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What It Is, Is the Tough Game of TV Ratings That Veteran Andy Griffith Is Playing Again

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The light goes on at 5:30 a.m., and Andy Griffith reaches for a Moravian Church missal on his bedside table to begin the morning with a verse and a hymn. Then he picks up his script for the day’s shooting. “I’ve always studied early in the morning,” he says in a tone of resignation, “and now it’s a habit to get up at 5:30—whether I want to or not.”

He dresses and breakfasts quickly and hops into his 1969 Rolls for the five-minute drive to Burbank. His headquarters at the studio is a customized bus 33 feet long. Between setups in the shooting schedule, he catnaps for 10 minutes or grabs a snack. His favorite is peanut butter and mayonnaise spread on crackers.

In some ways Griffith is the homespun, humorous sheriff of Mayberry, the role he portrayed on TV for so long. But he is not a man of bottomless patience; the real-life Andy is quite capable of seismic explosions when pushed too far. “He doesn’t do it as much as he used to,” says Dick Linke, his longtime manager. “Andy has matured in that way. But if he decides to let it out, everybody better watch out!”

Among the things that can push Griffith over the edge are cast members who: 1) show up late for a scene (he never does); 2) haven’t learned their lines (he always has); and 3) try to perform under the influence of alcohol (he permits himself a single vodka gimlet at lunch, provided he doesn’t have to be back on the set within two hours). Andy insists that directors explain exactly what they want in each scene and, should one try to brush him off with a “trust me on this one,” he admits, “I really lose my cool. I don’t trust anybody on my work. I want to know what I’m doing all the time—and why.”

His intensity and perfectionism, Griffith concedes, can make life difficult for those around him. Close friend and TV colleague Don Knotts recalls once trying to console Andy when he was having trouble getting an audience involved in a play they were performing. “You can’t do it every time,” Knotts later said soothingly, whereupon Griffith whirled on his pal, shouting, “Well, you can damn well TRY!”

These days Andy is trying as hard as ever in a new weekly TV series called Salvage-1, in which he plays a junkyard dealer who sometimes operates with a space rocket instead of a pickup truck. The pilot show had his salvage team of scientists and astronauts going to the moon to retrieve all the valuable scrap left behind by NASA. In other episodes his intrepid crew brings back a World War II bomber from the jungle, tows an iceberg from the North Pole and performs other such bizarre if implausible feats. It’s really an “old-fashioned, action-adventure fantasy,” Griffith says of the series. “It’s not going to change the face of television, but we do have a chance to do something different. It’s delightful nonsense—and it’s nonviolent.”

The Nielsen numbers for the early shows were decent if not spectacular, the reception of the critics mixed. On the plus side, the series has already been sold to British commercial TV. On the minus side, the schedule for shooting the 12-part series has fallen far behind. Still, Andy is hopeful that the new show will lift him back to the preeminence he once enjoyed. “It’s difficult to catch lightning in a bottle twice,” he acknowledges. “But I think we’ve done it.”

Actually, his career has peaked three times. His first break came, of course, in the role of the engaging nincompoop Will Stockdale in No Time for Sergeants—he starred in the TV, Broadway and Hollywood versions. Less frequently recalled now was his stunning performance as a megalomaniacal TV personality in the 1957 Elia Kazan film A Face in the Crowd. Andy regards it as one of his most important achievements. Then there was Sheriff Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show, which rated among the Top Ten through most of its eight-year run.

In 1968 he ended the series, a decision he now rues. “I didn’t want him to quit,” manager Linke recalls, “but he figured that the show had run its course, that he wanted to do more serious things. He knows he made a mistake.”

Andy calls the nine years that followed a “dry spell. I did five pilots that got nowhere, had two series that flopped.” He took some bit parts in films, worked some club dates, did one-nighters here and there but nothing steady. “I went from pillar to post and became known as a character actor around town.” Some in Hollywood saw him as a burnt-out case.

While he still had more work than most actors, he missed the excitement of a weekly program. “A deep panic set in,” he says, “mostly when I went down to North Carolina [where he has a house on 53 acres] and after two weeks nothing came in the mail—no outlines, no scripts, no phone calls. The idea that the movie community was running along so beautifully without me—man, it drove me up the wall.”

Andy admits that part of the slowdown was his own doing. “It’s not a necessity for me that I play a lead role—thank God I don’t have that kind of ego,” he insists. “But it is a necessity that the part be interesting [such as his LBJ-like role in TV’s Washington: Behind Closed Doors].” He rejects any script which calls on him to mouth lines like “I’ll meet you back at the horses.”

At first he didn’t jump at the chance to do Salvage either. “I thought it was Saturday morning television,” he recalls, “until I looked closer at the creativity and possibilities involved.” Besides, he notes candidly, “after you hang around the house for five or six years you kind of want to go back to work.”

