Mount Airy manages a neat trick: it's very fake, yet very real. The black-and-white squad cars that take tourists on driving tours are fake, but this is the place that imbued Andy Griffith with the values he enshrined in Mayberry.
Much the same can be said of the man himself. He's acting on screen‚ we all know he's acting‚ but the sincerity seems real. He puts people at ease. "I don't know if he works to do that, but I suspect not," says Marc Fienberg, who directed Andy in the 2008 film "Play the Game." "It's just Andy Griffith‚ someone genuine and straightforward." He's Andy Griffith, starring Andy Griffith.
The one person I thought could give me insight into Andy Griffith's popularity was, of course, Andy Griffith. I sent him letters, called his manager, and asked several people to intervene on my behalf, to no avail. I gather he's just not much for talking about himself, which shouldn't be a surprise. Volatile stars such as Russell Crowe fascinate us when they burn with a white-hot glow. But then the flames dim and we lose interest. Andy never burned explosively (although he showed he could in his first film, Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd"). His glow is more like a comforting hearth fire.
A phrase often used to describe Andy's popularity is "getting back to Mayberry‚" shorthand for something larger. I spoke to Betty Lynn, who played Thelma Lou, Barney Fife's girlfriend. Betty grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and lived happily for 50 years in Los Angeles and New York City. She appeared at Mount Airy's Mayberry Days festival a few years ago and found the quiet mountain town appealing. In 2007, in a case of life-imitating-sitcom, Betty moved into a Mount Airy apartment with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. "It's peaceful and gorgeous and I watch the mountains every day and that makes me happy," she says. "I can thank Andy for that."
Betty suspects that Mayberry's appeal is linked to a restless search for sanctuary in times of foreclosures, terrorism, and, yes, crime: her wallet was recently stolen at a Mount Airy shopping center. "We're all scared to death," she says. "We need some place to hold on to." Andy Griffith and Mayberry offer a solid boulder amid a turbulent river, a person and place where we can recalibrate our lives.
There's an episode from season four in which Andy lets Opie stay out a few extra minutes before bedtime. "Daylight's precious when you're a young'un," he tells Barney. In a harsh world, the light that is Andy grows brighter.