Andy Griffith Dead at 86, Friend Says

Television icon Andy Griffith has died at 86, a friend told a North Carolina news station.

Former University of North Carolina president Bill Friday told WITN News that the "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Matlock" actor died at his home in Dare County, N.C.

The Dare County Sheriff's office would only confirm to TheWrap that emergency services were sent to Griffith's home Tuesday morning.

The actor's agent did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

With his slow drawl and penchant for playing characters who wore their decency like a badge on programs like "The Andy Griffith Show," the actor came to personify small town values with their emphasis on family and community. He was, in many ways, America's sheriff.

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He first came to prominence on Broadway in the 1950s in the army comedy "No Time for Sergeants" and the musical version of "Destry Rides Again."

He would reprise his country bumpkin role in "Sergeants" for the 1958 film version, earning rave reviews and propelling the film to the top of that year's box office winners.

But his film debut in 1957's "A Face in the Crowd" (pictured, right) mined a darker side of Griffith, one that he largely abandoned in favor of more mainstream entertainment.

Working with legendary director Elia Kazan, Griffith gave his finest dramatic performance as Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, a drifter who is discovered by an ambitious producer and transformed into a national television phenomenon. With his folksy bromides and populist rhetoric, Rhodes seemed to presage such modern boob tube bloviators as Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann. The film itself was a sly commentary on the power of television that was way ahead of its time.

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Yet it was television that would launch Griffith into the pop culture pantheon. Playing Sheriff Andy Taylor, a widower trying to raise a young son, on the long-running "The Andy Griffith Show," the actor found the perfect vehicle for his easy-going delivery and comic talents.

Mayberry, the fictional North Carolina town where Taylor represented law and order, was populated by village eccentrics like hapless deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts) and naive gas station attendant Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors). Griffith provided the show's center of gravity; his gift was to be a proxy for the audience and to respond to the antics around him instead of providing the spark to the lunacy.

Ron Howard, who played Griffith's son on the program before starring in "Happy Days" and becoming an Oscar winning director, paid tribute to his television dad on Tuesday.

"His pursuit of excellence and the joy he took in creating served generations & shaped my life. I'm forever grateful RIP Andy," Howard wrote.

The show they starred in together ran for eight seasons and nearly 250 episodes before wrapping up in 1968. Although it remains his most iconic role, Griffith's generosity as an actor may have worked against him when it came to awards -- he was, amazingly, never nominated for an Emmy for his work as Taylor.

But popular culture had moved very far away from the bucolic Mayberry, and throughout the 1970's and early 80's, Griffith struggled to establish another show as successful as "The Andy Griffith Show." Among his failed efforts were "Headmaster" (1970), "The New Andy Griffith Show" (1971) and "The Yeagers" (1980).

As he neared his sixth decade, he finally found the right vehicle in "Matlock," a legal drama that ran on NBC and ABC from 1986 to 1995. Griffith portrayed a folksy criminal defense lawyer with a penchant for courtroom dramatics and a love of hot dogs. The accent was the same as Taylor's, but unlike the small-town sheriff, Matlock was a brilliant attorney with a worldliness and wiliness that allowed him to translate to modern viewers.

In addition to his acting career, Griffith was a successful recording artist. He recorded several hit albums of Christian hymns for Sparrow Records and earned a Grammy Award for his work. Perhaps his most famous recording is "The Fishin' Hole," the jaunty theme song to "The Andy Griffith Show."

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