Andy Griffith Dies at 86

7:36 AM PST 07/03/2012 by Duane Byrge , Erin Carlson
ABC/Getty Images

The TV legend died Tuesday morning at his home in Dare County, N.C.

Andy Griffith, who parlayed his folksy North Carolina country charm into a five-decade show business career highlighted by his popular turns as the single-father sheriff in his eponymous 1960s sitcom and the legal show Matlock decades later, has died. He was 86.

Griffith died at about 7 a.m. Tuesday morning at his home in Dare County, N.C., according to North Carolina’s WITN-TV. Emergency medical crews had responded to a call for help. No cause of death was given.

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Griffith made his film debut as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a manipulative country boy who goes power-mad, in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, the classic 1957 drama written by Budd Schulberg. Earlier, he earned a Tony nomination for his work in 1955’s No Time for Sergeants.

A fixture on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1950s, Griffith starred as Sheriff Andy Taylor alongside Don Knotts and Ron Howard in The Andy Griffith Show, which aired from 1960 to 1968 on CBS, and as crafty Atlanta defense attorney Ben Matlock on NBC’s and ABC’s 1986-95 legal drama Matlock. While those series were hits, Griffith never was nominated for an Emmy for either role. His only Emmy nomination came for his turn as the father of a murder victim in the 1981 NBC telefilm Murder in Texas.

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Griffith also served as executive producer on Matlock. When he received a People’s Choice Award in 1987 for playing the attorney, he admitted that it was his all-time favorite role.

Griffith was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame in 1991 for his body of comedic and dramatic work, which also included the 1977 miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors.

Griffith was born an only child June 1, 1926, in Mount Airy, N.C. Early on in life, he considered going into the ministry, but while studying music at the University of North Carolina he was encouraged to take up acting. He won a part in the Carolina Playmakers’ The Lost Colony and met his first wife, Barbara Edwards, who would later serve as his early booking agent.

Following graduation, Griffith taught high school music for three years in Goldsboro, N.C., moonlighting as a singer-dancer-guitarist. His act was so successful that Griffith quit his day job and in 1953 recorded the comedy album What It Was, Was Football. Griffith came up with the idea for the album while en route to speak before a civic group, which his wife had mistakenly booked twice. Realizing he couldn’t use the same material, he came up with the idea on the 75-mile drive. The humor and subsequent album caught the attention of a record executive, and Griffith was signed to do comedy albums. His subsequent homespun comedy albums have sold in the millions.

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A single, “What It Was, Was Football (Parts I & II)," credited to Deacon Andy Griffith, made the top 10 of Billboard’s pre-Hot 100 sales chart in 1954.

Griffith was booked on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1954 and, during the same year, made his nightclub debut at New York’s Blue Angel. Neither the Sullivan appearance nor the nightclub act flourished, so Griffith took off on a tour. His style was, not surprisingly, more popular outside of the Big Apple. Following the tour, he made a foray into Broadway, playing in No Time for Sergeants, which he performed 345 times on the Great White Way (Knotts also appeared in the play). The production was made into a TV show and a movie, with Griffith reprising his role as a country boy in the U.S. Air Force. 

Two movies quickly followed. A Face in the Crowd, in which he delivered a stirring performance as a talented hobo singer who becomes a national phenomenon. Written by Schulberg and directed by Kazan, the film satirized the perils of national advertising, and Griffith’s chilling performance of a hick who wins the ear of politicians was a precursor to such contemporary satires as Bob Roberts. He also was featured in Onionhead the following year.  

At the request of hitmaking TV producer Sheldon Leonard, Griffith was lured to The Andy Griffith Show, built around his avuncular good nature. (In 1960, Griffith appeared as a county sheriff in an episode of Leonard’s Make Room for Daddy, starring Danny Thomas, which served as a backdoor pilot for The Andy Griffith Show.)

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The single-camera series, filmed in Hollywood but set in the fictional town of Mayberry, N.C., featured Griffith as a kindly but perceptive widower sheriff with a hyper comic deputy, Barney Fife, played by Knotts. The popular cast also included Frances Bavier as Aunt Bee and his “young’un,” Opie, played by Howard, years before he would become an Oscar-winning film director.

“His pursuit of excellence and the joy he took in creating served generations & shaped my life,” tweeted Howard, who was 6 when he was cast on the show. “I’m forever grateful RIP Andy.”

In 1968, Griffith quit the Monday night sensation after appearing in all 249 episodes to pursue a movie career and other projects, and the series continued as Mayberry R.F.D., with Ken Berry as the star and Griffith serving as an executive producer. (He started his own production company, Andy Griffith Enterprises, in 1972.)

The Andy Griffith Show was never lower than seventh in the Nielsen ratings and ended its final season as the No. 1 show on television. While it ran in primetime, it also aired in reruns in daytime, and it has played as a staple of syndication for nearly a half-century. 

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“We had all the comic characters that came on, and I played straight for them,” Griffith recalled in a May 1998 interview with the Archive of American Television. “So Mayberry really was the star of the show.”

Griffith said Matlock would never have survived without then-NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff.

“The sales department tried to take it off the air because of the [older] demographics,” he said. “Brandon liked it and kept it on the air.” Producer Fred Silverman then engineered the series’ move to ABC, where it debuted in January 1993.

Griffith’s movie credits included a comic turn as a Hollywood cowboy in Hearts of the West (1975), alongside Jeff Bridges and Alan Arkin.

Throughout his career, he continued to solicit roles that went against his good-guy persona, such as General Rancor, a sinister maniac opposite Leslie Nielsen in the 1996 spoof Spy Hard. More recently, he performed in the family films Daddy and Them (2001) and Play the Game (2009).

Griffith’s 1996 gospel album, I Love to Tell the Story: 25 Timeless Hymns, on which he sang, peaked at No. 55 on the Billboard 200, sold more than a half-million copies and won a Grammy Award.

“Andy Griffith was an American television icon bringing beloved characters into family homes for more than 50 years,” said Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the Recording Academy. “In addition to acting, Griffith had a passion for music and recorded a number of albums. He was an immense talent and a true gift to the entertainment industry.”

He had a 10-mile stretch of a North Carolina highway named after him in 2002 and was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the U.S., in 2005.

Griffith was married to Edwards from 1949 to 1972 and then Greek actress Solica Cassuto from 1973 to 1981 before wedding Cindi Knight in 1983, when she was 27 and he was 56. His son Sam died in 1996.

Griffith had quadruple-bypass heart surgery in 2000 and underwent hip surgery seven years later. He also spent time in rehabilitation for leg paralysis from Guillain-Barré syndrome in 1986.

Check out Griffith's classic 1953 comedy monologue "What It Was, Was Football," with animated visuals, below.

Mike Barnes and Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.

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