Beloved actor Andy Griffith dies in NC at age 86

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“The Andy Griffith Show” was a loving portrait of the town where few grew up but many wished they did _ a place where all foibles are forgiven and friendships are forever. Villains came through town and moved on, usually changed by their stay in Mayberry. That was all a credit to Griffith, said casting director Craig Fincannon of Wilmington, who met Griffith in 1974.

“I see so many TV shows about the South where the creative powers behind it have no life experience in the South,” Fincannon said. “All too often, they have a stereotypical perspective. What made `The Andy Griffith Show’ work was Andy Griffith himself _ the fact that he was of this dirt and had such deep respect for the people and places of his childhood. A character might be broadly eccentric, but the character had an ethical and moral base that allowed us to laugh with them and not at them.

“And Andy Griffith’s the reason for that.”

The show became one of only three series in TV history to bow out at the top of the ratings (The others were “I Love Lucy” and “Seinfeld.”). Griffith said he decided to end it “because I thought it was slipping, and I didn’t want it to go down further.”

His quiet public life didn’t prevent Griffith from exhibiting a fine sense of humor. Both Long and Fincannon recalled Griffith’s sneaky tendency to show up unexpectedly. In 1974, Fincannon was an actor in the outdoor drama, “The Lost Colony,” where Griffith had gotten his start in acting decades earlier.

“He would sneak into the choir and stand and sing as a choir member in the show, and people in the audience had no idea,” Fincannon said.

When Long and his two siblings were grand marshals in the Manteo Christmas parade, Griffith showed up in his 1932 roadster convertible to drive them. No one recognized Griffith, wearing glasses and a knit cap, until he said “Merry Christmas” to the crowd, Long said.

When asked in 2007 to name his favorite episodes, the ones atop Griffith’s list were the shows that emphasized Knotts’ character.

“The second episode that we shot I knew Don should be funny and I should play straight for him,” Griffith said. “That opened up the whole series because I could play straight for everybody else. And I didn’t have to be funny. I just let them be funny.”

Griffith’s generosity toward his castmates paid off richly for those fellow actors, particularly Knotts.

Sheriff Taylor was ever-indulgent with the twitchy, bug-eyed Deputy Fife, and loved joshing with him just for good sport. The result was five supporting-actor Emmys for Knotts.

“What are the state police gonna think when they get here and find we got an empty jail?” rants Barney in one episode, as always worried about appearances. “They’re gonna think this is just a hick town where nothing ever happens!”

“Well, now,” Taylor says calmly, “you got to admit: That’s about the size of it.

Letting others get the laughs was something of a role reversal for Griffith, whose career took off after he recorded the comedic monologue “What It Was, Was Football.”

That led to his first national television exposure on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1954, and the stage and screen versions as the bumbling draftee in “No Time for Sergeants.”

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