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Climate of contentment

Jul 6, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

Andy Griffith created it on TV, and it endures

I have reached the age when I am shocked to learn that those of a younger age have never heard of certain things or certain people.

So, when the death of Andy Griffith was announced a few days ago, the shockometer needle spiked as several of the younger set in our newspaper office said they didn't know who he was.

Nobody can know everything, of course, and the facts and figures of Griffith's obituary are now among the mountain of information available to everyone but climbable by no one. It will be left to the Andyophiles to memorize his high school graduation date, his mother's maiden name and his shoe size.

But everybody ought to know what "The Andy Griffith Show" was.

The show's setting was Mayberry, a small down (one episode said the population was 2,500) apparently in North Carolina. That was Andy Griffith's home state.

Mayberry unfolded for television viewers through the depictions of local sheriff Andy Taylor, played by Griffith, and the lives of his friends, family and the assorted characters Sheriff Taylor encountered.

Take it from somebody who has spent more time than he should have sitting in front of the tube: There's never been consistently better TV than "The Andy Griffith Show."

This isn't nostalgia talking. I loved filthy, foul-mouthed "Deadwood" with something approaching passion. "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men" and "The Walking Dead" rivet me, and I take an odd pride in having discovered "Downtown Abbey" before it was cool.

All the more remarkable, then, that "The Andy Griffith Show" can endure as it does. This was a show that made its debut in 1960, hit its peak from 1962-65, and was gone by 1968. Yet it still can be seen daily on television in reruns, long after hundreds of other acclaimed, popular TV shows have disappeared.

Griffith deserves honor as an entertainment genius simply for a decision he made after the show's first season. He decided he would become the "straight man" and leave the laughs for others to get. And so began the peerless performance of the wonderful comic actor Don Knotts as Sheriff Taylor's deputy, Barney Fife.

Anyone who visits my office will see my big Barney Fife postcard on the wall. There never has been a funnier character on TV, nor one more brilliantly played. Don Knotts as Barney Fife was greatness. It was art. It was perfection.

The heart of Mayberry is shown time and again through the interaction between Andy and Barney in the sheriff's office, in the squad car, or on Andy's front porch after Sunday dinners. They play beautifully off each other in performances of both great humor and remarkable subtlety.

Don Knotts won five Emmy Awards for his role as Barney Fife, and he was always quick to say that Andy Griffith was as responsible for them as he was. I think what Knotts meant was that Griffith didn't need to do what he did. He was a star before the show went on the air, and it would have been a success if Griffith had continued to play the cornpone hick that had served him well on Broadway and in a couple of movies.

Instead, he turned down the heat on his own performance and let Knotts loose. The same went for the other cast members. Just compare Frances Bavier as Aunt Bee or Howard McNear as Floyd Lawson in the first year of the show to the fourth year. With Griffith as the unassuming center of the show, the other characters -- Gomer and Goober, Mayors Pike and Stoner, the town drunk Otis Campbell and others -- had grown to full flower.

Griffith didn't have to let this happen, but he did. It was a marvelous, selfless triumph.

The Griffith show created a fictional community that we know can't be true. But we wish it was. We wish for a slowed-down pace of life, when walking down the dirt road to the filling station for a bottle of pop could be the enjoyable center of a Saturday afternoon, when the dance at the fire hall was anticipated as the social highlight of the season, when the keys to the jail could be hung safely on a hook right outside the cell door -- and everyone was happy with it.

Andy Griffith cultivated a climate of contentment in his black-and-white world of Mayberry. As time has passed, that climate has become more treasured than ever.

If you're lucky, you'll find your own bit of Mayberry somewhere in your day, your week, your life. Just in case, though, it's still there on TV Land, still timeless, twice every morning.

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