Andy Griffith played kind, gentle men so well and so often over the course of his six decades in show business that his occasional visits to the dark side were all the more electrifying.
He in fact started his movie career on the nastiest of notes, starring in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a drifter-turned-neighborly TV star whose cracker-barrel platitudes belie sneering cynicism and monstrous ambition. It’s a performance easily on par with Marlon Brando’s in Kazan’s On the Waterfront or James Dean's 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 died 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 was 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 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.”
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 territory after leaving behind Barney Fife, Goober Pyle, Floyd the Barber and all the other genially 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 grueling 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 said. 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 young waitress in Baja dive, grinding his pelvis against her backside — he had a nightmare in which he strangled Don “Barney” Knotts and beat his face to a bloody pulp. Griffith said he woke frantic, disoriented, in a sweat. He got to a phone as quickly as he could and called his dear friend and longtime colleague to make sure he was all right.
Once he had confirmed Knotts’ safety and well-being, 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 lesson from his dad. “Yes, I see a shrink,” he said. “I’m not Andy Taylor. I’m an actor.”
And so he was.