Griffith will always be remembered as a man with many talents — and a banjo to boot. Raised in a poor, blue-collar family, the actor first explored a career in the clergy until music directed him towards show business. A trombone player since his youth, Griffith also took up singing while attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It wasn’t long until he discovered he could use his voice to fuel a career in entertainment.
Radio listeners first heard Griffith’s patented Southern lilt in the early 1950s, when the actor took to the medium to release monologues like 1954’s charting What It Was, Was Football
. Griffith parlayed that notoriety into an acting career, appearing on Broadway in plays like Destry Rides Again
and on television in series like The United States Steel Hour
It wasn’t long until he jumpstarted a career on the big screen, starring in 1957’s A Face in the Crowd. Despite Crowd‘s success — and continuing popularity amongst film buffs — Griffith found he was more at home on the small screen. After appearing in a few bit roles, Griffith landed one that would later be his legacy. From 1960 to 1968, the actor starred in The Andy Griffith Show, a series whose down-home, Mayberry appeal hit home with audiences of all ages. It was on The Andy Griffith Show that the actor cemented his image as a wise Southern charmer — traits he would revisit in future characters.
Despite The Andy Griffith Show‘s popularity — and the fact that it allowed him to flex his musical muscles and release a gospel album connected with the series — the actor itched for his name to return to marquee lights and decided to leave the series in 1968. Not that he abandoned the show that shot him to superstardom completely — Griffith served as executive producer on the series, whose name was tweaked to Mayberry R.F.D. to reflect Griffith’s absence.
Unfortunately, Griffith’s big screen presence paled in comparison to his TV prowess, with roles in forgettable films like 1969’s Angel in My Pocket and 1975’s Hearts of the West. In fact, between The Andy Griffith Show and his next starring vehicle, Matlock, Griffith maintained a career starring in TV movies, a hybrid of the medium in which he was most successful, and the medium in which he hoped to find success. And that’s where Griffith nabbed the most recognition — the actor’s only Emmy nomination was rewarded for his work in 1981’s Murder in Texas.
Griffith also picked up decidedly un-Andy Griffith Show-like roles in several TV movies, playing hard-edged characters (1985’s Crime of Innocence) and even a murderer (1983’s Murder in Coweta County). But it was in 1986 that Griffith surged back into primetime popularity with the legal drama Matlock, playing a Southern attorney whose accent and banjo-playing, grandpa charm appealed to his more nostalgic fans. His position back on television even jolted his movie career, nabbing him a comedic role in 1996’s Spy Hard.
Most recently, Griffith boasted roles in 2007’s indie breakout Waitress and 2009’s Play the Game, which also starred Andy Griffith alum Clint Howard. (Until his death, Griffith also maintained a close relationship with Griffith co-star Ron Howard.) And though Griffith failed to garner acclaim from the Academy of Arts & Sciences for his work in The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock — and despite his longtime status as a diehard Democrat — President George W. Bush awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Still, Griffith will be most remembered for that comfortable Andy Griffith Southern appeal that kept fans coming back week in and week out with a smile and a whistle.