Sheriff Andy Taylor was his best known character, followed by lawyer Ben Matlock. Country gents with wisdom and a compass heading of goodness. Each could be a bit quirky and capable of a misstep, but learned and made things right.
In between Andy and Ben, and even before, Griffith played many characters, most of these fall in to good Andy or bad Andy.
After The Andy Griffith Show, Griffith found himself typecast. He tried another television series, Headmaster, as the head of a private school, but it quickly bombed, and immediately replaced by The New Andy Griffith Show, drawing on all the familiar Sheriff Andy qualities, but a slightly different character. It was canceled too.
Griffith spent the rest of the decade ping ponging between a variety of roles trying to redefine himself, including some of his best, bad Andy roles.
Griffith first came to the attention of many from his comedy album and then No Time For Sergeants. The Andy Griffith Show was not far behind, cementing in our minds, Griffith as the lighthearted country personality, sometimes naive, usually humble and wise, with the warm, toothy grin.
Many people remember him from the 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd, where Griffith also played a country character, but about as far away from Sheriff Andy as one could get. This character was mean-spirited and an opportunist, who misused every act of trust and kindness for his own purposes. A biting satire on fame and the manufacturing of characters for public consumption. The film was a commercial disappointment, but it a first glimpse at Griffith’s superb acting range, and what happened when he strayed from what we would see throughout the 1960s in Mayberry.
In 1986, Griffith returned to television as Ben Matlock, the wily Southern trial lawyer. Griffith actually spent more seasons (but not as many episodes) as Matlock than as the sheriff in Mayberry.
These two shows bookend a pretty fascinating career of unusual characters, both in both television and film. Here are a few.
The Strangers in 7A – A 1972 made-for-television film. Griffith co-stars with Ida Lupino (search for my blog on her), as a building superintendent, a middle-aged man, who is trying to rebound from losing his factory job. While his wife is out of town, his character is seduced by a young woman who immediately begins manipulating him into letting her and friends hole in one of his apartments. He discovers they are using the apartment to stage a bank robbery. Griffith’s character must overcome his fear of his tryst being conveyed to his wife, and foiling the robbery. This is a good dramatic role for Griffith, one where his character is weak and indulges in an affair, and finds himself in a deep hole as a result. Griffith usually plays self-assured characters, not morally weak ones.
Hawaii Five-O – Griffith guest-starred in a 1972 episode of the crime drama, as a con-artist, who along with his wife (Joyce Van Patten), get themselves into real trouble by conning big-time mobsters by mistake, and must cooperate with McGarrett to get their kidnapped daughter back. This was a semi-comedic role for Griffith as the small-time conman, who gets in over his head by his greed.
Savages – A 1974 made-for-television film, lawyer Madec (Griffith), seeks a permit to hunt big-horn sheep in the desert. He gains the permit and hires a college student Ben (Sam Bottoms) to guide him through the desert in search of the sheep. Madec accidentally shoots and kills a prospector, and attempts to cover up the killing, but Ben discovers it. Failing to bribe Ben into staying silent, Madec decides to hunt Ben. Eventually, Ben is able to elude Madec and make it to the sheriff. At first, the sheriff instead believes the story Madec tells, implicating Ben as the killer. Finally, Ben is able to convince the sheriff of his innocence. This was the first of two made-for-television films where Griffith plays a violent sociopath, new territory for the usually kindly Griffith.
Pray For the Wildcats – A 1974 made-for-television film, where Griffith stars as Sam Farragut, owner of a large conglomerate, who contracts with an advertising firm for his marketing. Farragut holds sway over a group of ad executives, over fear of losing his large account. Farragut forces the execs to expand their Sunday afternoon motorcycle rides into a lengthy excursion across Baja to see where his company would build. Farracut is mean and cunning, and used to either bullying or buying what he wants. On the trip, Farracut attempts to take advantage of a “hippie chick”, when her boyfriend intervenes. In a violent rage, Farracut disables their vehicle, making sure they both parish in the desert. He exerts his influence over two of the other execs, and attempts to kill the other one, but is killed instead. Farragut is like an older, more ruthless version of his Face in the Crowd character. A wonderful film co-starring Robert Reed, William Shatner, Marjoe Gortner, Angie Dickinson, Janet Margolin and Lorraine Gary.
Griffith’s efforts to distance himself from Andy Taylor were hitting pay dirt.
Winter Kill – Another 1974 movie-of-the-week, this time Griffith returned to familiar territory as a small town sheriff in a resort community, only now on the west side of the country. Griffith’s character is out to solve a murder, in a place where murder is rare. Griffith is surrounded by some quirky characters in this drama, but Griffith plays it straight. This film served as a vehicle for the short-lived series, Adams of Eagle Lake, and two other television films The Girl in the Empty Grave and Deadly Game. Griffith was determined for this character and the small resort town setting to be a success. These were good stories and productions. A few years later, Angela Lansbury, as a writer in a small New England community, would accomplish take a variation of this idea and hit a home run with it.
Hearts of the West – A 1975 feature film, in which Griffith had a very tasty role as a singing cowboy of Western films. Jeff Bridges stars in the film as a wannabe writer who stumbles upon a film set where Griffith and other actors are making their B-films. Griffith’s character fails to live up to his screen image when he steals the young writer’s screenplay and tries to peddle as his own. A beloved, but often overlooked film of the era, one that allows Griffith to be both lighthearted and a bit of roguish character.
Salvage 1 – A 1979 television series starring Griffith as Harry Broderick, a space trashman, who collects and salvages valuable things abandoned in space. Griffith’s character was ambitious and a bit eccentric. The show lasted less than a season and has to be one of Griffith’s more unusual roles. Few people remember this series. I do.
Murder in Coweta County – A 1983 television film starring Griffith as a wealthy and villainous man in the county next door to the one where Johnny Cash is the sheriff. Inevitably, the two men clash.
Crime of Innocence – A 1985 television film, where Griffith plays a judge, who shows no tolerance or humanity. He sentences two young girls to prison, for a crime more deserving of a lighter punishment. The girls are raped in prison, triggering their family to demand justice. Griffith could have just dialed in the performance, but makes this creepy judge quite an interesting portrayal.
Under the Influence – A 1986 television film, where Griffith plays a functional alcoholic, but who is out of touch with the impact on his family and those around him. An unsentimental view of alcoholism and how others adapt to it.
Griffith played many law men, lawyers and villains. His various roles had him playing both good and bad men, and those in between. He rarely played characters as truly good as Andy Taylor, he had been there already, and characters with flaws were more fun and interesting. Even Ben Matlock, the hot tempered, cheap and always hungry Southern gent, could rub people the wrong way. Likewise, Griffith played many very bad characters, and unless the character was thinly written, Griffith knew how to shade the roles to bring out interesting textures.
While you might think Sheriff Andy or Matlack when seeing Griffith, you might mistake his smile as kind when he was really trying to disarm you, before sticking a knife in your ribs.