It started as an episode of The Danny Thomas Show, but eventually CBS's small-town wonder would run 249 episodes over eight years, and would become one of the most beloved television programs of all time. It has never been off the air since it began in syndication over thirty years ago.
In February of 1960, an episode of the popular Danny Thomas Show aired in which Thomas was driving through a small North Carolina town and was arrested for running a stop sign (although there was no road to go with the sign). Thomas was brought to the town's small courthouse where a number of the local characters wandered through, providing additional comic relief.
The sheriff was of course played by Andy Griffith. Griffith was a popular comedic actor at the time, and his initial appearance in the episode received applause from the studio audience. Griffith had begun his career in show business with recordings of his self-penned comic monologues, most of which concerned a naive country lad's reactions to events in the larger world outside his hometown (such as, in probably his most popular routine, a football game). He had appeared in Broadway in a similar role in No Time For Sergeants, and repeated the part in the film version.
So popular was the Danny Thomas episode that the decision was made to give Griffith his own series; most of the episode's setting within the fictional town of Mayberry was retained. Frances Bavier had had a small part in that episode, and now returned in a more expanded role; and Griffith brought along his pal Don Knotts (who had also appeared in No Time For Sergeants) to play his costar.
The basic setting of The Andy Griffith Show remained constant throughout most of its seven-and-a-half years on television, despite a few cast changes here and there. Andy Taylor was the sheriff of Mayberry, within Mayberry County, North Carolina. He was a widower, raising his son Opie with the aid of his Aunt Bea (who came in during the first episode). Andy's second-in-command was Barney Fife, a thin, nervous, but dedicated lawman who often took a more hardline approach to the law than did the more laid-back Andy. Other townsfolk included befuddled barber Floyd, the lovable town drunk Otis, greasemonkey Gomer Pyle, and Gomer's goofy cousin Goober.
What made The Andy Griffith Show so popular was a complex mixture of relaxed humor, oddball characters, and - most of all - a sort of smalltown attitude that appeared timeless. Though definitely set in contemporary times, Mayberry seemed old-fashioned, almost pre-WWII in its rural way of life. By 1960, when the show began airing, it was a way of life already beginning to disappear. The next eight years of social turmoil would prove just how comforting - and how fragile - such a thing could become. The fact that the show - much like its other homespun contemporaries such as Petticoat Junction or Hee-Haw - could be equally popular with Southern families and upwardly-mobile urbanites was proof that it the humor was universal; there was more than nostalgia at work behind the popularity. Also, much of TAGS's success lay in its fine cast and creators, and the level of loving detail they brought to each episode.
Within the South, where I was raised and still live, Andy Griffith is considered by many only a step or two down from a religion. The average person has seen practically every episode at one time or another, and can just as easily sit down and watch one again after a moment of channel-surfing. TAGS is seen as being genuinely Southern - while Hooterville is obviously part of some Hollywood backlot, a lot of people seem to think that Mayberry just might exist somewhere in the east. (Part of this realism was the show's extensive use of exterior shots.) Also, the accents used by most of the cast sound authentic, rather than the eye-rollingly bad Georgia-drawls one is accustomed to hearing as a generic Southern accent on television; but then, many in the cast came by their accents honestly: Griffith really was from North Carolina, Knotts from West Virginia, Jim 'Gomer' Nabors from Alabama, etc.
The Andy Griffith Show is still a popular syndicated program, but the question is, how popular is it with younger viewers? If it seemed old-fashioned to people in the 1960's, how much more removed from reality does it seem to young people now? There may come a time when the show is seen as so countrified that no station wants to carry it - indeed, that happened to several shows in the early 1970's when CBS started phasing out most of its 'rural comedy' programming such as Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, etc.; the network apparently wanted to appeal to a more hip demographic despite many of the shows being popular money-makers.
For the rest of us, though, we'd like to maintain our fantasy that somewhere in the Southeast there remains a small, unhurried town where the sheriff carries no gun, because it isn't needed; and his deputy keeps only one bullet - in his shirt pocket.
The Andy Griffith Show
October 3, 1960 - April 1, 1968
Andy Taylor - Andy Griffith
Barney Fife - Don Knotts
Aunt Bea - Frances Bavier
Opie Taylor - Ron Howard
Gomer Pyle - Jim Nabors
Goober Pyle - George Lindsey
Otis Campbell - Hal Smith
Floyd Lawson - Howard McNear
Ernest T. Bass - Howard Morris
Helen Crump - Aneta Corsaut
- Four different actors played Wally, the owner of the gas station where Gomer was employed, throughout the show's run.
- No information is known about the actor who played Mr. Schwamp, a character who appeared in a handful of episodes, but never spoke a single line of dialog.
- Don Knotts's first name was Jesse.
- Andy Griffith was never nominated for an Emmy, neither for TAGS nor for Matlock. Don Knotts won five as Barney Fife.
- The correct title of the show's theme is simply "The Andy Griffith Show Theme," not "The Fishin' Hole" as commonly believed. The person heard whistling during the tune is composer Earl Hagen.