Still searching for the real Andy

Published 10:49 am Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Right before he died five Julys ago at his Manteo estate on the Outer Banks, Andy Griffith might have realized he’d leave the world guessing about what he was really like. He might have gotten a kick out of that.

He’d made quite a journey since being born into modest means 86 years before in Mount Airy. One of the most amazing parts of it was that he managed to remain a private person. He was rightly beloved for his 1960s TV series, “The Andy Griffith Show,” in which he played the wise and funny Andy Taylor, the sheriff of that small North Carolina town that’s sort of a cross between Mount Airy and Manteo. But he never wanted to be known as that guy. Maybe he didn’t want to take credit for being as good as the sheriff.

In December 1965, he told George Gent of The New York Times that “Andy Taylor contains the best part of myself. The best part. There are other parts of me never seen on the screen. I don’t think that would be wise.”

Several years before, in what I contend is his greatest big-screen role, which was also his first, he’d shown a darkly serious side in “A Face in the Crowd.” He played Lonesome Rhodes, a country-born charmer who cons a vast radio audience. During the filming, Gent wrote, Griffith “gained a reputation as a loner and a worrier … He told an interviewer at the time: ‘I became Lonesome Rhodes. It was something bigger than I was and it might have got to control me … I’ll tell you the truth. You play an egomaniac and paranoid all day and it’s hard to turn it off by bedtime.’”

In interviews with big-city papers early on, Andy occasionally talked in a way he rarely, if ever, did with the North Carolina press. Those early stories report Andy, gasp, drinking bourbon and smoking cigarettes. On first read, George Gent’s story seems to have caught Andy at a surprisingly candid moment. Then again, Andy may just have been giving the reporter what he wanted, just as when he was quoted as sliding into his “country” accent for big city reporters. And he might have laughed it off later.

He was brilliant in his art. And Andy was brilliant in presenting his image. I call him by his first name not because I knew him personally — I didn’t — but because that’s the name North Carolina, if not the world, knew him by.

He was only a decade out of our state by the time of the 1965 interview with George Gent but already a big star, having worked to get himself there just as hard as his father worked in a factory. He was his parents’ only child, having learned music from his mother and humor from his father. He honed his awesome talent at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then playing Sir Walter Raleigh in The Lost Colony on Roanoke Island, cutting the classic record “What It Was Was Football” along the way before taking off for New York with his first wife and making it on Broadway in “No Time for Sergeants.”

He was larger than life, but because he came from modest roots in our state, because many of us grew up watching “The Andy Griffith Show,” we assumed we knew him and he loved us as much as we loved him.

By the 1960s, he’d mostly left Mount Airy behind and settled into his Manteo place. My friends and I would occasionally catch sight of him, retelling stories of each sighting. That continues to this day. While many old-time Outer Bankers speak highly of him, remembering his generosity to their school projects and willingness to chat if a big deal wasn’t made of it, a few say he could be downright rude at times.

I was at our old family place at Nags Head when Andy died five years ago, on July 3, 2012, just a few miles away. I banged out an editorial on him for the Journal, then ventured out, listening to the stories bouncing around the beach about Andy. We drank toasts to the star who had reportedly been seen at local liquor stores back in the day.

I remembered my parents’ stories from the late 1940s about seeing Andy doing his comedy act at a Nags Head club late nights after The Lost Colony play was over. My father, a lawyer who wore seersucker suits, later got a kick out of Andy as the seersucker-wearing lawyer in the “Matlock” TV series. I remembered my mother spotting Andy and his third wife, near us, walking out of Owens’ Restaurant in Nags Head. Mom recognized him. I didn’t. We didn’t call out to Andy. We gave him his peace.

I’ve thought a lot about him since his death, just as many Tarheels have. I had one brief interview with him, in 1998, about one of his gospel albums. He was kind but guarded. He talked about the role of grace in his life.

Andy Griffith wasn’t Andy Taylor, nor was he Lonesome Rhodes or any of the other hundreds of characters he played. Maybe he brought a piece of himself to many of those roles.

But ultimately, Andy was a good man who endured the death of his son and a bunch else, going through the travails of life like all the rest of us. He contributed in a mighty way to many local and state causes. And just seeing him around inspired our children that they too could rise to the stars, that the ones who make it can leave the rest of us guessing about who they really are. That is the right of great artists. And the mystery makes it fun.

JOHN RAILEY is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, which first published this column. He grew up in Courtland. He can be reached at