Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Andy Griffith's crowning achievement

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 10:41 AM EDT, Mon July 16, 2012
Andy Griffith, famous for his starring role in "The Andy Griffith Show," was an actor, director, producer and Grammy-winning Southern gospel singer and writer. He died Tuesday, July 3, at 86. Click through the gallery to see a glimpse of his career and life. Andy Griffith, famous for his starring role in "The Andy Griffith Show," was an actor, director, producer and Grammy-winning Southern gospel singer and writer. He died Tuesday, July 3, at 86. Click through the gallery to see a glimpse of his career and life.
HIDE CAPTION
Andy Griffith through the years
Andy Griffith through the years
Andy Griffith through the years
Andy Griffith through the years
Andy Griffith through the years
Andy Griffith through the years
Andy Griffith through the years
Andy Griffith through the years
Andy Griffith through the years
Andy Griffith through the years
Andy Griffith through the years
Andy Griffith through the years
Andy Griffith through the years
Andy Griffith through the years
Andy Griffith through the years
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: When Andy Griffith died, most recalled him as the aw-shucks Sherriff Andy Taylor
  • But a stunning performance he gave earlier in his first film was the antithesis of his TV role
  • In "A Face in the Crowd" Griffith played a drifter-turned-star, an oily, monstrous character
  • Greene: Griffith owns the movie; you should see it to understand how good Griffith was

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams." He appears on "CNN Newsroom" Sundays during the 5 p.m. (ET) hour.

(CNN) -- What must it be like to step to the plate for your first appearance as a major-league baseball player and knock a grand-slam home run into the far reaches of the seats in Yankee Stadium?

Or to walk onto a National Football League field for the first time in your life, receive a kickoff while standing in the end zone, and return it 103 yards for a touchdown?

Very few people know that feeling-- the feeling of, against all probability, achieving magnificence on the very first try.

But Andy Griffith did.

When he died earlier this month at the age of 86, most of the obituaries and remembrances were centered on his role as the lovable, quietly wise Sheriff Andy Taylor in the long-running television series "The Andy Griffith Show." Which only made sense: that program, and that character, were so popular that when people hear Griffith's name, they almost automatically also hear in their heads the peppy, whistling theme music from the show. He, and the show, symbolized a sunny America that thrived on common sense and good intentions.

Yet, in the minds of some of us, Griffith's crowning achievement came at the outset of his career, the first time he appeared in a motion picture. The job he did was so stunning -- and so directly opposite in tone from the Sheriff Andy character that would later define him -- that watching the movie today is a revelation.

Andy Griffith plays guitar as Patricia Neal watches in a scene from the 1957 film \
Andy Griffith plays guitar as Patricia Neal watches in a scene from the 1957 film "A Face In The Crowd."

The movie was called "A Face in the Crowd." Those of you who have seen it are likely nodding your heads in appreciation right now; those of you who haven't are in for a treat. You thought you knew how good the guy was at his job? Just wait.

You won't have to wait long. As part of a tribute to Griffith's career, Turner Classic Movies is presenting a special airing of "A Face in the Crowd" Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET. TCM and CNN are corporate siblings, but I would be recommending "A Face in the Crowd" to you if I'd heard it was being screened in a church basement, or in the most rundown revival theater on some desolate downtown corner.

Andy Griffith dies at age 86
Eden: Griffith was a 'wonderful man'

Released in 1957, the movie told the story of Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, a drifter we first see in a rural Arkansas jail cell. He is interviewed by a small-town radio reporter played by Patricia Neal, and the film follows his rise to radio, and then television, stardom, and what eventually transpires. Griffith made audiences love him as the kindly Sheriff Andy of Mayberry; as Lonesome Rhodes, he had the courage as an actor to dare audiences to hate him.

You cannot take your eyes off him. In his May 29, 1957, review of the movie in the New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther wrote that screenwriter Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan had managed to "spawn a monster not unlike the one of Dr. Frankenstein."

And as you watch the first-time movie actor Griffith, Crowther wrote, "you know you are in the vicinity of someone who has white lightning for blood."

Budd Schulberg was on a remarkable three-year run at the time; between 1954 and 1957 he had a hand in three unforgettable movies about the dark side of American life: "On the Waterfront" with Marlon Brando, "The Harder They Fall" with Humphrey Bogart, and "A Face in the Crowd."

As laceratingly first-rate as Schulberg's writing and Kazan's direction were, the film would not have worked had the lead actor failed to be convincing as a person whose hungers were so self-centered and all-consuming that he would do anything and step on anyone to get what he wanted. Griffith pulled it off seamlessly: As you watch him, you understand how the smiling, aw-shucks, I'm-just-a-country-boy Lonesome Rhodes could cynically use the then-new medium of national television to become as powerful as the president, while privately holding his viewers in utter contempt. Griffith looms physically large, and his menacing grin springs from the screen; this is, at its core, a horror movie, and Griffith plays it as such from the first frame in which we see him.

The movie did only tepid business upon its release, and -- in retrospect, this is astonishing -- was not nominated for a single Academy Award. The next year Griffith starred in the amiable military comedy "No Time for Sergeants," and by 1960 "The Andy Griffith Show" was on network television and he was on his way to sweet, gentle fame, under blue skies and white clouds.

As America says goodbye to him, and to his worthy acting career, I hope -- especially if you have never seen it -- that you'll take the time to watch him in "A Face in the Crowd," filmed before his own face had become universally recognizable.

You'll not only be honoring his life.

You will be doing something that none of us, when given the opportunity, should ever pass up:

Witnessing greatness.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andy Griffith.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 10:11 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT