Answer Man

Andy Griffith’s career went beyond playing sheriff and attorney

Andy Griffith as Ben Matlock. The “Matlock” TV show aired 195 episodes over nine seasons.
Andy Griffith as Ben Matlock. The “Matlock” TV show aired 195 episodes over nine seasons.

Q: How old was Andy Griffith when he played Matlock? Did Andy have any legal training at all? Could he play musical instruments? What about family?

L.D. of Red Bud

A: Let me put it this way: Before Griffith began starring as defense attorney Ben Matlock in 1986, the 60-year-old actor-singer-comedian probably knew as much about the law as he did about football in his classic 1953 monologue that helped put him on the map.

Remember that one? In “What It Was, Was Football,” Griffith plays a preacher who finds himself swept up by a crowd into a stadium while on his way to a tent revival. Suddenly, he is witnessing “big bunches” of men in odd uniforms fighting over a “funny-looking little punkin’ ” on a “purty, little, green cow pasture” while “a convict” keeps order. Released on Colonial Records, it soared to No. 9 on the charts in 1954. (If you’ve never heard it, find it on YouTube.)

It seemed to finally confirm what took Griffith some time to understand — that he had the knack of entertaining people. During his early days at Mount Airy, N.C., High School, he initially was a shy student because he felt he came from the wrong side of the tracks. He was the only child of Carl Lee and Geneva Griffith, and the family was so poor that they lived with relatives during his infancy and he reportedly slept in a dresser drawer for several months until his dad found a job as a carpenter when Andy was 3.

As a youngster, however, Griffith developed a passion for music — particularly the swing sounds of the time. Although he was raised a Baptist early on, he found a mentor in the Rev. Ed Mickey at Grace Moravian Church, who taught Andy how to sing and play the trombone in Mickey’s brass band.

The musical training seemed to bring the young boy out of his shell, and he soon found himself being able to make his classmates laugh with his imaginative stories. He also joined the school’s drama program, but he was so taken by Mickey’s tutelage that Griffith reportedly went to the University of North Carolina intending to become a Moravian minister. Soon, he switched his major to his first love — music.

As you probably know, he put his vocal talents to good use, entertaining viewers in both movies and as Sheriff Andy Taylor on “The Andy Griffith Show” and Matlock. Later, he recorded several albums of Christian hymns on the Sparrow label, earning a Grammy Award for his 1996 platinum release of “I Love to Tell the Story.” He also appeared in country star Brad Paisley’s music video “Waitin’ on a Woman” in 1988.

But Griffith is best remembered for his 55 years of work on the stage and screen, starting with a role in an hour-long teleplay of Ira Levin’s TV adaptation of “No Time for Sergeants” for the “United States Steel Hour” in 1955. It was so popular, it was turned into a Broadway production (earning Griffith a 1956 Tony nomination) and, finally, the hilarious 1958 film version, which paired him with funnyman Don Knotts for the first time.

Griffith, however, was far more versatile than playing a country bumpkin. If you’ve never seen it, check out Griffith’s powerful performance in the 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd,” in which he plays a drifter who turns into a power-crazed, manipulative TV star. It was something Griffith himself never became as he, Aunt Bee, Opie, Barney, Otis and the rest of the gang tugged at the nation’s heartstrings during 249 episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” from 1960 to 1968.

With a year left on his contract, Griffith decided to leave his popular CBS show to pursue a movie career and start his own production company. For the next two decades, it seemed Griffith’s star would never shine as brightly as it had in Mayberry as he suffered through several forgettable TV series, including “Salvage 1” (16 episodes),“Headmaster” (14 episodes) and, ugh, “Adams of Eagle Lake” and “The Yeagers” (two episodes each).

Even worse, Griffith in 1983 had to spend seven months in rehabilitation for leg paralysis after contracting Guillain-Barré Syndrome. But just as some may have started to write him off as a star again, Griffith struck gold by taking the role of Georgia country lawyer Ben Matlock. In a matter of weeks, it became a ratings powerhouse for NBC and went on to air 195 times over nine seasons.

Griffith’s family life also had its ups and downs. With his first wife, Barbara, he adopted two children — son Andy Samuel Griffith Jr. (born 1957 and known as Sam) and daughter Dixie. But they divorced in 1972 after 23 years of marriage, and Sam, a real-estate developer, died in 1996 after years of battling alcoholism. Then, after a six-year marriage to Solica Cassuto, Griffith met actress Cindi Knight on the set of “Murder in Coweta County” in 1983. They wed that same year and remained married until Griffith died of a heart attack at age 86 on July 3, 2012. He is buried on the Griffith family estate on Roanoke Island, N.C.

Today’s trivia

How many Emmy awards did Andy Griffith win as Sheriff Andy Taylor and attorney Ben Matlock?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: According to Pennsylvania State University, an elephant’s trunk contains 100,000 muscles — and that may be a conservative estimate. Compare that to roughly 650 in the entire human body, and you see how important these appendages are to these animals. The trunks can lift 750 pounds and be used as a snorkel as well as offering an acute sense of smell and a means of communication.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer