Saturday, November 26, 2011

I have found myself, over the past couple of years, watching entire series of old TV shows.  It's a fascinating, if time-wasting, exercise that offers glimpses not only into the creative process of these old shows, but also into the social context in which these shows were produced and presented.

My first complete series was THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW.  First of all, let me say that I think Andy Griffith is brilliant.  From his youthful parody recordings such as his country-telling of the ROMEO AND JULIET story, through his early Hollywood career making films like NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS and the outstanding A FACE IN THE CROWD, through his short Broadway stint in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN to his long-running television shows (don't forget MATLOCK), Griffith had an uncanny ability to find the pulse of the public and treat it with worthy entertainment.  

Ron Howard had to have learned film-making discipline from his many years with Griffith.  Jim Nabors' career was launched and catapulted through Griffith's insistence that he was a star.  Don Knotts became a television icon when Griffith wisely stepped back to serve as Knotts straight man when he realized his sidekick was getting all the laughs.  

Griffith simply knew how to make audiences happy.  His first television series--not really a sitcom, but rather more a subtle, sweet, episodic lesson in morality, friendship and understanding--ran from 1960 to 1968, when it morphed into MAYBERRY, R.F.D.  It made the mandatory transition from black and white to color in 1966.  Often, the storyline involved Howard, who played Sheriff Andy Taylor's son Opie, and who would invariably choose or be lured into doing something wrong--like sling-shooting a bird to death--and, in the final scene, would sit on the porch of the Mayberry house and learn right from wrong from Dad.  Griffith's Taylor, always gently firm, knew how to get his point across without hammering it home.  Whatever Opie learned, we learned.  And we tuned in the following week because we cared about the characters and believed in the truth the series evoked.  

The characters were memorable--Aunt Bee, Gomer Pyle, his cousin Goober, Floyd the barber (played by Howard McNear, who suffered a stroke after the first couple of seasons, was brought back by Griffith after he recovered, and was, if it's possible, funnier after the stroke than he was before it), Ernest T. Bass (the irrepressible Howard Morris) and so, so many others over the years.  Most unforgettable, of course, was Knotts' Barney Fife, possibly one of the five most iconic television characters in history.  There wasn't a second of Knotts' lunacy as the bumbling deputy that wasn't honestly rendered by the actor, who deservedly went on to win a slew of Emmys. 

It's difficult to pick a favorite episode of the over 200 produced, so I won't even try.  However, a favorite moment, which occurred many times in the life of the series, was the late-in-show porch sit with Andy, strumming softly on his guitar, harmonizing a hymn with Barney.  True, heartfelt, without embarrassment or apology, Griffith told his story.

Next time--Amos and Andy.  Yes.  That's what I said.

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