New to this blog?
Sunday, July 8, 2012
1926 -- 2012
The LA Times did a nice job covering the life, career, and death of Andy Griffith last week with a front page obituary, an earnest appreciation by former young co-star-turned-director-turned-realty-show-schlockmeister Ron Howard, an analysis of Griffith’s surprising impact on the landscape of television, and the ever-thoughtful perspectives of TV critics Robert Lloyd and Mary McNamara.
Pretty much anything you might want to know about Andy Griffith’s career is in those stories. Having never met or worked with him, I can’t add much to the LA Time’s professional insights... but I did witness the man in action once, and it was a memorable moment.
While working on a commercial out at GMT Studios in West LA – one of those drab industrial park facilities where the stages are nothing more than big empty boxes with a pipe grid hung overhead – nature called, so I headed off stage, where a pay phone occupied a strategic spot in the corridor leading to the bathrooms. This was back in the mid-80’s, well before the day when everyone over the age of six would carry (and stare into) a cell phone eighteen hours a day. In those primitive times, when you had to make a call, you found a pay phone.*
Exiting the stage door, I saw the man himself -- Andy of Mayberry, all made-up in a suit and tie -- leaning against the wall with one hand, the pay phone in the other. He wasn’t smiling, either; he was yelling.
Andy was pissed.
It didn’t take long to catch the drift of his anger. Apparently one of his productions (probably another "Matlock" TV movie) had been scheduled to run that week opposite a nationally televised fight featuring the then-invincible (and very popular) heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson.
“Goddamn it!” he shouted into the phone, “We’re gonna get killed going up against that fucking Tyson fight. What the hell can we do about it?”
Nothing, it seemed, and thus this geyser of anger from a man famous for his mild-mannered screen persona. I didn’t linger to eavesdrop, and by the time I emerged from the bathroom, he was gone. I never saw him again, but found it reassuring that the man I'd watched on TV as a kid was not some plaster saint after all. As genial, avuncular, and "country" as he appeared on-screen, Andy Griffith was dead serious about every aspect of his work.
It's easy to dismiss his corn-pone appeal and down-home mannerisms, but unlike so many who catch fire and burn to a blackened crisp under the heat of the Hollywood spotlight, Griffith managed his success and career with a steady hand. According to the Times, "The Andy Griffith Show" remained in the top ten for its entire eight year run, and went out on top with a firm grasp on the Number One rank in the ratings, a feat equaled only by legendary 90's sit-com "Seinfeld." That's heady stuff, and such a sustained run of success does not happen by accident. Say what you will about the man and his shows, but Andy Griffith knew what he was doing.
I wish there were more like him in the television business nowadays, where the broadcast networks seem to be run by clueless corporate committees who pay more attention to the budgetary bottom line than the quality of their shows -- which is one reason cable is eating their creative lunch, week in and week out.
So long, Andy. You'll be missed.
* Pay phones were everywhere back then, and they usually worked. As far as I’m concerned, those were better times. Cell phones are undeniably convenient, and smart phones have a dazzling ability to retrieve data from the web, but every time there’s a break in the action on set these days, I look around and see 90% of the crew staring into their phones -- playing games, texting, surfing the internet, or making a call. As A.J. pointed out in a post a couple of years ago, people retreat into their own little cyber-world at every opportunity rather than finding a more social, less isolating way to pass the time. This has leached something from the communal experience of being on a crew. But I understand the times, and that I’m a minority of one in my neo-Luddite views towards cell phones and our increasingly distracted, text-crazed world.