My Andy Griffith story

>> Tuesday, July 03, 2012

There's not much to my Andy Griffith story. I was almost rude to him on the phone one time.

Here's how it went: the summer between my second and third years of law school, I knew I was going to need a car for third-year clinic and the best opportunity I had for a decent-paying, short-term job was staying with my dad and working on a film in Wilmington, NC for the summer; I was able to get a guaranteed job as a production assistant via the time-honored strategy of shameless nepotism. So I end up working in the production office for the low-budget feature film adaptation of the Stephen King short story The Night Flier, answering phones, making copies, that kind of thing. (Oh, yeah: I'm the uncredited goober who suggested and wrote these for a sight gag the art people put together. Might as well go ahead and finally take credit or admit blame for it for posterity's sake. That was me.)

Ah, but Andy Griffith: so, my first or second day in the office, I'm answering the phone, and I get this call, and this voice on the other end asks for the film's production manager (a family member by marriage at the time); and I says she isn't there and ask if I can take a message; and the guy on the other end says yes, please, "This is Andy Griffith."

Now, my first impulse is probably a lot like yours: what I wanted to do was, I wanted to laugh and say, "Yeah, right" or maybe make a dumb joke about how is Barney doing or something. But before I do something really obnoxious and stupid, another part of my brain kicks in and reminds me the production manager was just working on Matlock not too long before production began on The Night Flier and holy shit, I've got Andy Griffith on the phone. "Yes sir, I'll tell her you called," I say, and take the number.

I'm not really the kind of guy who gets starstruck. I kind of figure acting and singing and such are, well, jobs, and they may be creative jobs (which I envy, fancying myself a creative guy), and they may make one famous or wealthy if one's commercially successful (which I envy insofar as it would be nice to have enough money you could get up in the morning and be able to be creative instead of having to go to a job that, to paraphrase Morrissey, pays your way and corrodes your soul). And (again, fancying myself a creative guy) there's also some feeling I have that being a famous actor or musician doesn't really make you all that special insofar as I've tried acting (and even got paid for one acting gig right after high school, though not much and we basically went around performing a struggling playwright's play for literally-captive audiences in nursing homes who were strapped into their chairs so they couldn't fall out of them, having reached states of decrepitude where falling out of a chair and breaking something was a harrowing and realistic possibility) and played some guitar and sang a bit (in abortive bands and alone, though just in rehearsals and jam sessions and never in front of actual audiences) and so it's kind of like: those occasions I've seen an actor or musician or writer out and about, I think, "Yeah, well I can do what he does (albeit poorly and with a pretty dismal lack of success). If you know what I mean. I also have some sense that someone who happens to be famous might prefer, if dining in a restaurant or something, to eat dinner instead of getting harassed or gawked at like he or she's an elephant shoving an orangutang in his or her mouth.

But I'm digressing again. The point, if there is one, was that there was, actually, a little bit of--what's the right word? "Awe" doesn't quite do it. "Amazement," maybe? There was a little bit of amazement at being on the line with Andy Griffith, having the completely banal interaction of writing down a phone number like you would for anybody in the whole wide world.

You have to understand, if you don't already, that in North Carolina, where I was born and raised, Andy Griffith, who passed away today, wasn't just a local actor who made good, he was a kind of cultural institution whose signature contribution to American culture, the eight years of The Andy Griffith Show, captured a kind of state of mind of the state of North Carolina. Ava Gardner was from North Carolina, but who the hell cares? (Well, probably people from Grabtown. Good gods. Did you even know there was such a place as "Grabtown, NC"? I sure as hell didn't until just now.) There is nothing quintessentially North Carolinian about Ava Gardner; one imagines that if Ava Gardner could have burned the whole state down to bury her origins, she might have reached for some matches. But Andy Griffith--Andy, it was like we all knew him--Andy was unabashedly and unashamedly from this place and in a lot of ways represented us the way we like to think of ourselves: open-minded, but grounded in tradition; smarter than we look, but unassuming.

I'm not saying we are that way. I have no idea if Andy was really that way: he invented a stage persona for stand-up and honed it and came up with variations, one of which became Sheriff Andy Taylor when the legendary Golden Age Of Television producer Sheldon Leonard pitched a show to Andy (then mostly doing Broadway) which was back-door piloted on The Danny Thomas Show. Don't get me wrong: Andy Griffith was a really nice guy during the two minutes we interacted with each other and everything I've ever heard about him is that he really was Just That Nice towards everyone he ever met. But Andy Taylor was a character that was written for him, you know? So was Matlock.

But that persona: y'know, if you want to understand North Carolina, maybe you need to understand that Andy Griffith is who we all would like to be, whether we're in the big cities or the little college villages or the rural farm towns or the mining enclaves, out on the shifting Banks sands, wherever. Actually, the Rosetta Stone for this damn state might be that all of us would like to be (or think we already are) Andy Taylor while deep down in our hearts we fear we are (or might actually be) Barney Fife. In our minds, we're almost boundless in our patience; profound in our wisdom; loyal to our friends and principles; cagey (but fair!) in our dealings; funny, clever, and witty in our words; sane and stoic even surrounded by a, shall we euphemistically say, colorful crowd of eccentrics. In our hearts, though, we know we're really batshit loons who fly off the handle at the least whiff of wind; who can't be trusted with more than one bullet at a time; who screech and whine when we're trying to sound erudite and serious; who are easily gulled into stabbing members of our own close family (who gave us our one shot out of pity) in the back (we will, at least, be stricken with remorse and rage at ourselves and those who led us astray, once we're aware of what we did); we are googly-eyed idiots with crooked backs and high-pitched voices, is what we really are. A state that is the size and shape of the space between aspiration and actual achievement.

Goodnight, Andy. And thanks. I'm really glad I didn't tell you to call back when you were ready to quit fucking around, and not just because I might have been fired.


Anonymous,  Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 9:01:00 PM EDT  

Well I don't Blog but once upon a time I had a little boy who reminded me of Opie Taylor. As a newborn we woke up at 5 AM to eat and have our bath. We lived in a trailer in N.C. We watched The Andy Show on the little black and white TV. A precious memory for me.

Nathan Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 10:13:00 PM EDT  

I love this story, but mostly I love this line: A state that is the size and shape of the space between aspiration and actual achievement.

Nicely done.

Eric Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 1:21:00 AM EDT  

Thanks, Nathan, but I think I'm stealing the line about distance between aspiration and achievement from Gahan Wilson. And I think he was talking about Robot Monster, if I remember correctly.

(Oddly enough, this gets mentioned in the post I typed up tonight for tomorrow.)

Still, it's a great phrase.

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