Andy Griffith roamed the halls of Goldsboro High School
By Ty Johnson
Published in News on July 8, 2012 1:50 AM
Not many people know that years before Sheriff Andy Taylor patrolled Mayberry in a Ford Galaxie police cruiser running on Goober's sweat and Gomer's gas, a young Andy Griffith cruised Goldsboro in a hatchback so beat-up, it shocked him if he touched the door to open it.
Even fewer recall that the man who showcased Southern hospitality and manners through his primetime television shows once propped his feet up on a kitchen table in Wayne County to the shock of his young hostess.
But his Goldsboro High School students and others know that before Griffith became a household name, he was a dedicated teacher, director and friend.
June Foil recalls the first time she saw Griffith, and it wasn't in black and white.
It was after a performance of the Goldmasquers, the acting group at Goldsboro High formed by Clifton Britton, and her family was hosting the traditional open houses that followed each play. Britton, stage hands, actors and others from the group would go over to the hosts' house to hang out after the show and she was in the kitchen.
Her older brother, Harold, had told her to stay there so as not to cramp his style, but then a skinny young dramatics teacher, fresh out of college, walked in and sat down.
That's when she first saw the man who would later become Sheriff Andy Taylor.
"He propped his feet up on the kitchen table, and I thought 'What are you doing with your feet on the kitchen table?'" she said.
Britton was at that time the stage manager for the annual "Lost Colony" play in Manteo, where he met Griffith and cast him in the role of Sir Walter Raleigh.
The Outer Banks proved to be a sanctuary of sorts for Griffith throughout his life, as he and his wife, Barbara, who played Queen Elizabeth in the long-running outdoor drama, were married there at the Elizabethan Gardens.
Griffith retired to Manteo in 2003, where he remained until he died Tuesday at age 86.
But just as Griffith quietly passed the last years of his life on North Carolina's coast, that's also where his career in show business got its start -- with a little prodding from Britton.
Britton, or Mr. B as he's best known, was legendary among Goldsboro High's faculty, as students who never even appeared on stage today still attest to his charm and dedication to professionalism that made the school's drama program the envy of schools across the state.
And he also had a hand in getting Griffith to Wayne County.
Betty Jinnette, a Goldsboro native who became a film star in Hollywood, played roles throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s, which included Patrick Dempsey's mother in the 1987 film, "In the Mood." She said her career began with Britton's plays and instruction.
"It gave me all the training to have a life in the theater," she said. "He was absolutely an incredible person at our high school."
Ms. Jinnette said Britton coaxed Griffith to teach and assist him at Goldsboro High, so the furture star moved here with his wife.
But just as Britton helped her develop her acting skills, it could be said that Griffith gave Ms. Jinnette her first break.
He cast her in her first leading role when Britton allowed Griffith to direct "Years Ago," the autobiographical play based on Ruth Gordon's life as a young girl dreaming of being an actress.
"I suppose that was the perfect role to start with," Ms. Jinnette said. "I always had wanted to be an actress too. It was a lucky break."
She followed Griffith's career as he and Barbara traveled from civic club to civic club doing skits like "What It Was, Was Football." One Lions Club would recommend the duo to another, as did Rotary Clubs across the state, until he performed in Greensboro in front of an audience that contained a talent scout from New York. After that, Griffith was asked to come to Manhattan to audition for a role in "No Time for Sergeants."
By 1955, when Ms. Jinnette saw him perform in that play on Broadway, he was on his way to a Tony nomination.
"He was absolutely marvelous on Broadway," she said.
But Griffith would factor into her career even more on her way to Hollywood.
When she graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, she married and moved to New York, where she contacted the Griffiths.
"Andy introduced me to Maurice Evans, who was one of the producers of 'No Time for Sergeants,'" she said. "That introduction led to me getting other interviews and things of that sort. It gave me a leg up. I've always been very grateful for that."
Years later, his selection of her to portray Ruth Gordon as a sophomore would aid her career again when she handed her resume to famed director Garson Kanin -- Gordon's husband.
"All these little things kind of fit together like a jigsaw puzzle," she said today.
And it had all started, not with Andy and Aunt Bee, but with Andy and Mr. B.
Griffith's impact on those he taught and interacted with in Goldsboro was not without a few Mayberry-worthy hijinks, however.
In fact, a couple stories from his time at Goldsboro High School could be bits in a revitalization of Mayberry RFD.
Like Ms. Jinnette's memory of Griffith's old car. Vernon Talton, who also was a student of Griffith's, said he remembers it as a 1940s Chevrolet hatchback. When Griffith touched the metal of the car's exterior, it would shock him, Ms. Jinnette said.
"He would ask us to help him get in the car to avoid having to touch the car," she said, laughing and remembering his thin frame -- Talton said he had to stuff his Lost Colony leotard with cotton balls he was so skinny -- sliding into the driver's seat.
Talton, who never considered himself much of a singer in high school, remembers being called on to audition for the quartet.
