Andy Griffith, who won hearts as a smalltown sheriff and widowed dad in the '60s sitcom "The Andy Griffith Show," died today at his coastal home in Manteo, N.C. He was 86 years old.
The Dare County sheriff, Doug Doughtie, said in a statement that Mr. Griffith died Tuesday morning, The New York Times reported. No cause of death was given.
In a variety of roles during his career, Mr. Griffith perfected the persona of the country hick who prevailed through an abundance of common sense, a keen sense of humor and moral decency, and those who underestimated him usually paid a price.
On "The Andy Griffith Show," he played Sheriff Andy Taylor, widowed father of young Opie -- Ron Howard, who grew up to be one of Hollywood's most successful director. On Twitter today, Mr. Howard wrote, "His pursuit of excellence and the joy he took in creating served generations & shaped my life. I'm forever grateful. RIP Andy."
Mr. Griffith was known mostly for his television role as sheriff of idyllic Mayberry and later, as a cantankerous attorney on 1980s-90s drama "Matlock," but he had a significant radio, stage and film career as well.
He earned Tony nominations playing a country bumpkin in "No Time for Sergeants," a roled he repeated in the film of the same name, and as a sheriff in the musical "Destry Rides Again." His first movie was Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd," in which Mr. Griffith portrayed another country boy -- this time with a manipulative and power-hungry streak. In "No Time for Sergeants," he worked with his future "Andy Griffith Show" costar, Don Knotts.
Mr. Griffith was born an only child in Mount Airy, N.C. -- the place many people have identified as the model for fictional Mayberry.
"The Andy Griffith Show" was scheduled to debut Sept. 26, 1960, but didn't go on air until October because it was pre-empted by the first of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, according to a 2010 Charlotte Observer story that chronicled the up and downs of life in Mayberry.
"By the time the show ended in September 1968, the nation had been through the civil rights struggle, near flashpoint in the Cold War and the buildup in Vietnam. In its last year, the show played to a national backdrop of assassinations, race riots and social upheaval at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago," wrote Mark Washburn.
While Mr. Knotts earned five Emmy Awards playing inept deputy Barney Fife, Mr. Griffith, at the center of whatever storm small-town life had to offer, earned the No. 8 ranking of TV Guide's list of "50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time," in 2004. On the set, he had a legendary temper directed at actors who arrived late, unprepared or who tried to act under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the Bloomberg News reported.
But the 35 million viewers of "The Andy Griffith Show" would have been reassured to learn that even at the peak of his popularity, Mr. Griffith drove a Ford station wagon and bought his suits off the rack, The New York Times obituary said. The actor said his favorite honor was having a 10-mile stretch of a North Carolina highway named after him in 2002 -- that was before President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, counted "The Andy Griffith Show" among the 10 best TV programs ever made (his list includes "The Sopranos") and uses it in teaching, The Charlotte Observer reported.
"That show made this small town in North Carolina seem like the Garden of Eden. There was some nasty stuff going on then."
Mr. Thompson said he believed that one of the show's key elements of success was the timeless hometown feel Mayberry projected. "I've never known a series that had a sense of place like that did. You got the sense you knew this town. You got a sense you could go there."
In recent years, Mr. Griffith's was featured in TV guest-starring appearances and a well-received movie role in 2007's "Waitress." As a southern gospel singer, he won a Grammy for his 1997 album, "I Love to Tell the Story: 25 Timeless Hymns before settling into a quiet life in North Carolina."
First Published July 3, 2012 3:15 PM