Here’s what led to me writing this. On Twitter, I saw a post on the page for my favorite television channel, MeTV, with an article titled “Andy Griffith Had His Own Line of Canned Beans and Ham in the Early ’70s.” In the middle of that article there was a link to another article covering Andy Griffith’s made-for-TV credits. There were about four that had one notable theme in common: Andy Griffith playing roles that were the complete opposite of the sweet and moral Sherriff Andy Taylor.
This was fascinating because the story always told is Andy Griffith dove into darkness while working on A Face in the Crowd, and decided afterwards he could no longer subject himself to portraying such vile individuals.
Some might be looking at this piece about the darker side of Andy Griffith’s work with upset that I’m not focusing on A Face in the Crowd. By now we all know it’s a great film. The last thing we need is another person regurgitating the “this predicts Trump” take. That film predicted so much more decades prior, such as Ronald Reagan’s rise to power (Reagan hosted General Electric Theater back when there were only three channels. That’s a lot of morons to sell chicken fertilizer to while making them think it’s caviar.).
So instead of hosting a woke circle jerk, let’s look through some of the more forgotten moments in Andy Griffith’s career that display the complete opposite of that friendly lawyer who owned one white suit.
The first film in this marathon, Pray for the Wildcats, aired in 1974. Not only does it star Andy Griffith, but also features William Shatner, Robert Reed, and Angie Dickinson.
Pray For The Wildcats also stars Marjoe Gortner, which good lord, what a story this man has. Marjoe’s parents were so set on their son preaching the word of God, they had him ordained as a minister at the age of four. There are not only multiple promotional shots of him standing at a miniature podium, but even video clips of him as a curly-haired child preaching. You think that’s crazy? There’s so much more.
In 1972, Marjoe Gortner was the subject of a documentary simply titled Marjoe. It follows him as an adult giving a documentary crew permission to capture him swindling Christians out of their money. While still being part of a Pentecostal style of preaching, Marjoe had lost his faith. So, in-between sermons, he’s hanging out backstage informing viewers about how speaking in tongues is one of multiple ridiculous gimmicks used to rope suckers in. At one point, he’s sitting on his hotel bed pouring out dollar bills from a paper sack, counting it while talking about collecting millions as a kid (that he never got a piece of) from little old ladies who’d run their fingers through his curly hair.
Marjoe would go on to win the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary. It certainly earned him a huge spotlight in 1974 because, along with starring in this TV movie, Marjoe Gortner also starred in the blockbuster Earthquake.
While looking at all these faces, it’s crazy to realize how many notable names could be signed on for a 1974 ABC Wednesday Movie of the Week where someone, during the duration of the film, indeed says “pray for the wildcats.”
The film follows Andy Griffith as a business executive who advises three advertising agency employees (Shatner, Reed, and Marjoe) to follow him on a dirtbike road trip through the Baja California desert in order to have any chance of working out a deal with him. The men sign on to this dangerous adventure because they’re all at a point where they feel that they need Andy Griffith’s business via soap opera side plots. A large portion of this movie feels like it’s trying to win over Easy Rider‘s audience, because there are multiple long shots of these men riding on their bikes while instrumentals somehow more dated than Born to Be Wild play in the background.
If you’re looking to see Andy Griffith’s rare performance as a frightening creep, you won’t be disappointed. At a picnic towards the beginning, he hugs Marjoe Gartner’s girlfriend from behind and says, “save some goodies for me.” It only escalates at a bar when Griffith is watching a blonde dancing around while lusting after her in the most unsettling way imaginable. It’s like watching that horny 1930s cartoon wolf descending into further perversion after huffing on Frank Booth’s gas tank.
Later on, Andy Griffith offers a man $100 if he’ll let him sleep with his girlfriend, and without saying too much, is responsible for the death of two people. His responsibility is incredibly heinous, and the way he’s able to quickly shake it off with a sinister grin is as haunting as him lusting over a girl half his age.
For those hunting down a copy of Pray For The Wildcats looking for the opposite of Andy Taylor, this film gives you more than you could have imagined. Griffith’s Sam Farragut is a barbaric villain, and really shows his range as a performer.
Movie #2 is Murder in Coweta County, and comes from 1983. Unlike Pray for the Wildcats, this one’s based on a true story. Andy Griffith plays John Wallace, a kingpin who became the most powerful man in Meriwether County, Georgia from bootlegging moonshine. The real life John Wallace had everybody under his thumb. If he had never chased a victim into another county outside his own (which he referred to as “The Kingdom”), he would’ve never been caught. To this day, the man’s still beloved in his county, honored with a street named after him.
On the opposite side of Andy Griffith, Johnny Cash plays the no-nonsense sheriff who easily cracks this case during the 90 minute runtime. While a lot of recent true crime entertainment makes you wonder if the law will be able to put a criminal behind bars, Murder in Coweta County is like a traditional Western in the way Cash is an authority figure with a legend that makes baddies buckle at the knees, and is never shown in a vulnerable position.
While on the subject of Johnny Cash, some readers might not know of his acting career. While we all know his musical talent (“Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” is my personal favorite single), he was also a good actor. If you wanna see more of his acting, I recommended the 1974 episode of Columbo titled “Swan Song,” where he plays a murdering, gospel-singing pedophile.
Similar to Pray for the Wildcats, this film also has a cast with a presence as bizarre as Marjoe Gartner. Alongside June Carter, within the supporting cast, you’ll find James F. Neal playing a lawyer during the trial scene. It was a role he knew well because James F. Neal was a Special Prosecuting Attorney investigating the Watergate Scandal. It wouldn’t be his final headline-grabbing case, as he would go on to defend John Landis during the manslaughter trial for the death of two children and Vic Morrow on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie.
