Sunday, February 24, 2008

The real Andy Griffith lives quietly in the Outer Banks

Now 81 and beloved in reruns, Griffith says, "There's nothing in the world worse, emotionally, than not working."

The placid, lapping waters of the Roanoke Sound are the first things Andy Griffith hears most mornings, as he looks toward the tiny peak of the Wright Memorial, across from his waterfront estate on Roanoke Island, N.C.

He has a cup of coffee, reads The Virginian-Pilot and then goes out to feed his three dogs. There's a kiss and a hug for Cindi, his wife of nearly 25 years, whom he calls "the light of my life," adding, "I'm not just saying that 'cause I have to. This woman is something else. Always has been."

If he feels like it, he takes a ride across his 70-acre property in his John Deere tractor. "I have some problems walking. Nothing serious, but this gator will go straight up hills."

One of his favorite things to do is check on his nine antique cars, housed like royal guests in climate-controlled quarters. They include a 1930 Model A Ford, a 1938 Buick and a 1946 Thunderbird (which was actually a Christmas gift for Cindi). They are his proudest possessions.

This homestead, just down the road from "The Lost Colony" outdoor theater where he started his professional career, has been his for some five decades. "Nowhere else in the world I'd rather be."

He's known throughout the world as Andy Taylor, a homespun man of the people who, at least on the small screen, lived in a community where everyone cared about everyone else. For more than 40 years, television viewers have invited him into their homes.

Today, he values his privacy. He's friendly and outgoing to a point, particularly when the conversation focuses on show business, but he's not going beyond that. He's been known to turn down requests for autographs.

"When my wife, Cindi, and I go somewhere and we don't want to be recognized, she says, 'Don't talk.' ''

Getting this interview required a telephone. He'd talk for hours on the line, mainly about his long career. But if I suggested a personal meeting, maybe at the house or at a restaurant somewhere on the Outer Banks, there was a silence. Then a whisper: "Let's just talk."

Griffith is a telephone buddy, dating back some four decades.

He first called to react to a column in which I suggested his performance as an egomaniac television personality in the 1957 movie "A Face in the Crowd" -- shot before his TV fame -- was one of the greatest in film history. I still think so. I added that he could have been one of the great, serious film actors, "if he hadn't sold out to television."

He called about that and acted hurt. "That movie didn't make a dime, and, besides, roles like that don't come along often. I'd struck out on Broadway, and I'd struck out in the movies, so I kinda had to go to television."

That's a unique way of looking at it. He became the toast of Broadway and a two-time Tony nominee, and later he got rave reviews for "A Face in the Crowd" and the 1958 movie "No Time for Sergeants."

Now 81, he never won an Emmy, but he got a Grammy Award for his 1996 gospel album, "I Love to Tell the Story." He is in the TV Hall of Fame.

He's had terrible illnesses, including a near-fatal heart attack. He endured years of rejection between his two TV triumphs, "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Matlock."

"I 'preciate it," Griffith said in one of our recent phone conversations, about his 50-year career in theater, movies and television. But he added quickly that, "There's nothing in the world worse, emotionally, than not working."

For years, I didn't hear from him. Then, a few months ago, after I reviewed "Waitress," in which he played a cantankerous-old-man supporting role that got him some Oscar buzz but no nomination, he called. "It's Andy Griffith," he said, simply.

When I called him back, he admitted he had turned down a lot of people seeking an interview, "because I didn't know them and wasn't sure if they knew what they were talking about."

The pride of Mount Airy

Andrew Samuel Griffith was born in Mount Airy, N.C., on June 1, 1926, the same day as Marilyn Monroe. He is the only son of Carl Lee Griffith, a skilled carpenter and foreman in a chair factory, and Geneva Nunn Griffith. In his first year he didn't have a crib; he slept in a dresser drawer.

According to townsfolk interviewed for a TV documentary, he was prone to sickness as a child, and his mother worried about him "playing too rough."

