Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Andy Griffith's crowning achievement

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
July 16, 2012 -- Updated 1441 GMT (2241 HKT)
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
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT