andy was always the rock-solid yet endlessly understanding father figure (Nabors reminded me that he was just four years younger than Andy).
Andy stuck around Mayberry for 249 episodes and became one of TV's most beloved figures. Even after he moved on to other shows and movies, it seemed everything he did was cast in the light of his years as Sheriff Andy.
It's odd to think of Andy as having had a life away from the black-and-white world of Mayberry, a bit disorienting to remember he was three times married and twice divorced. But he retired to his roots, and when he died he was at his home on Roanoke Island in North Carolina. Andy remained friends with his surviving Mayberrians until the end. He visited Nabors in Hawaii. He endured as a father figure to Ron Howard, who played his son Opie - and passed on values that Howard treasures to this day.
"I had a great childhood," Howard told me a couple of years ago. "I wanted that for my family and I married a woman who has the same intention. Working on films and television shows and trying to be a good family member are the two things that I embrace and appreciate the best."
How Mayberry is that?
So, was Andy Griffith a great actor? A role model? A signpost pointing back to simpler times?
In the end, we were never quite sure what Andy Griffith did. But he did it very well.