Appreciation: As Andy Taylor, Griffith was everybody's dad



The final scene in "Opie the Birdman," one of the best episodes of the long-running "Andy Griffith Show," exemplifies my affection for the sheriff of Mayberry.

In the episode, despite his father's stern words of warning, Opie (Ronny Howard) accidentally kills a mother bird with his slingshot and is ordered by his pa to tend to the baby hatchlings. As with all pets, Opie becomes attached to the birds as he nurses them back to health. But his father knows they belong to the heavens.

In the climactic scene, Opie releases the birds one by one and then says, "The cage sure looks awful empy, don't it, Pa?"

Scene from 'Opie the Birdman'

Andy Griffith and Ronny Howard are shown in this ending clip from the "Opie the Birdman" episode of "The Andy Griffith Show." (7/3/2012)

To which his father replies, birds chirping in the background, "Yes son, it sure does. But don't the trees seem nice and full?"

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Andy Griffith, who died Tuesday at the age of 86 in his beloved North Carolina, was an accomplished actor, with credits stretching from Broadway to Hollywood's silver screen. Who can forget his amazing star turn in Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd" or, more recently in 2007, as the surly owner of a diner in the critically acclaimed "Waitress." There also was the durable TV courtroom series "Matlock" (1986-95)

Those credits notwithstanding, Mr. Griffith -- oh, the heck with newspaper protocol -- Andy goes to his grave best remembered for his role as Andy Taylor. The CBS comedy ran from 1960-68 and left the air as the nation's No. 1 show. Its popularity in reruns is unparalleled.

Why?

Well, if ever television offered American dads a reason to emulate a sitcom character, this was the show. Andy taught Opie by example, with life lessons about honesty, compassion, respect. And when he screwed up, as fathers are wont to do, he admitted his mistake. Mayberry was a town of hilarious eccentrics, yet no laugh ever overshadowed the moral compass that guided the show -- the love between father and son.

In my family, we had a slightly different take. My brother, sister and I thought Andy emulated my father. By appearance, manner, even background, Dad was Andy. We were just fortunate enough not to have to share him with millions of fans.

Dad was raised in southern Virginia, not all that far from the North Carolina border. Mayberry's nearest neighbor was Mount Pilot. My father grew up near the fields and forests of Pilot Mountain. He possessed the southern graciousness that earned him lifelong friendships, but he also had the grit, the discipline and the wisdom that made my upbringing a mix of lessons learned and love lived.

One of my favorite recollections is the time I put together a display window in my father's store that, to my surprise, won a regional contest that earned me a trip to Houston with the Cincinnati Bengals. It was a time, as a teenager, when I wore the uniform of my day -- not Army fatigues, but long, long hair and a pair of ratty, patched bell-bottom blue jeans. Dad was a little bit (read: a lot) country; I was a little bit (read: a lot) rock 'n' roll. My father hated the hippie look and used to chide me endlessly about getting a haircut.

Then came the phone call. The Bengals had seen my photo. Legendary and conservative Bengals coach and general manager Paul Brown, through a surrogate, was asking my dad to take the trip, given that he owned the store. My father turned beet red, said a few choice words about fairness and about his son's good character, and then got off the phone. He knew it would ring again.

And when it did, Dad answered and then handed me the phone. He said it was my decision on whether or not to go, but on this one occasion, he'd have a stipulation: I wasn't allowed to get a haircut.

I lost my father a couple of months shy of his 72nd birthday. He was a year older than Andy and would have turned 87 in May.

So, forgive me the personal intrusion, but Andy is getting a second set of tears.

In journalistic circles -- and even more so within the social media culture -- celebrity deaths evoke an odd fascination. In part, it's because -- as with me -- celebrities touch us in some way.

Sometimes, in silly ways. My ring tone, for example, is the unmistakeable whistling theme of "The Andy Griffith Show." I've thought about changing it, but not now. Not with the show's namesake off to the heavens.

Don't those clouds seem nice and full?

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Allan Walton, assistant managing editor/Multimedia, can be reached at awalton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1932. First Published July 3, 2012 5:30 PM


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