"I wasn't much of a student and didn't have an aim until I was about 14," he remembered in one of our conversations, "and then, I wanted music."

At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, he majored in music. He joined the respected Carolina Playmakers and landed several comedic roles in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

He took a shine to a campus beauty, Barbara Edwards, who was getting many of the starring roles with the Playmakers. In the summer they both got acting jobs in "The Lost Colony."

They were married on Roanoke Island in 1949. As he put it, "in an Anglican chapel by a Methodist minister to a Baptist maiden while a Roman Catholic pumped the pipe organ." Upon graduation, they went to Goldsboro, N.C., where he took a job teaching music at the local high school and she led the music program at a local church.

But the two wanted performing careers. They worked up a show in which she sang and danced and he did monologues and played guitar, touring all over the Carolinas for, as he put it, "$75 plus 10 cents a mile and free dinner before the show."

It was on the 45-minute drive from Chapel Hill to Raleigh that he made up a monologue about a country boy who had never seen a football game. "We only had one show, so we couldn't play any return engagements. We needed a new comedy routine."

He tried it out at the Jefferson Standard Life Insurance convention in Raleigh in 1953. They laughed.

A Chapel Hill record company recorded it later, Griffith doing the take over and over because he was worried it wasn't good enough. "What It Was, Was Football," with a down-home version of "Romeo and Juliet" on the other side, became so popular in North Carolina that Capitol Records bought the rights and put it out nationally. It became one of the top-selling comedy records of all time.

In the sketch, Griffith tells about a cow pasture where a bunch of men were fighting "over this funny little punkin' thang they wanted to play with. And I know, friends, they couldn't eat it because they kicked it the whole afternoon, and it never busted."

Getting up to full volume, he proclaims, "Friends, I saw that evening the awfulest fight I had ever seen in my life. I did. They would run at one 'nother and kick one 'nother and throw one 'nother down and stomp one 'nother and I don't know what all. And just as fast as one of 'em would get hurt, they'd tote him off and run another one on."

The Ed Sullivan Show called in 1954.

The pride of Mayberry

Andy Taylor first surfaced on television in 1960 as a guest character on "The Danny Thomas Show." He was the sheriff and justice of the peace in a small town called Mayberry. It was written as anywhere in rural America, but Griffith added references to places like Raleigh and the Outer Banks. That same year he became the central character in "The Andy Griffith Show."

"I didn't think it would last, to tell you the truth. I thought we'd be canceled and might not even make it through that first year. I look at that first year today, and I was so bad. I was so country, trying to be funny. It was pretty cornball. If it hadn't been for Don Knotts ...

"Then we went to work on it. I said, 'Let Don be funny.' It turned around when I became the straight man. I would just react to him. I'm good at reacting."

Knotts, who died in 2006, went on to win the Emmy five times. Griffith was never even nominated.

In a 1964 interview for The Virginian-Pilot, Knotts said, "Andy is one of the funniest persons I ever met. I first met him at the first rehearsal of 'No Time for Sergeants,' and the first time we read through the play, I knew he had it.

"On the show, people thought he wasn't acting and that Andy Taylor was just naturally him. He was so good that he made it look natural. He was acting. It was a fine performance. Andy never got credit as a writer, but he was involved with the story line of every episode."

"The Andy Griffith Show" was No. 1 in the ratings during its final year, 1968.

He owned 50 percent but sold the rights to the reruns, which, in hindsight, could have been a mistake. They continue to run today.

Griffith produced a successor show called "Mayberry R.F.D." starring Ken Berry, who also played a widower with a young son. When it was canceled, Griffith took the news hard. "CBS had decided it was going to purge the network of what it called 'rural' comedy. I think it was a bad thing for the country. When we try to hide our real roots, it's not good."

It was a sign of trouble to come for Griffith's post-Mayberry career, which was full of disappointments and outright disasters. "I thought I was hot stuff and would go right into movies. It didn't work out that way."

