Before Andy Griffith became TV’s Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, and Atlanta lawyer Ben Matlock, he starred in two movies that are considered classics: A Face in the Crowd and No Time for Sergeants, both based on the rural Southerner he created in his stand-up comedy.
Sheriff Andy, one of the most beloved characters in television history, is still running in syndication all over cable TV. Matlock probably is too, somewhere.
A Face in the Crowd
Dusty Roads is not the gentle, amusing character we associate with Andy Griffith. This Southern boy was discovered in a rural jail by the local radio station’s morning host, played by underrated actress Patricia Neal, who also made The Subject Was Roses, Hud, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Fountainhead.
Dusty’s folk songs and folk wisdom get a big response from her listeners, so she gives him a show, which becomes a hit. Acting as his manager, she gets him a show in Memphis, the nearest big market, and then on coast-to-coast TV. She makes the deals, but he’s the one who decides where he wants to go, and does the negotiating, by letting the sophisticated city executives underestimate him.
One thing that makes Dusty especially valuable is that he’s a very successful pitchman for sponors’ products, doing commercials in character, which was common in those days when TV shows were associated with a single sponsor. Griffith as Sheriff Andy did coffee and cigarette commercials at the end of his TV shows.
Roads begins to realize he can get people to do what he says, and the power that could mean.
Then, the sponsor asks Roads to “sell” a presidential candidate, a conservative stuffed shirt who is death on TV. Roads instructs him on acting like a regular guy, and makes him a regular guest on his TV show. He confesses to Neal his secret dreams of power beyond TV, and his fascist-sounding contempt for the little people who listen to him and do whatever he says. Neal sees the danger and destroys him by catching those remarks on an open mike when he’s winding down after one of his TV shows.
Elia Kazan directed this movie, which appeared in 1957, when television was new, and intellectuals were just starting to worry about the medium’s potential for abuse.
No Time for Sergeants
Griffith played Will Stockdale in No Time for Sergeants first on live TV on the US Steel Hour, when several live original dramas appeared on TV each week. Then, he played it on Broadway, and finally in the movies.
Stockdale comes from so far out in the Georgia backwoods that he knows next to nothing about the modern world. He doesn’t know his father has torn up several letters ordering him to report to the military, until the head of the local draft board drives up and takes him in handcuffs as a draft dodger. Will is actually excited to join the Air Force, and see new people and places.
Stockdale is.so innocent that he’s incapable of seeing sarcasm or ulterior motives in other people, including the mean guy who taunts him on his first day, and his first sergeant at the classification center, who makes him “permanent latrine orderly – PLO.” He thinks it’s an honor, not a punishment, and cleans the latrine like a luxury hotel’s. Sergeant Carter says that, as permanent latrine orderly, he does not have to be classified like the other men.
Permanent Latrine Orderly – PLO
The biggest belly laugh in the movie comes when the captain and colonel inspect Stockdale’s latrine. Will has rigged a pedal that makes all the toilet seats snap to attention when the colonel enters the room. He responds to the colonel’s praise by giving all the credit to Sgt. Carter for making him permanent latrine orderly, and he asks the colonel please to get the captain off Carter’s back, another not-to-be-repeated instruction from the sergeant. Stockdale is too innocent to know not to repeat it.
The outraged colonel tells Carter that, if Stockdale is not classified and shipped with his class, in one week instead of two, Carter would not be a sergeant. He’d be permanent latrine orderly — PLO.
Don Knotts, as the nervous wreck he perfected as Deputy Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show,” is part of the classification process.
A lot of the humor comes from the constant nervous hysteria and know-it-all stupidity of Ben Whitlege, Stockdale’s buddy, played by Roddy McDowell on stage, and contract player Nick Adams in the movie,.
Stockdale’s innocent naivete brings him out on top of every situation involving more sophisticated people.
Sheriff Andy first appeared as a guest on Danny Thomas’s weekly sitcom. Then, Danny and his partner Sheldon Leonard spun Griffith and the sheriff off into their own series. Thomas and Leonard also produced The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl, and several other top sitcoms.
Ron Howard, now an A-list Hollywood director, who played Sheriff Andy’s son Opie, says the original plan was for Andy to do the jokes, but he became the straight man, and gave all the jokes to Don Knotts, when Barney Fife jumped off the screen in the first episode. Howard said he followed that example in Happy Days, when he became straight man to Henry Winkler’s Arthur Fonzarelli (“the Fonz”).