Saturday, September 25, 2010

Memories of Mayberry

I know people who will tell anyone who will listen that the Andy Griffith Show was the greatest TV show in history.

Maybe it was. But, really, who can say?

I think it's a sucker's argument, frankly — like quarreling over who was the best home run hitter, Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds. They played in different eras in different ballparks and against different kinds of pitchers. If Ruth ever played night games, it was at the end of his career, but doubleheaders were more common in his day. Bonds, on the other hand, played most of his games at night, but the double dip was mostly a relic of the past when he arrived on the scene. Aaron was in between — didn't play in as many doubleheaders as Ruth, but they were still being scheduled, and he played in both day and night games.

It's like comparing apples and oranges ... and peaches.

Most baseball fans would probably agree that all three were talented. And that's probably as far as an argument over the merits of each (in relation to the others) should go.

That's kind of how I feel about TV shows. Some people came of age in the 1950s, when some very talented performers and writers and directors were pioneering this emerging technology. There were only three networks in those days, so things were more concentrated — and the viewership level that was achieved by some programs probably never will be duplicated in the fragmented modern environment of cable and satellite programming.

Were the shows better than the ones being produced today? Some were, some weren't. But the people who came of age in those days have a fierce loyalty to the programs of that time.

It was much the same way in the 1960s, when Andy Griffith made its debut. The writing was often excellent, the characters were very natural and believable (if flawed) people and many of the stories dealing with things like parenting and friendship still resonate today.

The show, in its color incarnation, was still on prime time when I was a child, but afternoon television in those days often featured reruns of the earlier black–and–white episodes. I remember watching those early episodes in the afternoons after school.

But there is no getting around the fact that much has changed in half a century. We live in an age of high–definition television and streaming video on lightweight computers and pocket–sized gadgets you can carry with you wherever you go, and the filming techniques of the 1960s, especially in the seasons before color became prevalent, may seem primitive to 21st century viewers, no matter the delivery system.

And such a series probably wouldn't have as much relevance today as it did in 1960, when a larger percentage of Americans lived in rural communities.

But that won't keep millions of Andy Griffith fans from marking the 50th anniversary of the show's debut a week from tomorrow. TVLand has been getting a jump on the festivities with its "50 Days of Andy" promotion, spotlighting the top 50 episodes in the series as chosen in online voting by the series' fans.

Perhaps the quality of the series, even if the technology was lacking by contemporary standards, was helped by the fact that it was filmed by Desilu, the production company that was formed in 1950 by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. Gulf+Western bought the company in 1967, and it was renamed Paramount Television, where it enjoyed limited success, but Desilu seemed to have its fingers in every pie in its heyday.

Well, whether Desilu had anything to do with it, the show was quite popular, and it's hard to imagine it without its now–iconic cast, but if you watched the very first episode (see clip above), Andy's Aunt Bee — without whom the series certainly wouldn't have been the same — almost didn't pass Opie's test to replace the housekeeper he had (presumably) known all his life when she married and moved away.

But she did, and generations of Andy Griffith fans will forever be grateful.

Aunt Bee reminded me of my own childhood in central Arkansas. Did you ever notice that just about everyone in Mayberry called her Aunt Bee, even though no one — other than Andy and Opie — was actually related to her? There was a woman in my hometown who had no relatives living nearby but everyone called her "aunt."

I guess it was part of the logic of the culture of Mayberry.

Some of the original cast members were gone by the time a TV reunion was held in the form of a special movie, "Return to Mayberry," nearly 25 years ago. Frances Bavier, the actress who played Aunt Bee, was still living, but her health was not good so she did not participate in the film, and her character was said to be deceased.

And she did die more than three years later — about a week before her 87th birthday.

There were other familiar faces who were gone by the time the reunion movie aired, but more than a dozen of the show's original cast did participate. Some of them are gone now, too, like ...
  • Don Knotts, who played Barney Fife for five seasons and won Emmy Awards in three of them plus two more for guest appearances after he left the show in the mid–1960s.

    Only Candice Bergen — as "Murphy Brown" — was honored for playing the same character in the same series as many times as Knotts.

    And that was fitting, I guess. Can anyone really imagine the Andy Griffith Show without him?

    Actually, the public got a chance to see what the show was like without him. The Barney–less shows haven't been too popular with fans since the show went into reruns, but when it was part of the prime–time lineup, its ratings actually improved in those later years.

    Knotts, by the way, was 81 when he died in 2006.

  • ... or Hal Smith, who played Otis the lovable drunk.

    I always felt one of the great mistakes in the production of the reunion movie was the decision to make Otis a reformed alcoholic. Maybe it was a concession to the "Just say no" hysteria of the 1980s, but a non–alcoholic Otis lacked the comedic value of the alcoholic version.

    If you're an Andy Griffith fan, don't you owe Otis a debt of gratitude? He was responsible, after all, for one of Barney's most memorable lines — "Pipe down, Otis!" — which I have seen on bumper stickers and T–shirts decades after it was spoken.

    Smith was 77 when he died of a heart attack in 1994.

  • ... or Howard McNear, who played Floyd, the affable barber.

    I'm not sure, but McNear may have been the first Andy Griffith cast member to die. He had a stroke during the show's third season that permanently impaired his ability to walk, but he could still speak so, when he returned to the show, the writers managed to write his character seated — and he delivered his lines while seated on a bench outside his barbershop or in the chair in his shop.

    McNear had been dead for more than 15 years when the reunion film was aired, and I don't recall if he was mentioned in the movie — unlike Aunt Bee, whose absence was addressed in the story (Andy even visited her "grave").

    The thing about Floyd that caught my attention when I was a child was his tendency to give Calvin Coolidge credit for every wise saying that had ever been uttered. I was something of a student of the presidency, even at a young age, and I knew that Coolidge had a nickname, "Silent Cal," that summed up his reluctance to speak in public.

    (In fact, there is a story about Coolidge that he was seated next to a lovely and flirtatious young woman at some sort of dinner. The woman told the president that she had made a bet with someone that she could make him say more than two words. Coolidge replied, "You lose.")

    Andy seemed to be aware of that, too, because, at one point, when Floyd tried to give Coolidge credit for something that someone else had said, Andy gently scolded him and admonished him, "Calvin Coolidge didn't say everything."

    And then Floyd replied with the one thing that the history books all agree that Coolidge said: "I do not choose to run."

    Andy had to admit that Coolidge did say that.

    "I knew he must have said something," Floyd said, "or else he wouldn't have become president."
I guess that, too, was the logic of Mayberry.

Sometimes that logic made little or no sense — except in the context of the universe of the fictitious Mayberry. But Mayberry was and remains a place where life was/is more relaxed.