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Andy Griffith: why we should remember him as more than 'America's Sheriff'

Andy Griffith made his mark as a singer, musician, and, in film, as an odious media manipulator. But he's remembered and loved for his compelling portrayal of good sense and kindness.

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In a 2004 interview with Matt Lauer of the "Today" show, Griffith said that he loved playing the straight man to all the eccentric crazies on the show. He thinks the show was a major hit because it evoked the innocence of America in the 1930s and '40s, he didn’t carry a gun, and “nobody got killed.”

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Matt Whitfield, features editor for Yahoo.com’s entertainment sites, says that Griffith was both lucky and talented enough to attract a whole generation of viewers for that show, but then did it again with Matlock, from 1985 to 1995. He says it was due to Griffith’s charm, affability, and signature drawl. “He was America’s Sheriff in the first series and became America’s Lawyer in the second,” says Mr. Whitfield.

“This is almost unheard of that America falls in love with a man so deeply they are willing to follow him closely for four decades,” says Whitfield. “He drew people in from the get go with his personal appeal and family values over decades. There is no other figure around like this with this kind of appeal and talent.”

In a word that quality is “relatability."

“Andy Griffith was successful on television because average viewers could connect with him. He demonstrated qualities that people could identify with and appreciate. His television characters were both kind and strong,” says Jeff McCall, professor of media studies at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., via e-mail.

“He demonstrated a concern for others. He was not profane, selfish, or boorish," he added. "Viewers appreciated that a good guy could win the day with common sense and inner strength. Viewers had the sense that Griffith was not acting his parts, but that he really was that kind of person.”

Professor McCall and others say the television environment of today – with hundreds of channels – would prove much harder for a figure like Griffith, who came on the scene when there were only three.

“It is quite likely that Andy Griffith would never be given a show in today's television world,” he says. “His regular-guy looks and slow, plain-talking style would never catch the eye of a producer today. And I doubt if Andy would saturate a program with violence or off-color language just to try to boost ratings.”

McCall says it’s good to analyze his legacy to be able to contrast television of that era to today. “Sure, 'The Andy Griffith Show' was slower-paced, and featured neatly packaged moralizing,” says McCall. “But it served the interests of that time."

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