Classic TV legend Andy Griffith spent the back half of the 20th century as one of America’s premiere pop culture nice guys. Of course, he played the calm and affable Sheriff Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show for eight seasons in the 60s. Through repeats and syndication, he became a father figure to generations of TV fans. Then from 1986 to 1995, he played the titular folksy, hot dog-loving criminal defense attorney in Matlock. This show’s popularity made Griffith something of a grandfather figure to a new generation, helping cement his legacy as the ultimate homespun TV hero.
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However, Griffith played against his nice-guy image effectively several times during his career. His natural charisma and impeccable comedic timing could be transformed into something positively sinister with the right material. Taking that into account, let’s take a look at some of Griffith’s most powerful turns playing the heavy.
5. A Face in the Crowd
Griffith’s most famous and well-received villainous role debuted before the world knew him as Andy Taylor. In Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s 1957 drama A Face in the Crowd, Griffith gives arguably his best performance.
Radio reporter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) meets an intriguing backwoods thinker by the name of Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith), who captivates her with his laid-back wit, charisma, and musical talent. She instantly begins to nurture him as a star on the radio waves; soon after his premiere performance, he skyrockets in popularity. As his reputation expands beyond radio stations into television shows, Lonesome sets out to use it for political influence and power.
With his charismatic appeal reminiscent of Will Rogers, Lonesome soon becomes a powerful celebrity from the exposure he receives on TV. However, with this newfound fame also comes an increasing ego and darker side.
Griffith plays Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes with his trademark natural charisma, but with an undercurrent of menace. His performance helps you understand how listeners (and eventually TV viewers) could be charmed by the ultimate power-mad narcissist. “This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep,” Griffith’s Lonesome declares. “Hillbillies, hausfraus – everybody that’s got to jump when someone else blows a whistle! They’re mine!” In an age of the 24-hour news cycle and social media influencers, A Face in the Crowd is prophetic and as relevant as ever. It can currently be rented on many streaming services, including Amazon.
4. Pray for the Wildcats
1974’s ABC network TV movie Pray for the Wildcats is a spin on the classic southern thriller Deliverance. However, the protagonists in “Wildcats” switch out canoes and river rapids for the Arizona desert and motorcycles. In the film, Griffith plays Sam Farragut, a leering, sociopathic business executive who forces a group of Ad Men on a Joseph Conrad-esque Heart of Darkness misadventure under the guise of scouting for locations to shoot a commercial.
The cast includes a who’s who of 60s and 70s classic TV. Star Trek‘s William Shatner and “Brady Bunch” dad Robert Reed play the beleaguered ad executives, and Police Woman‘s Angie Dickinson also appears. The TV movie has gained a cult following over the years because Griffith plays so hard against his Andy Taylor persona. He aggressively hits on women half his age, raises hell in dive bars, picks up an ax during a fistfight, and just generally chews scenery from start to finish. It’s been available sporadically on home video over the years but isn’t on any streaming service as of this writing. However, below is a scene of Griffith going full-throttle sleaze bag in the film.
3. Murder in Coweta County
Not long before Andy Griffith was re-introduced to a new generation as Matlock, he played his most despicable role. In the 1983 TV movie Murder in Coweta County, Griffith is John Wallace, who owns a huge estate in rural Georgia he dubs “The Kingdom.” Wallace rules the vast property with an iron fist, openly bullying sharecroppers on his land and ignoring local law enforcement not under his thumb. When Wallace publicly pistol-whips a man to death, he steps into the crosshairs of Sheriff Lamar Potts (played by an understated Johnny Cash). Sheriff Potts makes taking Wallace to justice almost a religious crusade, stopping at nothing to bring the tyrant down.
Griffith’s performance in Murder in Coweta County is supercharged and sinister. Gone is the charisma of a character like Lonesome Rhodes or the moments of scene-chewing buffoonery of Pray for the Wildcats. Wallace is an unrepentant racist and self-important fat cat, the sort of man any Southerner worth a damn would hate from the get-go. Griffith’s sneering, loud performance contrasts masterfully with Cash’s subdued, naturalistic approach.
As of this writing, Murder in Coweta County is available to stream on Tubi. It’s definitely worth a watch for Griffith fans, and a treat for lovers of all things Johnny Cash. June Carter Cash even has a scene-stealing part as an eccentric rural soothsayer.
A deeper cut into Griffith’s journey playing villains is the 1974 TV movie, Savages. Griffith plays Horton Madec, a hotshot lawyer that fancies himself as a big game hunter. Madec manages to get a rare permit to hunt bighorn sheep in the Mojave Desert. He then hires a naive local named Ben (Sam Bottoms, fresh off of a heartbreaking performance in 1973’s The Last Picture Show) to serve as his guide in the unfamiliar desert terrain.
Things go south when Madec accidentally shoots and kills a mentor of Ben’s. Of course, Ben wants to do the moral thing and report the accident to local authorities. However, Griffith’s Madec has other ideas. At gunpoint, he forces Ben to strip to his underwear and cooks up a wild yarn to cover for his crime. He tells Ben his story will be they were separated, and shortly after Ben flew out of control, ripped off his apparel, and perished due to heat-induced dehydration in only a few hours. What follows is a tale of survival, with Griffith’s character stopping at nothing to maintain his reputation.
The film is hard to come by on regular channels but routinely pops up on Youtube. It’s worth tracking down since it’s a solid thriller about a game of cat and mouse. Griffith is convincing as a coward roleplaying as a confident tough guy adventurer, and Bottom’s boyish, innocent performance plays nicely against it.
1. Crime of Innocence
In 1985’s Crime of Innocence, Griffith portrays an unfeeling judge, who harshly penalizes two teenage girls (Shawnee Smith and Tammy Lauren) to a hefty prison sentence for joyriding. Eventually, one of the girl’s parents goes through legal channels after their daughter is assaulted in jail and authorities do nothing to protect her. Griffith’s turn is notable because it ran right up against his second-most-popular role as the charismatic Matlock. The TV film even repeated right after a Matlock airing.
Watching Griffith playing Judge Julius Sullivan, you get the feeling he senses he’ll be locked in another good-guy role soon. He’s one part fanatical preacher, one part rabid dog barely restained on a short leash. The performance had to be electric for viewers at the time.
The TV movie features a stacked cast of prominent actors. The Walton‘s Ralph Waite and veteran actress Diane Ladd star as the parents to future horror icon Shawnee Smith (1988’s The Blob and several Saw films). Star Trek: The Next Generation star Brent Spiner also plays a supporting role. The film is hard to come by on traditional channels but routinely pops up on outlets like Youtube.
Griffith’s legacy is largely one of Americana wholesomeness, and rightfully so. Still, it’s worth examining his edgier roles. It helps to appreciate the deep bench of acting reserves the TV legend could pull from. He seemed to enjoy playing heroes, but Griffith was clearly attracted to the dark side, too.