From Otis to Opie
The ultimate Carolina classic
By Bill Fields
I was only 16 months old when the first episode of The Andy Griffith Show aired Oct. 3, 1960. It’s safe to say in the six decades since, I’ve made up for what I missed from Mayberry that Monday evening.
If I had to classify my fandom for the classic situation comedy, I would put the needle somewhere between devoted and rabid.
I don’t have a handmade Mayberry sheriff’s uniform hanging in my closet. My car antenna is not of the whip variety like that on the squad car driven by Andy and Barney. I have never made a pilgrimage to Mount Airy, Andy Griffith’s North Carolina hometown and inspiration for the fictional Mayberry.
However, I have scared a few folks through the years with my TAGS knowledge. I wouldn’t win a trivia contest with a true diehard — someone who can quote everything Ernest T. Bass said in his appearances — but I wouldn’t lose in the first round. A loser wouldn’t know the two characters Allan Melvin played who threatened to beat up Barney (Fred Plummer) and Howard Sprague (Clyde Plaunt). A loser couldn’t recall that the long-sought fish, “Old Sam,” was a silver carp. A loser wouldn’t know, as if quickly recalling a first cousin, that the pen name given to teacher-turned-children’s author Helen Crump was Helene Alexian DuBois.
The show ran eight seasons, a total of 249 episodes — the first 159 filmed in black and white, and the remaining 90 in color. Some devotees dismiss the three seasons of color shows because they lacked Don Knotts as Barney (except for a few guest appearances) and seem stale compared to earlier seasons. The Nielsen Ratings — and I — disagree. The show, never lower than seventh in the ratings, went out in 1967-68 (Season 8) at No. 1. The only other TV shows to bow out on top were I Love Lucy and Seinfeld.
No doubt Knotts as Deputy Fife was the genius character in the series. Knotts played Barney to perfection, a bumbling but lovable character whether he was getting locked in a jail cell or was on a date with Thelma Lou in his salt-and-pepper suit. Griffith knew Knotts was the show’s comedic engine, and after Season 1 the sheriff shelved hayseed ways — including an extreme Southern accent — in order to be a straight man offering counsel and comfort to Knotts’ character when he inevitably screwed up. Barney and the other characters wouldn’t have resonated as much as they do without strong writing either. It was smart.
Anyone my age or younger — I was 8 when the final episode was broadcast — basically knows The Andy Griffith Show through reruns, DVDs and now, streaming services. About 130 hours of TAGS were filmed. It has given me many multiples of that time in pleasure. Beyond the comedic value, North Carolinians always felt pride that the show depicted the Old North State despite being filmed in California. (And a clip of Seattle was used to portray Raleigh in one episode where Andy and Barney visited the state capital.)
Most of the actors who brought Mayberry to life and have made us laugh for so long are gone now. Betty Lynn (Thelma Lou) is in her 90s and lives in Mount Airy. Ron Howard (Opie Taylor) is 66, having grown up from child actor to big-time movie director.
When I was in college at Carolina, Griffith, one of the school’s celebrated alumni, returned to Chapel Hill as University Day speaker. I arrived early at Memorial Hall to make sure I got in. He worked in a couple of Duke jokes and had me laughing, the way his show still does when I watch it on my phone — so many years after the unseen Sarah worked the switchboard in Mayberry. PS
Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.