Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Farewell to a Simple Country Sheriff

I never thought that Andy Griffith would die.

I had the same feeling when Fess Parker died in 2010.

But it's as true now as it was then.

I suppose, on a more realistic level, I knew that Griffith, like the rest of us mortals, would die someday. Even with that knowledge, however, the news of his death today at the age of 86 surprised me, shocked me.

When I was a teenager, I suppose the TV character that qualified for the title of everybody's favorite dad was Mr. Cunningham, Richie's father on Happy Days.

But he was only the latest in a long line of TV dads who embodied what most people probably wished their fathers were — or had been.

Lots of people will tell you that Ward Cleaver or Mike Brady or Cliff Huxtable were better dads. I don't know if that is true. But I can tell you that, for many of the people of my generation, Andy Taylor, the amiable sheriff of the country village of Mayberry, was the best dad on TV.

People of my generation grew up on Andy Griffith reruns, and we learned the lessons of life from Andy the father. Opie (Ron Howard) was merely the stand–in for those whose fathers were less than perfect.

I was kind of envious of Opie, to tell you the truth. My father was a pretty good father, as fathers go, but he spent a lot of his time at work when I was growing up — like most of the men of his generation — and he never really played much of a role in the pivotal moments of my life.

Andy Taylor was a busy fellow, too, but he always made time for Opie and always tried to answer his questions. Of course, they had a different kind of situation. Andy's wife had died so he was the only parent in the house. Aunt Bee was there, of course, but she wasn't the parent, and it wasn't her place to teach Opie the kinds of things parents teach their children.

Andy listened to Opie and treated him like an equal. Other adults sometimes spoke disparagingly of this, but, inevitably, Andy proved to them that it was better to talk to your child than to talk down to him.

And, to his credit, Andy wasn't afraid to admit when he was wrong or didn't know what to do. I remember an episode from late in the series, when a teenage Opie began hanging out with some musician friends of his and neglected his school work. Andy's approach was to give Opie just enough rope to hang himself, but family friend Mrs. Edwards showed him that it was possible for the two things to co–exist.

Sometimes it takes an outsider, Andy said, to show a parent what he ought to know.

Andy Griffith is gone, but he will never die. He lives on in nearly 250 episodes of The Andy Griffith Show and in the movies he made.

That's the miracle of film and video tape. Future generations will learn the lessons of life from Andy Taylor even though he is gone.

Some things will never change.