Andy Griffith, 81 a week from tomorrow, confides that "when my wife, Cindy, and I go someplace, and I don't want to be recognized, she says, 'Don't talk!'"
Hearing him boom across the phone lines from his hometown of Manteo, N.C., you know what she means. Griffith's weathered face has been part of America's pop-culture Mount Rushmore for half-a-century, whether as Mayberry's comic philosopher of a sheriff or the wily cornpone lawyer Matlock.
But his rich and loamy voice can open up pockets of memory like a down-home audio version of Marcel Proust's madeleine. For baby boomers, it can bring back going to a drive-in in 1958 to see his breakout service comedy, No Time for Sergeants, or lying down in front of the tube to watch Sheriff Andy counsel Ron Howard's Opie.
Griffith's sound often comes out in a forceful drawl. It's a terrifically flexible instrument that can seem robust and family-intimate at the same time. And its versatility has enabled Griffith to give some stunning film performances, whether as the megalomaniacal TV personality Lonesome Rhodes in Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd (1957), Griffith's first movie, or as the shrewd cowboy stunt-man Howard Pike aka Billy Pueblo in Hearts of the West (1975).
Now Griffith can be heard and seen as Old Joe, the cantankerous and persnickety owner of Joe's Pie Diner, and a big fan of pie-making genius Jenna (Keri Russell), in Adrienne Shelly's Waitress. And if he isn't up for awards at year's end, it's only because of the prize-givers' short memories.
"Day before yesterday," Griffith says, "the phone rang. It was a New York number, and I didn't know [it] but I picked it up. And it says, 'Hi, Andy, this is Ron Howard.' He said, 'I saw your picture last night and I loved it.' I said, 'You made my day, Ronnie, you made my day.'"
Griffith tinges his exuberance with sadness as he continues, "Adrienne and I - she's gone now - Adrienne and I had the same agent at William Morris. I remember when I told our agent I agreed to do it, she let out a little yell. She was really pleased. I was pleased, too." (Shortly after finishing Waitress, Shelly was murdered in her New York office.)
Griffith "liked the part - and at my age there's not all that many that come along - and I liked all the other characters. And when I shot it, all my scenes were with Keri Russell. And she was wonderful," he says, his comic gruffness melting away. "She treated me like it was my movie."
Writer-director Shelly was "wonderful," too. "She knew exactly what she wanted to hear. She kept wanting me to be firmer - 'Be firmer, be firmer.' And one time I said 'I'm trying!' and she said, 'That way.'" He laughs. "I went ahead and did it and we got it."
Griffith's emphasis on knowing what a director wants to hear may come partly from his musical background.
"I certainly spent a lot of time vocalizing in my life," he says. "Music didn't really come into my life until I was a sophomore in high school, and I started playing trombone and other musical instruments and started singing in my junior year. I then sang all the way through college [at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill] and taught music for three years and had a choir. And during that three-year time they got up a community chorus one Christmas and asked me to conduct The Messiah. And I really enjoyed that. I was behind that big seat that the minister sits in, and I had a robe on, and another minister said that I 'looked like a giant bird trying to take off.' Waving my arms." The memory still makes him chuckle. "Yes, music definitely played a part."
Later, Griffith's loopy way with a story led him onstage as a comic monologuist. A record of his routine "What It Was, Was Football," about a rube who goes to his first gridiron bout and depicts it as "the awfulest fight I have ever seen in my life," propelled Griffith into the spotlight. "I worked nightclubs for only about two years, and then No Time For Sergeants came along. And I really, really, really enjoyed that."
In Waitress, you can savor Griffith's blend of musicality and stand-up in the way he puts over a luscious and prolonged poetic speech about the sublimity of a pie. When he says, "First the flavor of an exotic spice hits ya," and then adds, "just a hint of it," he brings a tickle to each nuance. His professionalism saw him through the quirks of a low-budget production. Shelly shot Joe's Pie Diner scenes at a real desert-highway diner, so traffic had to be halted for quiet dialogue scenes. Griffith was halfway through his sensuous lyric when the mikes picked up an assistant director on the outside asking, "Are we still rolling?"
But it was the experience of making A Face in the Crowd, celebrating its 50th anniversary Monday, that fused all Griffith's talents and turned him into a first-rate movie actor. "I took one course in college, but I never really studied acting. Elia Kazan, in that one three-month period, taught me what I know about Method acting. And I am somehow able to embrace that." When A Face in the Crowd opened, Griffith spoke openly to Gilbert Milstein of The New York Times about the process of what Milstein called "looking for chinks in Griffith's psyche" so he could produce "the right measure of arrogance, self-pity and insane temper required by the character."
"Kazan did dig around," says Griffith today, "but I wanted him to. I wanted the performance that he wanted. So he and I worked very closely together, as kind of an odd couple, to get that done." Kazan would call Griffith into his office every morning and tell him "all the colors he would want to see" and then say, "Now go off and figure out how to do that." Griffith acknowledges, "It was very hard. When you play a heavy, a bad guy, it's really kind of difficult to come back from that character to yourself."
Waitress was a bit easier. Joe, growly on the surface, is a secret good guy. And whether he's played villains or heroes, the first direction Kazan gave Griffith has sustained him ever since. Kazan put his arm around Griffith and said, "Andy, the camera is a magnificent, wonderful piece of equipment. It sees everything. You don't have to show it anything. You take it and feel it deep enough and it'll come out through your eyes and the camera will see it." Griffith says, "I think of that almost every time I get ready to do anything."