Thanks for the memories, thanks for being there
I loved Andy Griffith as much as it is possible to love someone you’ve actually never met. In some very important ways, he was like a second father to me. Like a lot of young boys do, I worshiped my own father, even though I didn’t see him much. He was a long haul truck driver, home on the weekends and playing cards most of the time even then. He loved us and provided for us, but he just wasn’t home very often or for very long.
On the other hand, Andy Taylor was right there every day after school when I got home and tuned into Mayberry, which I did every single day. By the time I was a teenager, I had seen every episode — even the in-color ones — so many times that I could recite entire scenes from memory, driving my mother crazy.
“I don’t see what is so funny about that Barney Fife,” she would say, and I would snort in disbelief for a response.
Don Knotts, as Barney, was not just funny. He was a comic genius, and he won five Emmys in his role as Sheriff Andy Taylor’s deputy. Incredibly, Andy Griffith himself not only failed to win a single Emmy for playing Andy Taylor — he was never even nominated. Andy was so good and so natural in the role that voters may have just thought he was playing himself and taken him for granted.
But I and other fans of the show never took Andy for granted. If Don Knotts provided most of the comedy in the show, Andy Griffith was its moral center, its conscience, its soul. Sheriff Taylor was no saint — he had a few issues with women and it seemed he was always underestimating Opie — but he was fundamentally a good man, a loyal friend, self-deprecating, as able to be silly as to be brave, and above all else, an amazing father.
One of the show’s most popular episodes is one of its least humorous — “Opie the Birdman” — in which Opie kills a bird with his new slingshot and then discovers he has killed a mother with babies left to chirp pitifully just outside his bedroom window. Andy forces Opie to listen to the chirping that night, and then Opie raises the baby birds until they are able to fly. It is a profoundly moving episode and a great metaphor for parenting. Since Andy is also raising Opie without a mother, there is an ever-present echo reverberating throughout the episode. Opie wonders, as Andy surely must, if he is “doing it right,” whether the birds will be able to fly when they are supposed to. Will Opie be able to fly when he is supposed to? For a parent, this is life’s most terrifying question.
Andy frequently assumed a parental role with Barney, too. I have always been especially fond of those episodes in which Andy either compels or coaxes Barney, who is prone to cowardice, to confront and overcome his fears. Andy shows more patience with Barney’s boasting and occasional know-it-all behavior because he understands that these are weaknesses that Barney uses to cover over his insecurity and lack of self-esteem. So many episodes are funny, but also have an element of Andy helping Barney find his way. He’s preparing him to fly, just like he is preparing Opie to fly.
I like to think he was preparing me to fly, too. I learned so many things from watching “The Andy Griffith Show.” The importance of charity, of being honest, of standing up to bullies and of never becoming one myself, of studying hard without sacrificing the fun in life, of being kind, of being loyal, of being just. I once read that there is a lawyer who uses the show to argue cases before a jury, which I thought was stroke of genius, since the show is sort of an Aesop’s Fables of the television age and a can’t miss winner in Southern states.
I cannot remember the number of times over the years that I have used the show as a conversation starter with strangers. I have at least a handful of friendships that began because of a mutual love of the show, and some that are sustained by it. One of those friends greets me every time I see him with a line from the show, and I respond with one. He especially likes me to do the bit where Barney explains the Emancipation Proclamation or recites the preamble to the Constitution. I’ll ask him which episode he saw last, and we will discuss that for 10 minutes. Or which of Andy’s girlfriends we would have chosen to marry, and why. Or which of the in-color episodes, if any, can stand among the black-and-whites. If you like “The Andy Griffith Show,” chances are pretty good we’d get along just fine and dandy.
When Andy Griffith died last week at the age of 86, I found that I had somehow been preparing for it just as I had prepared for my father’s death nearly 12 years ago, with a strange mixture of dread and gratitude for his enduring and incalculable influence. To my surprise, the first image that came to mind when I heard the news that Andy was gone was the iconic image that opens every show: Andy and Opie walking to the fishing hole, poles on their shoulders, holding hands, Opie skipping stones, Andy guiding him every step of the way.
Thanks for your guidance, Andy. Thanks for your humanity and decency. Thanks for the laughs. Thanks for being there every day. Thanks for everything.