Television icon Andy Griffith, best known as the sage town sheriff in the ’60s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show and as a cantankerous defense attorney on 1980s-’90s drama Matlock, died today in Roanoke Island, N.C. He was 86 years old. Friend and former University of North Carolina president Bill Friday confirmed the news to WITN News, an NBC affiliate in Washington, N.C.
Born an only child in Mount Airy, N.C., Griffith spent his boyhood listening to music. He aspired to be an opera singer before turning his attention to acting after college at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He began his career as a comedic monologist with the 1953 release of What It Was, Was Football, a massive hit both on radio and in stores. On Broadway, he earned Tony nominations playing a country bumpkin in the Army-based comedy No Time for Sergeants and a sheriff in the musical Destry Rides Again. Then Hollywood beckoned. In his first film, Elia Kazan’s critically acclaimed A Face in the Crowd, Griffith portrayed another country boy, this time with a manipulative and power-hungry streak. He followed it with a film version of No Time for Sergeants, featuring future Andy Griffith Show costar and lifelong pal Don Knotts.
In 1960, Griffith found runaway success with The Andy Griffith Show. The show, starring Griffith as the wise sheriff in the quirky and fictional North Carolina town of Mayberry, was an instant hit and a ratings powerhouse for the eight seasons in which Griffith starred. Famed director Ron Howard played Griffith’s sweet son, Opie, and Knotts played the inept deputy Barney Fife, a scene-stealer who snagged five Emmy Awards for the role. Griffith, meanwhile, never managed a single nomination for the show that bore his name. (He finally earned an Emmy nod for the 1981 TV movie Murder in Texas.)
Griffith endured several short-lived series in the ’70s and then suffered temporary leg paralysis from Guillain-Barre syndrome in the ’80s before enjoying an unlikely career renaissance in the title role of the legal drama Matlock, which debuted in 1986. “I don’t know how to do but two things,” he told USA Today in 1993. “I know how to write and I know how to act. I’m just not good at anything else.”
Griffith continued to work steadily into his later years, reprising his Matlock role on Diagnosis: Murder alongside Dick Van Dyke in 1997; guest-starring on an episode of Dawson’s Creek in 2001; and playing the owner of the pie diner in Adrienne Shelley’s 2007 Sundance fave Waitress. He even returned to his musical roots, winning a Grammy and solid sales for his 1997 album, I Love to Tell the Story: 25 Timeless Hymns before settling into a quiet life in North Carolina — not unlike the life he portrayed on screen in his most memorable role.
In 2008, he appeared with Brad Paisley in the country singer’s video for “Waitin’ on a Woman.” “Few people in this world will ever have more influence on our lives than Andy Griffith,” Paisley said today, in a statement. “An actor who never looked like he was acting, a moral compass who saved as many souls as most preachers, and an entertainer who put smiles on more faces than almost anyone; this was as successful a life as is pretty much possible. Andy Griffith made the world a better place, and I was so proud to call him a friend.”