Andy Griffith, who died today at the age of 86, was best known for his folksy homespun humor as Sheriff Andy Taylor on the classic “The Andy Griffith Show,” but he was first introduced to film audiences as a dramatic actor of conviction and power.
The North Carolina native, who started as a stand-up comedian and had scored with audiences on both “The Steve Allen Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” made his film debut in 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd,” director Elia Kazan and his “On the Waterfront” screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s dark social commentary.
Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, a hard-drinking, womanizing hobo with a gift of gab who becomes an overnight radio and TV sensation thanks to an enterprising young radio producer (Patricia Neal). Lee Remick also made her film debut in the film as a cheerleader who becomes his unhappy wife.
The film was not a success, but it has grown in relevance over the last 54 years.
In a 2005 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Griffith recalled that he had a beer with Schulberg after the screenwriter caught a performance of “No Time for Sergeants,” a Broadway production adapted from a 1955 live TV show in which he played the naive recruit Will Stockdale.
They discussed “A Face in the Crowd,” but Schulberg felt that Griffith was too nice to be able to pull off someone so odious and ambitious as Rhodes. Griffith told him he could do it and then proved it to both Schulberg and Kazan the next day when he did a impression of evangelist Oral Roberts performing a “healing.”
“At that moment, he and Budd could both see that I had a wild side,” Griffith told the Times. “So (Kazan) used that. He used that part of me to find the emotion of evil, the various thousands of moods that the man had.”
“A Face in the Crowd” is available on DVD and will be airing on Turner Classic Movies on July 18, kicking off the cable network’s salute to Griffith.
Also screening will be the 1958 film version of “No Time for Sergeants,” the 1958 comedy “Onionhead” and the underrated 1975 comedy “Hearts of the West,” in which Griffith shines as an actor who plays in “B” Westerns in the 1930s.