Andy Griffith died this week. Phil looks back at his first (and greatest) onscreen role.
Television staple Andy Griffith died on July 3rd. He was 86; maybe one day science will allow us to actually lament someone not living to be 100, but today, it feels a little silly to act as if an 86-year-old dying is some great tragedy. It's a good run.
I'll tell you what's a tragedy, though: that so many people only associate Mr. Griffith with his self-titled sitcom, or worse, with Matlock. Griffith was a calm, reassuring presence on television, with a laid-back, easygoing wisdom, and he traded in that persona well into his career. And maybe it's that long legacy which makes his big-screen debut - as a redneck lout turned proto-Glenn Beck in Elia Kazan's A Face In The Crowd - even more astonishing.
In 1957, after making a splash on radio and TV as a sort of folksy Henry Rollins, releasing music and spoken word LPs side by side, Griffith took on the role of Lonesome Rhodes, a silver-tongued misanthrope fished out of a rural drunk tank and turned into a celebrated radio and television personality. Lonesome's shtick is like some dark mirror of Griffith's real-life career: he sits on a wooden porch, dispensing backwoods plain talk to a captivated audience, stopping to plug the occasional sponsor, or to invite a conservative politician onto the porch for a (paid) visit in which they can chat about just what's wrong with this country (government assistance takes a pounding from ol' Lonesome and his pals).
As Rhodes' influence grows, Griffith reveals the leering ogre behind the grinning hayseed. And though the trailer's narration props him up next to Brando and Dean, Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes like a chattier cousin of Robert Mitchum's Max Cady from Cape Fear. He's terrifying in a way not even Brando ever pulled off. And it's not only a mind-blowing bit of performance, but prophecy. Today it's hard to look at the various hate-spewing personalities who portray themselves as "just reg'lar folks" and not see the spectre of Lonesome Rhodes.
A Face In The Crowd is one of the more overtly political films of director Kazan's golden age, and is without question the finest performance Griffith ever delivered. It's on Turner Classic Movies tonight at 1:45AM; set the DVR.