How ‘Matlock’ TV Ratings Convinced Andy Griffith to Return to TV

by Taylor Cunningham
(Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Andy Griffith’s career suffered a long bout of bad luck following his success as Sherriff Taylor, but a made-for-TV movie about Ben Matlock pulled him back into the limelight.

When Griffith joined the Mayberry PD in 1960, he was relatively new to the acting world. Up until then, he had mostly dabbled in the light night TV world as a comedian.

But when The Andy Griffith Show debuted, Griffith became an overnight star. As he managed the misadventures of his quirky small town for eight years, the series picked up six Emmys and went down in history as one of the most iconic classic TV shows.

The instant and overwhelming success of the series turned the actor into a household name. And years after his death, audiences continue to recognize his thick southern accent and quick wit. But that recognition actually hindered his ability to get jobs later in his life. And often, the jobs he did land weren’t popular.

The problem with The Andy Griffith Show was that fans only knew Griffith as Sheriff Taylor. Because he was a newcomer when he made it big, no one could look past the wholesome lawman.

Following the close of the series, Griffith went on to work in a string of unpopular shows and movies. In 1970, he joined the cast of The Headmaster only to work for one season. And he even tried reprising Andy Taylor in The New Andy Griffith Show. But the reboot only ran a year as well.

A TV Movie About Ben Matlock Saved Andy Griffith’s Career

By 1986, the star had spent nearly two decades searching for a second wind of fame, and he thought his chance was long over. But then Andy Griffith landed the role of Ben Matlock in a made-for-TV movie called Diary of a Perfect Murder, and everything changed.

In the film, Griffith played an aging defense attorney who helped his daughter, Charlene, clear a famous TV reporter who was charged with murder. And along the way, they found help from a PI named Tyler Hudson. The characters, of course, all became regulars on a series that would simply be called Matlock. Because Andy Griffith found a role as fitting as sheriff Taylor, both critics and audiences loved the movie. So NBC decided to pick up the story that same year.

Matlock quickly became as much of a hit as The Andy Griffith Show had all those years prior. The courtroom drama went on to air for nine years. And what’s best is that out of all the television characters he played during his lifetime, Matlock was his favorite.

In 1987, Griffith told the Associated Press that the lawyer was the “best role he ever has had on TV”

“It’s a wonderfully conceived part,” Griffith said. “You’re almost unlimited in what you can do with the part.”