Acting on The Andy Griffith Show felt a lot like living in Mayberry, NC, the idyllic burg where the classic 1960 to 1968 sitcom was set. “It was warm and funny, like the show,” Ron Howard, who played Sheriff Andy Taylor’s adorable son, Opie, exclusively told Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “I learned hard work and fun were not diametrically opposed. In fact, they could work hand in hand.”
But off camera, star Andy Griffith’s life wasn’t as bucolic. The actor endured failed marriages, allegations of alcoholism and infidelity, a debilitating disease, and the tragic death of one of his children. And he didn’t always deal with crises in the cool, calm manner of Sheriff Taylor or lawyer Ben Matlock. “He could have this explosive temper,” Daniel de Visé, author of Andy & Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show, told Closer. “He punched out a car window and put his fists through doors.”
Andy’s anger may have had its roots in his difficult childhood. Born in Mount Airy, NC in 1926, he slept in dresser drawers as a baby because his family didn’t have enough money for a crib. His father was a carpenter who eventually earned enough to buy a home, but Andy “grew up on the poor side of town,” said de Visé. Since he was an only child, his parents could afford to dress him in clean clothes, but that was held against him. “A lot of the kids were not well-dressed, and there was a perception that Andy was a mama’s boy, so he got bullied a lot,” de Visé added.
He found solace by doing theater in high school. “I was being laughed at. I hated it, so I made an adjustment to control the situation,” Andy once said. In 1949, the same year he graduated from the University of North Carolina, he married classmate Barbara Bray Edwards, and the duo hit the road with a musical-comedy act. But all was not harmonious at home. “Everybody thought Barbara was going to be the famous one,” de Visé said. After Andy found solo success in the 50s as a country bumpkin in the play and film No Time for Sergeants, “She didn’t fall so naturally into the performer’s wife role.”
The couple’s taste for booze only heightened the tension between them. “Barbara had a drinking problem, and Andy drank a lot,” de Visé shared. “He and Barbara squabbled, and Andy had other relationships.” Among Andy’s paramours were two of his Andy Griffith Show love interests: Aneta Corsaut (aka teacher Helen Crump) and Joanna Moore (future mom of Tatum O’Neal).
Andy established a different kind of bond with another co-star, Don Knotts. The pair had met when Don played a small role in No Time for Sergeants, but he became a breakout star as dweeby deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. “Andy was the world’s greatest audience for Don,” remembered Ron. “Don had Andy literally in tears once a week.”
Don came from Morgantown, WV, so “they were two Southern guys with similar backgrounds, stories, and childhoods, so they were drawn to each other instantly,” de Visé said. “They could talk about things like mumblety-peg, a silly old game, and seeing preachers in tents on weekends.”
A notorious prankster, Andy would often play gags on his pal Don. “Don would be exhausted, so he’d nap on a cot in the sheriff’s office,” de Visé shared. “Andy would drop a film canister loudly onto the linoleum floor and wake Don up and just howl with laughter.” Still, when it came time to shoot a scene, Andy was all business. “He said, ‘If you do all your preparation, the rest of the day we can laugh and carry on,'” recalled Jim Nabors, whose character, Gomer Pyle, spun off into his own hit sitcom. “Oh, golly, we laughed a lot.”
Even as a child, Ron learned an important lesson from Andy “about the spirit of collaboration, which I’ve carried with me forever,” the Oscar winning director told Closer. “I grew up in an environment with an equilibrium, a work ethic but also a sense of joy.” Said Andy, “Ronny never considered me a father figure — he considered me his friend.” As Andy’s real-life daughter, Dixie Griffith, once told Closer, “He loved Ron very, very much. They had a deep and abiding respect for each other, and they remained friends till the end.”
Yet the older actor’s relationship with his own adopted son, Andy Griffith Jr., proved a source of great heartache. “My brother had some troubles, but it wasn’t my dad’s fault,” said Dixie of her sibling, who developed a severe drinking problem and died at age 37 in 1996 after battling alcoholism. “It affected my dad on a very, very deep level,” Dixie explained. “I went to my brother’s funeral service, but my dad wasn’t able to go. There would be too many magazines and cameras, and it just wasn’t a good place for him to be.”
Dixie has only the fondest memories of her father. “During the summers, we’d go back to North Carolina and play volleyball and water ski,” she said. “I would play with him in the pool, and he’d put me up on his shoulders. He’d always stop what he was doing to play with me.” Andy, who endured divorces from Barbara in 1972 and Solica Cassuto in 1981, finally found happiness with Cindi Knight, a dancer he met doing summer theater whom he wed in 1983. “She and I are not only married, we’re partners,” Andy said. “She helps me very much.”
The same year he married Cindi, Andy was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare nerve disorder that causes pain in the extremities. “That was very crippling,” said Dixie. “He was hospitalized for a while, and I don’t believe he ever fully recovered.” By the fall of 1986, however, Andy had a new reason to celebrate. He created another iconic TV character with his role as Atlanta attorney Ben Matlock on Matlock. “He was very bright, cheap and vain — all the things I’m not,” Andy quipped. “I enjoyed that character a lot.”
Like on The Andy Griffith Show, the star set a light tone while remaining dedicated to his craft. “He was a consummate pro,” Nancy Stafford, who co-starred as a legal colleague, told Closer. “He’d nail his lines on the first or second take, then do a little jig and make a joke.” Perhaps Andy’s happiest days on Matlock’s LA set were when his old pal Don guest-starred. “It was like they never skipped a beat,” said Nancy. “They fell into this routine of singing, laughing and telling jokes.”
Andy’s true bliss lay in North Carolina, and he moved back near the end of Matlock’s nine-season run. “It was home, and he loved being there,” Dixie said. “That’s where he was free. He would go into stores barefoot or without a shirt. He didn’t embody the Hollywood lifestyle.” Still, Andy rushed to Don’s LA bedside when he was dying of pneumonia in 2006. “I was able to tell him I loved him,” Andy said. Six years later, Andy died of a heart attack at his North Carolina home; he was 86. But his legacy lives on. “His fans still love him,” said Dixie. “He brings light, joy, and laughter to millions. He’s remembered, for sure.”
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