It seemed no one wanted to see Andy Griffith outside of Mayberry, even though Universal Pictures signed him to a five-year deal. In the first movie, 1969's "Angel in My Pocket," he played a minister. It flopped at the box office. Universal wanted to team him with Knotts in a movie, but Griffith refused and got out of the contract. "I wanted to prove that I could play something else, but there were 249 episodes out there of 'Mayberry,' and it was aired every day. It was hard to escape."

A return to TV in 1970 with "The Headmaster" didn't work. "I learned a lesson, and that is that it's hard as hell to mix laughter and messages. I needed to go back to making people laugh."

He formed his own production company, but the failed series "Salvage" and "Best of the West" resulted.

His personal life didn't go well, either. In 1972, his 23-year marriage to Edwards ended. He wouldn't go into much detail in our phone conversations, but he said, "Barbara wasn't thick-skinned enough for show business. You've got to be able to fail and stand it."

They had two adopted children. Edwards got custody of their 12-year-old daughter, Dixie Nann. Andy got custody of their 14-year-old son, Sam. The son was apart from the family for some years before his death in 1996. Sam Griffith's attorney was quoted in a Los Angeles Daily News report after the death saying Sam had suffered for years from alcoholism.

Dixie Nann has made Griffith a grandfather.

His second marriage was to Greek actress Solica Cassuto. It lasted eight years, from 1973 to 1981.

Griffith met Cindi Knight when she was a young dancer in "The Lost Colony." When I spoke to her by phone recently, she recalled, "It was a very slow romance to develop, over years of time. ... Andy is a fine man."

They were married on Roanoke Island in April 1983. She was 27; he was 56.

The verdict was good for 'Matlock'

Then he proved that lightning can strike twice. After numerous, often villainous roles in TV movies, he got another series, and a big one -- "Matlock," in 1986. "Matlock put me back in the business. I liked, particularly, that Ben Matlock was a smart Southerner. Not a rube."

In 1989 he brought the TV crew to Manteo to film a two-part episode, giving locals a chance to be famous. "During all the years of the old Griffith show I tried to talk them into filming something in North Carolina, but they said, 'Why? They already think you're in North Carolina anyway.' "

It was a foregone conclusion that eventually he'd decide to spend most of his time on Roanoke Island instead of in Hollywood.

He'd first discovered the estate that lies along the Roanoke Sound in 1947 when the cast of "The Lost Colony" had a scavenger hunt that led him there.

"I knew if I had my choice of any place to live, this would be it."

During his first Broadway run, when he started to make real money, he bought it.

The estate's 60-year-old original, white house serves as a guest house behind the larger home he built after he sold his 7,000-square-foot Hollywood mansion in 1984. He maintained a townhouse in California.

Surprisingly, for an Outer Banks resident, he isn't much of a fisherman, but he and Cindi have traveled around Roanoke Island in their pontoon boat a few times.

In 1998 he donated 319 acres near the Great Dismal Swamp in Chesapeake to promote nature conservation.

Not ready for the sun to go down

Things are hopping in his career again.

"Well, you can imagine that there aren't a lot of scripts for a man my age, but there are more than you'd think. It's just unusual to get a script where I don't die in the end."

He mused that he'd passed on the role of the foul-mouthed grandfather in "Little Miss Sunshine," the part that brought the supporting-actor Oscar to Alan Arkin last year. "I wouldn't say I was offered it or anything like that, but it was sent to me, and I read it, and I said, 'Nah. I couldn't ever go back and do a gospel album after I played that part.' "

A project called "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down" is pending.

Most recently, he's been working in Hollywood on a movie called "Play the Game." It has Griffith as a grandfather whose grandson encourages him to get back into the dating game. Doris Roberts is one of his potential "dates."

And in the spring, he and Cindi plan another boat trip around the island.

Just the two of them.

Mal Vincent is a longtime movie reviewer for The Virginian-Pilot.

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