Actor Andy Griffith Dies at 86

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Associated Press + More

Griffith set the show in the fictional town of Mayberry, N.C., where Sheriff Taylor was the dutiful nephew who ate pickles that tasted like kerosene because they were made by his loving Aunt Bee, played by the late Frances Bavier. His character was a widowed father who offered gentle guidance to son Opie, played by little Ron Howard, who grew up to become the Oscar-winning director of "A Beautiful Mind."

"His love of creating, the joy he took in it whether it was drama or comedy or his music, was inspiring to grow up around," Howard said in a statement. "The spirit he created on the set of 'The Andy Griffith Show' was joyful and professional all at once. It was an amazing environment."

Don Knotts was the goofy Deputy Barney Fife, while Jim Nabors joined the show as Gomer Pyle, the cornpone gas pumper. George Lindsey, who played the beanie-wearing Goober, died in May.

Griffith and Knotts had become friends while performing in "No Time for Sergeants," and remained so until Knotts' death in 2006 at 81.

Knotts' widow, Francey Yarborough Knotts, said in a statement Griffith was in good spirits when she spoke with him June 1, his birthday.

"Don and I loved Andy very much," she said. "Andy and Don had a great friendship and a great creative partnership. Throughout their lives, they continued to have fun together and discuss the art of comedy and acting."

Nabors said he saddened to hear the news at his home in Honolulu.

"I talked to Andy a couple of weeks ago," he said. "I really don't know what to say. It's very personal."

"The Andy Griffith Show" was a loving portrait of the town where few grew up but many wished they did — a place where all foibles are forgiven and friendships are forever. Villains came through town and moved on, usually changed by their stay in Mayberry. That was all a credit to Griffith, said casting director Craig Fincannon of Wilmington, who met Griffith in 1974.

"I see so many TV shows about the South where the creative powers behind it have no life experience in the South," Fincannon said. "All too often, they have a stereotypical perspective. What made 'The Andy Griffith Show' work was Andy Griffith himself — the fact that he was of this dirt and had such deep respect for the people and places of his childhood. A character might be broadly eccentric, but the character had an ethical and moral base that allowed us to laugh with them and not at them.

"And Andy Griffith's the reason for that."

The show became one of only three series in TV history to bow out at the top of the ratings (The others were "I Love Lucy" and "Seinfeld."). Griffith said he decided to end it "because I thought it was slipping, and I didn't want it to go down further."

His quiet public life didn't prevent Griffith from exhibiting a fine sense of humor. Both Long and Fincannon recalled Griffith's sneaky tendency to show up unexpectedly. In 1974, Fincannon was an actor in the outdoor drama, "The Lost Colony," where Griffith had gotten his start in acting decades earlier.

"He would sneak into the choir and stand and sing as a choir member in the show, and people in the audience had no idea," Fincannon said.

When Long and his two siblings were grand marshals in the Manteo Christmas parade, Griffith showed up in his 1932 roadster convertible to drive them. No one recognized Griffith, wearing glasses and a knit cap, until he said "Merry Christmas" to the crowd, Long said.

When asked in 2007 to name his favorite episodes, the ones atop Griffith's list were the shows that emphasized Knotts' character.

"The second episode that we shot I knew Don should be funny and I should play straight for him," Griffith said. "That opened up the whole series because I could play straight for everybody else. And I didn't have to be funny. I just let them be funny."

Griffith's generosity toward his castmates paid off richly for those fellow actors, particularly Knotts.

Sheriff Taylor was ever-indulgent with the twitchy, bug-eyed Deputy Fife, and loved joshing with him just for good sport. The result was five supporting-actor Emmys for Knotts.