Sunday, July 8, 2012

Rip, the Sheriff and the Skip

Andy Griffith
Ernest Borgnine

We Baby Boomers had the good fortune to spend our formative TV years with a plethora of sharply written and very successful situation comedies.  Get Smart, Bewitched, Gomer Pyle, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Gilligan’s Island, the Dick Van Dyke Show and scores of other sitcoms kept us entertained with PG-rated humor which could be safely watched by parents and kids alike, which was a good thing since most households of that day had one TV and very limited viewing selection from the three major networks (ABC, NBC and CBS). 
These shows offered nothing but solid family fare, to be sure.  Rob and Laura Petrie (the Dick Van Dyke Show) didn’t even share a marital bed.  Pre-teen youth could argue for hours on the merits of Ginger vs. MaryAnn, two of the Castaways on Gilligan’s Island, but you never had the sense that any ‘funny business’ was really going to happen between either of those lovelies and Gilligan, the Professor or the Skipper.  Unlike the sitcoms of today, these comedies did not rely on sexual innuendo and invocation of ‘social issues’; rather, these shows combined a steady diet of gags, witty dialogue, and a sense that the viewers could actually know and be friends and neighbors of these characters.  This is what made these shows successful and watchable. 
The "McHale" of "McHale's Navy."
Two of my favorite situation comedies of this era were the Andy Griffith Show (my brother and I usually referred to it as “the Andy Show”) and McHale’s Navy.  The Andy Show ran from 1960-1968 and starred, of course, Andy Griffith as Andy Taylor, the wise, widowed sheriff of the small town of Mayberry, NC.  Ron Howard cut his acting teeth as Andy’s screen son Opie, and veteran Broadway actress Frances Bavier played the somewhat fish-out-of-water but well intentioned Aunt Bee who ran the Taylor household.  McHale’s Navy ran from 1962-1966 and featured an ensemble cast, starring Ernest Borgnine as Quentin McHale, the Commander of a rag-tag bunch of sailors deployed to PT 73 patrolling the South Pacific during World War II.  
Andy Griffith and Ernest Borgnine both passed away this week after long, productive lives and careers.  They remained vital and active right up to their death.  When the Andy show was cancelled, Mr. Griffith starred in another long-running TV series as a wily Southern Defense Attorney named Matlock (a Columbo-like personality with a Southern accent and a seersucker suit).  Following his stint in McHale’s Navy Mr. Borgnine had many prominent movie credits, and recently reached a new generation of TV viewers as the voice of Mermaid Man, a cartoon geriatric super-hero who is roused out of retirement into semi-activity by an awe-struck Sponge Bob Square Pants. The whole episode--also starring "McHale's Navy" actor Tim Conway as Barnacle Boy, the sidekick--is worth watching, for both younger and older readers.
Mermaid Man.
When important personalities of our youth pass away, we pause to reflect.  Of course I didn’t know these men, but then again, after hours of watching them on TV, I felt like I did.  You probably feel the same way about some of the characters you watch on TV.  The death within days of these two actors, who played significant TV roles in the 60’s (well, they were significant to me), caused me to reflect on the values, personality, moral leadership, and equanimity they displayed in their characters.
In modern psychological terms, Sheriff Taylor and LCMDR McHale were the ‘alpha males’ of their communities.  Floyd the Barber, Goober the car mechanic, Gomer the assistant, and assorted townsfolk looked to Andy for guidance and advice.  McHale kept Virgil, Willy, Happy, and the rest of the crew in line and functioning as the ‘Skip’ of his surrogate family. 
Both Taylor and McHale exercised their authority with compassion, grace, and common sense.  Sheriff Taylor kept the peace in Mayberry not at the point of a gun or billy club, but through discussion, compromise, and inventive problem solving.  Sheriff Taylor could soothe the savage beast subdue criminals through trickery and guile, and pass fatherly lessons to Opie all in a 24 minute episode.  All the while, sweet-talking Aunt Bee into baking another one of her award-winning pies he could share with the current tenants of the County Jail. In one episode, Andy even quelled a decades-long feud between the Carter and Wakefield clans:


Commander McHale gave his charges more than enough rope to hang themselves; his crew operated a still, ran gambling junkets, waterskied from the back of their PT-boat, and kept a man-servant named Fuji, a deserter from the Japanese Navy who did their laundry among other chores.  But his men knew that McHale always had their backs, especially against the meddlesome Captain Binghamton and Lt. Carpenter whose life mission was to bust the crew of PT-73.  McHale knew that boys will be boys, and when you run too tight a ship eventually something breaks.  But when he needed his crew to perform, they delivered.  PT-73 was a high-functioning team.  Think of them as the Oakland Raiders of the U.S. Navy, when the Raiders were actually winning Super Bowls. 

