My son Jason is back in town for a summer visit, and one afternoon this week he marched into my office, announcing: "Hey Dad, guess what TV legend passed away today?"
With eyes fixed on a magazine feature assignment filling the laptop screen, and my fingers clicking away, I mumbled: "Jason, I really don’t know, but the suspense is killing me."
"Dad, c’mon, it was Andy Griffith," he said, as if he recalled something I had forgotten.
Maybe Jason did, after all. As he walked out, I pulled off my reading glasses, leaned back and looked out the window, yearning for Mayberry.
In the midst of film, music, radio, and even an early stint as a teacher right out of the University of North Carolina, Andy Griffith carved out one of the great careers in American acting. He starred in two long-running and very different TV shows: "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Matlock."
The latter ran from 1986-1995, and found Griffith in the title role as a Southern gentleman country lawyer practicing near Atlanta. Often, Ben Matlock would play dumb as a fox, then win his cases in a Perry Mason-type flourish, leaving fans delighted the old codger showed up those fancy suits yet again.
What we saw was very American: the grind-it-out and less glamorous tortoise taking on the slick and swift hares, and always winning the race.
But it was "The Andy Griffith Show" in its earlier black and white tones that etched itself into our popular conscience. The series ran from 1960-68 and engendered a number of spinoffs and reunions -- the last taking place in 2003 -- all with top-notch ratings. Today, it remains highly popular in syndication.
There are reasons for that. In the show, Griffith created a pre-Vietnam idyllic realm harkening back to his childhood home in Mount Airy, N.C. With our nation at the tail end of the postwar boom and social optimism, he played Sheriff Andy Taylor, who laid down the law and dispensed folksy wisdom -- a real taxpayer bargain.
The other interesting twist of Andy Taylor’s character was that Griffith made him a widower. He had to raise son Opie, famously played by Ron Howard, on his own. The sheriff not only looked after his town, but as a dad he faced the dilemmas of single parenting and the minefield of potential romance every week.
At the time, this dynamic already was known to American TV but wasn’t the norm in trying to create a cutesy nuclear family environment.
Yet watching "The Andy Griffith Show" was more than entertainment, and had nothing to do with Griffith the person, but rather with the mythology he created around his character. For many Americans, both old and young, there were lessons learned, values passed along, and morals settled upon. Watching Andy Taylor do the right thing -- good manners, self-effacement and all -- was like watching your older brother setting a good example to follow.
Today, we mock the clarity of Griffith’s basic human virtues, mistaking political correctness and cultural relativism as suitable replacements. And I’m just as guilty falling prey to the laziness of that Siren song as the next person. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t keep looking inward to my many faults and peck away at them, regardless of the thought police’s unwelcome incursion into our daily lives.
To that end, instead of standing on high ground and demanding that heads roll, Sheriff Taylor reminded us from sea level that redemption above all is the great Yankee hallmark.
So perhaps it was appropriate that Jason was the one to break the news of Griffith’s death. In my boyhood I used to watch Andy Taylor to decipher my own parents’ decisions. Later, as a young father, I tried to do right by my son. To that end, "The Andy Griffith Show" passed along plenty of good advice in late night reruns.
And looking back, an added benefit was all this counsel came without the profanity, violence or gore which graces present-day screens.
Was Mayberry real? Of course it wasn’t, and it exists nowhere today. But good people are all around us; their didactic ideals don’t need crudeness for effective delivery. And for a half-hour every week, when I needed Andy Griffith most, that was fine with me.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail him at: email@example.com