What Andy, Opie, and Barney Fife Mean to Americans, Even in the '90s

This Sunday, tens of millions of Americans will watch the Green Bay Packers play the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. But there is a viewing alternative. Ted Turner, the man who gave $1 billion to the UN, is presenting his annual eight-hour "Andy Griffith Show" marathon on WTBS-TB. And I'll be watching.

Mayberry has a strong hold on American life. More than 5 million people a day watch Andy Griffith re-runs, on 120 stations. Aunt Bee's Mayberry Cookbook sold over 1 million copies. Money magazine, in naming Madison, Wis., the best place to live in the US, said the city "offers up a low crime rate and palpable friendliness you might assume are available only in, say, Andy Griffith's Mayberry."

"The Andy Griffith Show" aired on CBS from 1960 to 1968. The program was consistently rated in the Top 10, and Don Knotts (Barney Fife) won five consecutive Emmy awards.

TV Guide ranks the opening credits to "The Andy Griffith Show" one of the more memorable moments in television history: "First you hear the folksy whistle of the theme song. And down this backcountry path come Sheriff Andy Taylor and his son, Opie, toting their fishing rods." While the turbulent 1960s witnessed assassinations, social upheaval, and foreign wars, "that serene opening offered a gracious invitation to America's favorite rusticom. Was this nirvana or Mayberry?"

Jim Clark, founder of the Andy Griffith Show Re-Run Watchers Club (20,000 members), says the show "is like a religion to a lot of people. Andy's very wise, he's the Lincoln of Mayberry. And so many of us will ask, 'What would Andy do? How would he handle this situation?'"

Andy used that famous wisdom in any number of situations. He allowed Otis, the town drunk, to pose as a sheriff's deputy to impress visiting relatives. When an exclusive club accepted Andy and rejected Barney, Andy allowed Barney to come to the conclusion that it was the other way around. When Barney's awful singing threatened the success of the Mayberry choir, Andy went to great lengths to hide the truth from Barney and save the choir. When Barney organized a manhunt to rescue Andy and girlfriend Helen from a cave from which they'd already escaped, the couple went back into the cave to prevent Barney from being a laughingstock.

Andy was particularly kind and gracious to his Aunt Bee. Andy and Barney ate batches of her "kerosene cucumbers" to spare her feelings. Andy and Opie intentionally made a mess of the house when Aunt Bee was out of town, to make her feel needed. Andy traded his prize fishing rod for a bed jacket for Aunt Bee's birthday, explaining to Opie, "I said I kept it because it gave me such enjoyment that I wouldn't sell it for money. And I didn't sell it for money. I just kind of swapped it for a different kind of enjoyment."

"The program does not merely reflect society, but suggests values," Richard Kelly, an English professor at the University of Tennessee, says. "At a time when a lot of standards have broken down, it represents a kind of lost paradise founded on the best hopes of people." A parent in Colorado Springs put it this way: "I want my child to be like Opie, not Bart Simpson."

Bill Idelson, one of the show's writers, explained its success: "You know why everybody loves it? It's about man's humanity to man rather than man's inhumanity to man. He's a sheriff, the police - the symbol of oppression, brutality, and ignorance - and here's a guy who treats his neighbors and the people on the street as if they were human beings. I think people hunger for that so much it transcends all of culture."

* Ted Rueter is a freelance writer in St. Paul, Minn.

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