Cowritten with Robert J. Hughes
You want to be known for your work, of course. But also for who you are, and for what you brought to that work. The passing of Andy Griffith at the age of 86 elicited the usual warm tributes to a much-liked actor, whose "Andy Griffith Show" was such a big hit in the 1960s. You expect such praise for a man who had entered the collective cultural memory of a nation.
But what struck me most among the remembrances of Griffith was a comment from Ron Howard, the director who began his career as a child actor, notably playing Opie, Sheriff Andy Taylor's inquisitive son on "The Andy Griffith Show." Howard extolled Griffith's work -- as a worker among workers:
"The spirit he created on the set of 'The Andy Griffith Show' was joyful and professional all at once. It was an amazing environment. And I think it was a reflection of the way he felt about having the opportunity to create something that people could enjoy."
Now, it's rare for anyone in Hollywood to speak about someone's exemplary conduct on the set, an environment that's usually treated as off-limits, since how the sausage is made is best left unexamined. But some 50 years after working with Griffith, Howard's remembering the spirit of that generous work environment shows how lasting an impression such professionalism, joy and kindness can have on a young person.
You don't get far in any profession, especially show business, by being a pushover. But that doesn't mean you have to be a tyrant. The obituaries of some of today's top movie producers will probably recount stories of their puerile tantrums and power games -- and these anecdotes will likely overshadow other aspects of their careers. Sure, they may have Oscars and box-office success, but they're also petty and infantile, and it's that pettiness that will be recalled at the expense of any supposedly more lasting achievement. Does anyone really want to be remembered for being a jerk?
Griffith won't be. He was a very fine actor, as anyone can attest who's seen the now-classic film "A Face in the Crowd," in which he plays a drifter who becomes a radio and television personality and a force for all-American demagoguery. And on television, Griffith somehow made it seem easy to be a levelheaded country sheriff or, in the long-running "Matlock," a wily defense attorney -- both characters of whom displayed crafty intelligence that might have been belied by a veneer of Southern folksiness.
But to be recalled as someone who was also bighearted, hardworking and, above all, kind -- that's something.
Today it's important that the messenger be as upfront as the message, as anyone knows who is creating a platform to spread a message and build an audience. Transparency is the key to engagement with people.
Some people might have mistaken the characters that Andy Griffith played with the man himself -- that's natural when one becomes a television star and stays one for so long. And the best stars know how to be "themselves" in front of the camera. Griffith stayed a star, and will be remembered, because he managed to show that decency and intelligence needn't be counterproductive. That was part of who he was, not just whom he portrayed.
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