The departure of Andy Griffith early this month is kind of a biggie for me—watching The Andy Griffith Show after school with my brother ranks among the happiest memories of my younger years.
Griffith was a seriously skilled performer, and shrewd enough to know that he’d look better yet if he surrounded himself with terrific actors, then stood back and let them shine.But for all the hilarity that the show was capable of, I still think that its real achievement was in the rapport between Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor and Don Knotts as Deputy Barney Fife—what they captured, in the rhythm of their conversation and interaction, may be the most quietly convincing portrait of a close friendship ever committed to film.
The famous scenes in which they discuss their laid-back Sunday plans (“Go downtown, get a bottle of pop…”) over and over again are—for me quite literally—heavenly; the sheer tangible savor in their anticipation of these simple pleasures is about as good as American TV comedy has ever gotten. It’s an example for life.
Among the encomia to Griffith of the last day are many mentions of his brilliant performance as the reactionary media conman Lonesome Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s wonderful 1957 A Face in the Crowd.
Well-deserved, but it should be mentioned that Griffith often put his genial persona to sinister, villainous use—he had a great time playing heavies on TV in the ‘70s.
A few years ago I was able to snag a VHS copy of the 1974 TV-wheeler Pray for the Wildcats, in which Griffith, leading a cast that includes William Shatner, Robert Reed and Marjoe Gortner, plays an unapologetically murderous SOB, and is amazingly convincing and scary.
Then, just a few days later, came another big-time show-business farewell, this time to the seemingly indestructible Ernest Borgnine.
I got to see Borgnine at work once, a little over a decade ago. A friend of mine was production manager on a low-budget, Grisham-esque legal comedy-drama called Whiplash, and I visited him on location, in the chambers of the Arizona Supreme Court.
There I got watch Borgnine, the Oscar winner for Best Actor in 1955 for Marty, the guy from The Wild Bunch and The Poseidon Adventure and McHale’s Navy and Jubal and Bad Day at Black Rock and From Here to Eternity and The Dirty Dozen and Johnny Guitar and on and on, play the same scene over and over for most of an hour.
The old-school work ethic on display was impressive.
Borgnine, playing a wry old judge opposite some young actor as an idealistic lawyer, clearly knew his lines cold, and because of this was able to shade the scene a little differently every time, first realistically, then a little more broadly, then drawing the lines out, then whispering them in an ironically conspiratorial tone. At an age when he could have shown up on the set, recited his lines mechanically and collected his paycheck, he behaved like a true actor-tradesman, providing his employers with multiple options for what a lesser talent might have left unvarnished. It was star power at its best, and a privilege to witness.