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Andy Griffith evoked, stylized small-town America

Associated Press Modified: July 4, 2012 at 3:00 am •  Published: July 4, 2012
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Close your eyes and picture it: small-town America.

It has a little post office, of course. A general store, too, and a fishing hole. There's a barber who knows everyone — and knows about everyone. There's a friendly auto mechanic. The picture wouldn't be complete without several women who could be anyone's favorite older sister or aunt.

Kids scurry around at reasonable paces, making low-grade mischief while dirtying their short-sleeve plaid shirts or striped T-shirts. Quirky characters wander about in a landscape of picket fences and healthy storefronts. And the police officer in charge? He's tough but fair, community minded, the Solomon of his entire, geographically limited jurisdiction. He's Atticus Finch without any of the racial tension.

This is, today, the comforting script America often reaches for when it summons the vanished rural nation that so many say they long for. Not coincidentally, it is also the state of mind given to us by Andy Griffith and his long-running TV show.

More than anyone except perhaps Walt Disney, Griffith was the entertainment-world emblem of the 20th-century values Americans often like to say they prize most. He spread the notion, begun by no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson, that somehow the very best of us was contained in the rural life — in this case, the fictional tales of Mayberry that "The Andy Griffith Show" delivered for almost a decade.

"The show is kind of like a step back in time, especially for my generation," Molly Jones 24, of Raleigh, N.C., said after learning of Griffith's death Tuesday. "It's kind of like, 'Oh, this is how it used to be,' and 'Why isn't it this way still?' Things were so much simpler back then."

They certainly were in Mayberry, N.C. When Deputy Barney Fife wasn't arresting someone for jaywalking, little Opie was accidentally killing a bird with his slingshot and earnestly dealing with the moral fallout. Aunt Bee was usually either offering affection, feeling underappreciated or cooking ham. Goober and Gomer were causing disarray, and Floyd Lawson or Howard Sprague was dispensing quirky wisdom. (Come to think of it, that was true of everyone on the program.)

The reality of the age was somewhat different. Griffith's show, in a way, defied its times rather than captured them.

Though it felt like the 1950s in many ways, it was actually a product of the roller-coaster decade that followed. It debuted in 1960, four weeks before John F. Kennedy was elected, and ended its run on a spring evening in 1968 three nights before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis. While the country was tearing itself apart, Mayberry quietly endured, a Dick-and-Jane primer for an America yanked in every direction — a vision, during the Cold War, of friendly, unintruded-upon isolationism.

At the center of it all was Griffith himself, a product of Mount Airy, N.C., who began his career doing comedic interpretations of yokels years before he honed his persona into the Sheriff Andy Taylor combination of avuncular community figure, doting father and common-sense Southerner. Though Griffith would later say the sheriff was the better angel of his nature, the perception was otherwise. "Andy was Mayberry, and Mayberry was Andy," Don Knotts, who played Barney Fife, said in 1999.

Griffith was a far more complicated figure than he appeared. As Sheriff Taylor, he effectively acted as a cultural interpreter for a fast-urbanizing nation reared on, and comforted by, Norman Rockwell imagery. Griffith's take on a post-Eisenhower "Our Town" made him, to television, what Woody Guthrie had been to music two decades earlier — a popularizer who came from authentic country roots, polished it all up, then fed Americans back a more digestible version of rural culture. It was an approach that coincided with a musical folk revival in which rural songs were being popularized by mainstream musicians like never before.

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