Who doesn't have a soft spot for Andy Griffith (who died last Tuesday)? You'd have to be pretty immune to benevolent paternalism to resist the down-home charm of Andy Taylor or most of the other roles he created.
Griffith's career thrived primarily on TV. Yet some of his best work was in feature films, particularly when he was playing against type. Over the course of 53 years, he appeared in only about a dozen movies. Most of those roles were lovable types: in his last two movies he appeared as the voice of Santa Claus and a character referred to as “Grandpa Joe.” Sadly, the latter was in “Play the Game” (2009), his last big-screen part, and not much to write home about.
His work as less-than-admirable characters, of course, benefited precisely because of his down-home image. But that wouldn't explain his impact in his first film, “A Face in the Crowd” — directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, who had previously collaborated on “On the Waterfront.” It came out in 1957, when Griffith was only well known on the stage. He played Lonesome Rhodes, a ne'er-do-well who becomes a folksy TV star after a serendipitous encounter with some sharp New York types. What they don't discover until it's too late is that Rhodes's lovable exterior is a thin veneer disguising a scary demagogue, who goes crazy with power. The film essentially prefigures Glenn Beck and much of today's talk radio.