Television legend Andy Griffith, "America's favorite sheriff," died Tuesday at age 86, leaving behind a legacy that includes two indelible TV roles: The preternaturally patient and good-natured single-dad sheriff of Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show and the prickly title character in the long-running legal drama Matlock. Here, colleagues and critics remember the TV legend:
He was a star even before The Andy Griffith Show
Griffith's breakout role may have been on The Andy Griffith Show, but his career took off almost a decade before that, says Tanner Stransky at Entertainment Weekly. His first big gig was as a comedic monologist; 1953's What It Was, Was Football was a massive hit on radio and in stores. He racked up two Tony nominations for his work on stage in the Army comedy No Time for Sergeants and the musical Destry Rides Again. He made a major splash in his feature film debut, Elia Kazan's critically acclaimed A Face in the Crowd, before starring alongside future Andy Griffith Show co-star Don Knotts in the film adaptation of No Time for Sergeants.
But it's The Andy Griffith Show that will live on forever
"Any time I try to play anything that doesn't come natural, I'm just plain bad," Griffith once told TV Guide. Well, "as Sheriff Andy Taylor, his most famous role, he was just plain good," says Dennis McLellan at the Los Angeles Times. Playing the widowed father to precocious Opie, affable foil to the matronly Aunt Bee, and straight man to madcap Deputy Barney Fife, Taylor was the lynchpin in the show's success. The Andy Griffith Show enjoyed an eight-year run and was one of the most popular series of the '60s. The "world of fishin' holes, ice cream socials, and rock-hard family values" was reassuring during a decade that grew increasingly tumultuous, says Douglas Martin at The New York Times. "The backbone of our show was love," Griffith once said. "There's something about Mayberry that never leaves you."
He was an inspirational presence
Griffith's joy, professionalism, and love of creating "was inspiring to grow up around," says Ron Howard, who played Griffith's son, Opie, on The Andy Griffith Show. It was never lost on Griffith that he had "the opportunity to create something that people can enjoy," and he treated that opportunity with "respect and passion." He was unpretentious, and always appreciative of the audience he was making the show for. "He was a great influence on me."
He struck gold twice
After leaving The Andy Griffith Show, Griffith struggled through a string of short-lived series and made-for-TV movies, before finally landing on his feet as an "unassuming but cagey defense lawyer" in Matlock, says Martin. The legal drama debuted in 1986, and proved so popular that it lasted even longer than The Andy Griffith Show. It's also one of the few series to succeed on two different networks, starting on NBC before jumping ship in 1992 for ABC, where it lived until its conclusion in 1995.
His work ethic continued late in life
Even after Matlock concluded, Griffith continued to act on a fairly regular basis, taking on guest-starring roles in TV shows like Diagnosis Murder, Family Law, and Dawson's Creek, says Stransky. In 2007, he received stellar reviews for his turn as the owner of the pie diner in Adrienne Shelley's Sundance hit Waitress.
He's highly decorated — but one accolade eluded him
Unsurprisingly, Griffith was inducted into the TV Academy Hall of Fame in 1992. In 2005, President George W. Bush bestowed him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award, thanking him for being "such a friendly and beloved presence in our American life." Griffith was also a gifted musician. His 1997 southern gospel album I Love to Tell the Story — 25 Timeless Hymns — went platinum and earned him a Grammy. "But one honor that was denied him was an Emmy Award," says Martin. He was only nominated once, for the the TV movie Murder in Texas, and was snubbed throughout the run of The Andy Griffith Show — even though Don Knotts took home five trophies, Frances Bavier won one for playing Aunt Bee, and the show itself was nominated three times.