Andy Samuel Griffith was born 52 years ago in the pine-scented little town of Mount Airy, N.C. Until the fourth grade the folks took little notice of Carl and Geneva Griffith’s only child. He was slightly jug-eared, pigeon-toed, unathletic, and his favorite playmate was a girl. Most reckoned he would grow up to be like his father, go to work in the same furniture factory, make $8 a day and attend the Baptist Church.

When he was 9, however, Andy came down with just about every childhood disease except polio. He missed a lot of school and was kept back to repeat fourth grade. “It just about did me in,” he recalls, the memory still painful after 43 years. “I was so embarrassed. Humiliated. But I became a comic that year, and it changed my life.” As the class cutup he got the laughs that, for the first time, made him feel like somebody special.

Before long, he recalls, “I knew I wanted to get into some form of performing arts.” He started with trombone playing, though his school had no band. Fortunately, the local Grace Moravian Church had a compassionate and musically talented minister named Ed Mickey. “He taught me to play my slide trombone and I sang too,” Andy says. “He had me playing and singing solos all over town.” In admiration for his mentor, Andy and his parents switched from the Baptist Church to the Moravians, and he seriously considered entering the ministry.

At the University of North Carolina the divinity student became a music major (class of ’49). Griffith met and later married Barbara Edwards, a Chapel Hill schoolmate and promising soprano. After graduation he taught high school music and saved up for three years so both he and Barbara could go to New York for singing auditions. In New York Andy was told to go back home and forget it. He was 26.

They went home but didn’t forget it. They worked up a husband-and-wife variety act and toured the civic-club circuit all over North Carolina at $75-$125 per show. Out of the singing, dancing and joke-telling routines came a monologue by Andy called What It Was, Was Football, a country yokel’s description of his first football game. To make a few extra dollars, Andy pressed some records which sold out locally. More important, New York record executive Dick Linke heard it and bought it for national distribution. Over the years WIWWF became a classic, with more than a million copies sold. It was heard again in this year’s Super Bowl programming.

The good ol’ boy in Griffith didn’t trust his city-slick manager at the start—”His teeth were too close together,” Andy quips. And Griffith’s first spot on the Ed Sullivan show proved a clinker. (“That Southern stuff was too new to New York then,” Linke explains a bit lamely.) But Andy’s corn-mush style (“I ‘predate it”) was a natural for Pvt. Will Stockdale—and he was on his way. After Sergeants and Face, he hit Broadway once more in a musical, Des-try Rides Again. The offers started pouring in, and he made several movies. His Andy Griffith Show was a vehicle that helped launch others to stardom, including Knotts, Jim Nabors and Ron Howard. During the summers Andy did $25,000-a-week nightclub stints in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe.

Then came his decision to quit the hugely successful TV series. Not only did he lose his high showbiz profile, but in 1972 his marriage to Barbara wound up in divorce court. It was perhaps small comfort that he was unassailably solvent. “Andy’s a millionaire,” says Dick Linke, “even though his divorce cost him half of what he had.”

His emotional state, however, produced a frightening nightmare in which he dreamed he had killed his old chum Don Knotts. In the middle of the night Griffith called his psychiatrist. “I’m not ashamed of the fact that I go to a shrink when things get tough,” he says. He eventually decided that what he wanted dead was his old cornpone image (to the relief of Knotts, currently working with Andy to develop a film property for joint production).

How does Griffith see himself now? “I guess I’m a bit like Harry, the character I play in Salvage,” he says, “a dreamer, loyal to friends but also a con artist who will take advantage of a situation. He likes humor when it’s appropriate, but he has a very serious side. I’m a bit like the sheriff in the old Andy Griffith Show too—but he was probably a nicer guy than I am.”

His second wife, Solica, whom he married three and a half years ago, is an actress. Of his two adopted children, Sam, 21, is on his own, but daughter Dixie, 19, still lives with him. Home is Bing Crosby’s former North Hollywood estate with a two-story mansion, guest house, pool, two acres of landscaped grounds and an electric gate.

“I don’t like to party,” explains Andy. “I’m not part of the colony here.” He is a collector of antique furniture, clocks and watches, hats and canes and an expensive fleet of classic cars. He keeps his 6′, 175-pound frame in trim by swimming and exercising daily on a bedroom treadmill, running until he flops from exhaustion. He usually is in bed by 9 p.m.

On the job he will edit a script to tailor a phrase, to wedge in a joke. “I think a lot of TV comedy misses by a million miles,” he grumps. He believes comedians move more easily to dramatic roles than the other way around. “People who do comedy,” he theorizes somewhat mysteriously, “have a different set of emotional muscles. It helps them in drama.” Plainly he yearns for a Face in the Crowd type of role again—”who wouldn’t rather do a great movie than work on a series for 12, 13 hours a day.” He grins. “All actors cry when they’re working,” he says. “They also cry when they’re not.”