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Griffith's passing: TV pioneers fade into history

Jul 8, 2012 - By Rene Lynch, McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Contemporaries Dick Van Dyke and Sid Caesar are among the very few icons left who can speak about the start of traditional commercial network programming back in 1948.

LOS ANGELES -- With Andy Griffith's passing, America loses one of its last living links to the early days of television.

"This is a big one," pop culture expert Robert J. Thompson said. "Andy Griffith was just one person. But he's symbolic of that era. With his death, the early days of television have receded into history and the stuff of museums, and directors' commentary on DVD."

To be sure, there are a few icons left who can speak about the start of traditional commercial network programming back in 1948, such as Dick Van Dyke and Sid Caesar.

"But that generation has pretty much disappeared now," said Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

"If you want to learn about that time, you just can't call people up who were involved with it anymore."

Thompson said "The Andy Griffith Show," which ran from 1960 to 1968, is easily one of the best shows -- if not the single best -- ever on TV.

"If I were to make a list of the greatest shows on TV, you've got 'Your Show of Shows,' and 'I Love Lucy' and so on," he said. "But at the very top of that heap I would put 'The Andy Griffith Show.' That, to me, is one of the most exquisitely executed series of all time, particularly in its middle years."

But the biggest compliment, Thompson said, is that the show stands the test of time.

"If you watch that show today, I swear that thing goes down as smoothly now as it went down half a century ago," he said. "If you watch one or two (episodes), it's really hard not to get sucked in."

Thompson suggests trying to seek out the first season of the show. Viewers might be surprised to find Griffith playing the role of a small town sheriff named Andy Taylor with more of a goofball bent. But it soon became clear that the show's ensemble cast was the perfect showcase for the comic genius of Don Knotts, who played Taylor's deputy, Barney Fife.

Now, Griffith could have tried to compete with Knotts -- after all, the show was called "The Andy Griffith Show." But, Thompson said, Griffith was wise enough to step back and let Knotts shine.

In the end, it served both men's careers handsomely.

"Andy became more of the straight man," Thompson said. "Andy had the modesty and the intelligence as an actor to adjust. ... That made his character such a paternal, fatherly, likeable, warm, fuzzy character, and that's why people responded so much to that show and that role."

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