“Americans loved, and still love, the notion of the small town as a manageable, non-threatening, friendly, finite community. … The black-and-white world that Andy Griffith shaped so masterfully is there for our perusal from a distance, but it is not coming back - either on television or anywhere else.” - Ted Anthony, Associated Press
In an elegant obituary for Andy Griffith, who died on July 3 at age 86, Ted Anthony might be right about the survival of small communities, but perhaps not about what made “The Andy Griffith Show” so successful.
The most important part of the program, of which CBS ran 249 episodes (159 in black and white and 90 in color) from 1960 to 1968, was not the idealized portrayal of small-town American life. It is the Christian-inspired warmth and wisdom, which never goes out of style. Most Americans don’t live in semirural villages anymore, and the communications age has ended isolation, but “The Andy Griffith Show” transcends its venue.
The spirit of Mayberry is evident anytime church members deliver food to the newly widowed, when city dwellers help a struggling single mother, or when neighbors pitch in to clean up after natural or man-made disasters. Although human kindness and openness are more likely in the country than the rougher-edged city, it can and does show up anywhere.
Mayberry, the fictional community based on Andy Griffith’s hometown of Mount Airy, N.C., leaves its mark on viewers the way it does on its fictional visitors. Outsiders leave Mayberry with the residue of love and good humor clinging to them like dryer sheets.
In “Man in a Hurry” (1963), a businessman whose car breaks down as he’s driving through Mayberry erupts in exasperation that this little town works differently on Sunday. The repair shop is closed. He can’t use the telephone because the party line is tied up by two elderly sisters who talk for hours on Sundays. Meanwhile, Sheriff Andy Taylor (Griffith) invites the man to stay at his home. Listening over and over to Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife (Don Knotts) rock on the porch, repeating his “plan” to go downtown, get a pop and head over to Thelma Lou’s to watch TV nearly drives the man over the edge.
Slowly but surely, the businessman chills out, charmed by the men’s kindness, the cooking of Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) and the boyish enthusiasm of widower Taylor’s son, Opie (Ron Howard).
It isn’t just the absence of a frenetic pace; it’s the love shown by the people for each other and even for a rude stranger who finds himself on the receiving end of Jesus’ command to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated.
Later that afternoon, Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) drives up in the repaired car his cousin consented to fix, Aunt Bee hands a sack lunch to the man, and everyone smiles and waves. Looking wistful, the businessman “discovers” a new sound in his car’s engine and asks Gomer to take it back to the garage. He’s not ready to give up this glimpse of heaven.
Neither is America, as the show is still thriving in syndication. “The Andy Griffith Show” works because it reflects the best of America, not an unreachable fantasy. When crises happen, the residents of Mayberry pull together. They don’t shake their finger at Uncle Sam and demand more booty from other Americans. It’s the antithesis of the one-size-fits-all statism that wants to put all the Mayberrys under its heel in the name of “equality,” “compassion” or “fairness.” Yes, I know Mr. Griffith inexplicably did a plug for Obamacare, and that what-were-you-thinking moment does unfortunately tarnish his lifelong body of work.
Much of the comic genius of “The Andy Griffith Show” involves efforts to avoid hurting the feelings of weaker characters. When Barney Fife’s fragile-as-an-eggshell ego is about to get crushed after a disastrous audition for the town choir, Andy and the others find a way to cover for him so he can sing. Social Darwinism, this is not.
Even town drunk Otis Campbell (Hal Smith) is treated with affection, if not respect. In an era in which “The Dean Martin Variety Show” (1965-1974) and others made alcohol abuse seem cute, the “Andy Griffith” writers may have erred in making light of Otis’ addiction. But their larger point was that Otis, whatever his weakness, was still a valued member of a community, not a disposable human being. In Matthew 25:40, Jesus tells his disciples that they blessed Him by aiding the poor and downtrodden because, “What you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.”
In Mayberry, the mother of all sins is the sin of pride, just as it is in every human heart. Prideful behavior in Mayberry gets thrashed with comeuppances that don’t exceed the crime. “Fearless” Fife’s pathetically transparent vainglory draws gentle rebukes. For instance, Andy allows Barney only one bullet for his periodically misfired gun - but he doesn’t take the gun away.
In a 1963 episode, Opie displays the power of honesty and the truth of the biblical Proverb (22:1) that “a good name is more desirable than great riches.” He comes home one day and tells Andy that he saw “Mr. McBeevee,” a mystery man with a silver helmet who makes a jingling noise and walks among treetops. A day later, Opie shows him an ax that he says “Mr. McBeevee” gave him, and a quarter. Andy wants to trust his son, but the story sounds far-fetched, and he questions Opie sharply. Finally, he says firmly, “I believe in Opie.” Later, Andy goes out looking for spiritual guidance, asking aloud what to do about “Mr. McBeevee.” Suddenly, to Andy’s relief and joy, a power company worker in a silver hat, with tools jingling, climbs down from a tree and says, “Mr. McBeevee at your service.” Andy’s faith in his son is affirmed.
Sheriff Andy was an American treasure. His Mayberry tales summon what’s best in us because they honor the spirit of the one who created us.
Robert Knight is senior writer for the American Civil Rights Union and a columnist for The Washington Times.