"He asked me to come up and sing and try out for the solo, and it shocked me to death really," Talton said. "He said 'I want you to sing the baritone part,' and boy, I froze. When I started to sing, nothing came out. Anyway, he said 'You can go back and have a seat.'"
That was during the first part of the year. By February, Griffith and his wife had traveled to New York for a singing audition.
The story Griffith told the class about the audition was coincidentally similar, as Talton remembers Griffith said he managed to get out just three words before he was cut off.
"They said 'You can sit down," Talton recalled Griffith saying. "I didn't get any words out, but he only got three."
Still, Griffith was talented. Talton vividly remembers him performing Johnny Ray's hits in the school's gymnasium the year it was built.
"He could really sing, and it was nothing like the singing he did later on," Talton said, referring to the gospel hits he would go on to win a Grammy for in 1997. "I remember that, to this day -- he did an excellent job."
Griffith also directed the choir at Goldsboro First Baptist during his years in Wayne County.
Members who remember his time there, though, say the young Griffith was nervous ahead of his first solo in front of the congregation, and was seen pacing in the green pasture that was then beside the church before taking the stage.
"He went on to perform in front of millions, but here he was getting nervous about a few hundred people," said Glenn Phillips, the current senior minister at the church, recalling the story the elders of the church tell again and again.
It's difficult today to imagine the venerable sheriff of Mayberry nervously awaiting his solo at a Baptist church, but it gives insight into Griffith's humanity -- something that the public never truly gave him back after they forever cast him in the role of Andy Taylor.
Griffith didn't venture home to Mount Airy often, and at times was considered to have even resented his hometown.
Natives there were exonerated in recent years when he returned, but Griffith fans still complained openly about feeling miffed by the star, who played a sheriff so warm he didn't even carry a gun.
But the constant fame for more than 50 years, Talton said, could have had a lot to do with Griffith's desire for privacy.
"I would have called him Mr. Griffith," Talton says now, in an effort to distinguish the man from the myth. "People would go up to him all the time, and some said he wasn't very friendly. I can understand."
But that's not to say that Griffith didn't have compassion, Talton said. Griffith knew Talton's wife, Julia, when he taught at Goldsboro, too, he said, and when she called ahead to let him know she and a friend were going to be in New York to see him in "No Time for Sergeants," he told them to come around to the side entrance after the show.
Talton was in the Air Force at the time, but his wife said Griffith, ever chivalrous, walked the two girls back to their hotel.
He also remembers when he was 16 and his father died and how Griffith made a point to let him know he was sorry for his loss.
But Griffith's contrast with his characters and the public's perception of him continued to cause problems for him. Even in his 1980s role as the title character in the television series "Matlock," he was a Southern gentleman.
When Griffith returned to Wayne County to film an episode at Cherry Hospital, fans didn't understand why he behaved so coolly toward them.
But Talton said that compassion hadn't faded as Griffith's fame grew. The intimate moments were just more hidden from the public eye than Sheriff Taylor's sage-like advice broadcast to millions.
"He came up from Wilmington one year to do a Matlock episode at Cherry Hospital," Talton said. "People said he didn't take the time for fans, but I have a friend (who worked) out there who said Andy was going down the hall and he said 'Mr. Griffith I have a patient dying to meet you.' And Andy said 'Where is he at?' and went down the hall with him to meet this patient."
He also sent a letter to Goldsboro First Baptist on the occasion of its 165th anniversary, Phillips said, recalling how much he enjoyed his two years at the church.
Griffith also enveloped some of his former students into his fame, as well, as Craven Malpass traveled across the country to perform at Griffith's "This Is Your Life" episode in 1971, where he met Jim Nabors and even Ronny Howard, who was doing homework in between shootings.
"He was a good teacher. He was a great guy," Malpass said. "I thought a lot of Andy."
That refrain is common among those who knew him more as Andy Griffith than Andy Taylor.
"No one ever dreamed that he would wind up doing what he did. I was shocked when he passed away, but it was a pleasure to know him," Talton said.
Ms. Jinnette remembers him both as a teacher and as an actor.
"He was very esoteric, which was completely different from what the general public thought of him, which was as a hillbilly," she said.
She talks highly of his character in "Face in the Crowd," which was a sharp contrast from kindly Sheriff Taylor.
"Truly, the more you see (that film) the more you realize what an incredible actor he was," she said.
To some, like Ms. Jinnette, Griffith was a mentor. To others, like Talton and Malpass, he was a teacher.
To most, though, he was Sheriff Andy Taylor -- a persona that he said in later years represented only the best side of him, although his fans never believed him. They didn't want to. They wanted the fatherly figure who set an example of what a man should be, while making them laugh all the while.
It's comforting to know, though, that those who knew him when he was a high school teacher can still attest to flashes of that Mayberry character fans always saw in him -- that deep down, although he wasn't perfect, nor ever pretended to be, he was still Andy.
-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.