Overall, Murder In Coweta County is a lean and straight-forward film. While polishing up a story that probably has more nuance to it, it doesn’t lag around. If you wanna see a grittier side of Andy Griffith, no film starts off stronger than this one. Within the first six minutes he’s slamming someone’s hands with a car door after suspecting them of stealing gas, and punching out an employee for disrespecting his authority. Along with burning a corpse and a sinister belief that he’ll get away with murder, you also see a bald Andy Griffith being strapped into the electric chair — which is such an odd sight to see. If you’re looking for Andy Griffith running a town in the opposite fashion he ran Mayberry, this is the film to see.
The next entry in the Made-for-TV Heel Andy Griffith Marathon is Under the Influence from 1986. For some, this is the most intriguing entry because it also stars Keanu Reeves early on in his career — so early on that, if the dates are right, this film premiered on television the same month that River’s Edge premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
In this movie, Andy Griffith is an alcoholic patriarch whose antics are displayed in the most clichéd 1980s made-for-TV way. This one’s great to watch if you wanna be made aware how cheesy and ridiculous the 1980s could be. From Sally Jessy Raphael glasses to every scene building up to a shouting speech, this is a level of “After School Special” melodrama we forget existed.
As mentioned previously, Keanu Reeves is here, and that’s the main reason to see this. It’s so weird seeing Keanu Reeves acting alongside Andy Griffith because those are two names you never thought crossed paths, but by golly, you’ll clearly see Andy Griffith whipping beer cans and food at Keanu Reeves in a kitchen brawl.
With how much we love pointing out celebrities in their far-from-great moments, I’m surprised Keanu Reeves in Under The Influence isn’t well-known. Throughout the film, his character is drinking, and doing everything from slurring the words to Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” to drunkenly demanding to see his father in the hospital.
This dives into spoilers territory, but there’s a moment towards the end where he’s angrily shouting at Andy Griffith’s corpse after being the first one to find him dead. If that isn’t enough, he then has a mental breakdown in a graveyard where he’s got a shotgun in one hand and a pint of whiskey in the other, while shooting at Andy Griffith’s grave.
It’s also worth noting this is indeed a Christmas film, which makes it twice as depressing. At one point, Andy Griffith is alone in his hospital bed watching Jimmy Stewart at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life.
For Keanu fans, Under The Influence is a must watch. While Griffith is more like Otis the drunk than Sheriff Andy in this one, his depravity isn’t as extreme as the previous two titles mentioned.
Movie #4, and the final entry in the Andy Griffith Behaving Badly Marathon, is known to some as Relative Fear, and to others as Gramps. It was an NBC Movie of the Week in 1995 that premiered two weeks after the final episode of Matlock. It also stars John Ritter reconnecting with his father (Griffith) for first time since his mother, who died a few days prior to the events of this film, chased Griffith away decades ago. Ritter’s Clarke wants to believe his father isn’t the abusive drunk he once was, but even without any booze in his bloodstream, he’s more sinister than ever.
On the crazy bastard scale, Griffith’s Jack MacGruder gets a ten. The film barely begins when he burns his own house down. Things only proceed to get more out of hand when he sneaks into a woman’s house to take her kneecaps out. Along with bashing a police officer’s brains in and stealing his uniform, there’s a moment where MacGruder hires a sex worker, and while fooling around with her in a hotel room, uses a fake alias and drops a stolen notebook to make it look like Clarke’s wife is cheating on him with a man she previously had a fling with.
You can honestly say that Andy Griffith was willing to do whatever the standards of a psychological thriller demanded of him. He deserves a lot of credit for taking these kinds of risks as a 69-year old man with two syndicated series.
For an NBC TV Movie of the Week, it’s impressive how strong of a story Relative Fear aka Gramps is. The point that really wins viewers over is how, with thirty minutes to go, Jack MacGruder is exposed as being psychotic. Not only is everybody onto him, but he’s critically injured — yet he still finds more to do in the film’s final act. Given with how most of these films it isn’t until the last 10-15 minutes when everybody catches onto the dangerous person’s motives, this style of pacing results in a fresh experience where you’d least expect it.
I’ll wrap this up by bringing up wrestling. In the WWE documentary Stone Cold Steve Austin: The Bottom Line on The Most Popular Superstar of All Time, there’s a line that’s always stuck with me. They’re talking to Jim Ross about Stone Cold’s heel run in 2001 that wasn’t as successful as his time portraying the everyman anti-hero during the Attitude Era. At one point Ross says, “That’d be like John Wayne playing a Nazi general, who wants to see that?” It stuck with me because I can’t imagine who wouldn’t wanna see that. Who wouldn’t appreciate such a bold leap outside The Duke’s comfort zone? How many times can you watch him step into yet another saloon and easily shove the bad guys out of town or into a grave?
The renowned good guy image is why it’s so compelling to watch Andy Griffith as these wicked characters. Not only is he stepping away from the type of role he’s known for, but he’s just as great in these roles to the point where you easily imagine an alternate universe where Andy Griffith made a name for himself only playing villains.
All of the films mentioned are made-for-TV films, and there’s something about this type of presentation that makes it more evil than a theatrical release. Television’s the same format where The Andy Griffith Show became arguably the most recognizable sitcom; its whistled theme and the image of Andy Griffith and Ron Howard with their fishing poles are certainly some of the most recognizable moments in pop culture for many Americans. There’s something so captivating and exciting about finding out Andy Griffith explored these dark villainous roles within the same format he became the most reliable comfort food for millions of viewers.
Hopefully while reading this, you got as excited as me finding out the all-time good guy, Andy Griffith, played menacing scumbags multiple times, when most are under the belief he only played such a character once in an all-time great Elia Kazan film.