A typical day for Sheriff Taylor.
A primary story line of both shows was the relationship of the star with his bungling assistant and second-in-command.  Don Knotts played Barney Fife, Sheriff Taylor’s hapless Deputy.  Fife was so careless that Sheriff Taylor issued him only one bullet for his service revolver for concern what he might do with a full clip.  Tim Conway played Ensign Charles Parker, a by-the-book junior officer who regularly steered the ship and the crew into trouble.  (Both Knotts and Conway emerged as very capable stars in their own right, and were later paired in a Disney comedy as bungling Western outlaws in “The Apple Dumpling Gang.”)  Sheriff Taylor and Commander McHale were patient managers, mentoring their underlings with equal doses of brotherly advice and a bias for positive outcomes, even if you had to bend the rules a little bit in the process.  They taught their assistants that the best outcome to a situation was rarely found ‘in the book,’ but in the hearts and souls of the people who are most affected by a decision.    

Sheriff Taylor and Commander McHale were men of action.  They appreciated the significance of their position in their respective communities, and they never abused their authority.  They were men of compassion.  Sheriff Taylor’s relationship with young Opie is a model of a father-son dynamic which we would be well served to emulate today.  For all of his lollygagging and rule-bending/breaking, Commander McHale protected a Catholic orphanage on a nearby island and regularly supplied the nuns and their students.  They were men of loyalty, in the case of Sheriff Taylor to his family and his community, and in the case of Commander McHale to his crew and the U.S. Navy. 
Predictably, both shows jumped the shark, as situation comedies often do.  In the latter years, Sheriff Taylor evolved from being feisty, funny and Southern-fried witty to crotchety and cranky.  The producers sensed the fatigue of the show.  Andy married long-time flame Helen Crump, moved away, and the show was renamed “Mayberry RFD” with a new lead (Ken Berry) and some of the original cast members continuing on.  CBS gave Mayberry RFD the hatchet in 1971 when it decided its successful ‘rural shows’ were not attracting the audience the network wanted.   McHale’s crew was mysteriously assigned to the European theater in the last year of the show, and the switch didn’t provide the hoped-for renaissance.  I guess all of the “Head for the Hills Fuji” gags had worn out their welcome. 

Still, the Andy Griffith Show and McHale’s Navy represent 60’s situation comedies at their finest.  And Sheriff Andy Taylor and Commander Quentin McHale represent the finest in public servants, even if they were fictional.  They were loyal; devoted to family, community and country; compassionate; not entrenched in their positions or their authority; they did not rely on Federal or State Bureaucrats to tell them how to do their job.  You could almost say that Commander McHale and Sheriff Taylor were the original Tea-Partiers, before the Tea Party.  Our current public servants could learn a lot from the lessons taught by Commander McHale and Sheriff Taylor on the deck of PT-73 and the streets of Mayberry, NC. And here is perhaps the only way to end a post about Andy Griffith:



  1. Finally, able to get in to the site. Going to see if it works to leave a comment.


    1. Good to see Phil is able to comment on these well written and thoughtful blogs.


    2. Steve,

      Thanks for reading our musings! Tim

  2. Tim,
    Didn't see this post coming from you, but well done! One other thing I would like to add. The "sidekicks", Tim Conway and Don Knotts, were on the show for comic relief. But the comedy was never mean spirited. We laughed at their antics or their foibles. But in the end of the show, they always got a pat on the back or a friendly gesture. Much of today's humor is at someone's expense. We are laughing at them as people. Not as clever and not as creative.

    1. Dean,

      Thanks for reading the blog! And I agree with you. The humor we watched in our youth on TV and at the movies was clever and good-natured. Not so much anymore. Too bad.