Coming June 5 from
Atlantic Monthly Press
The Comeback chronicles the life of one of America’s greatest athletes, from his roots in the windswept hills of Nevada's Washoe Valley to the heights of his global fame at the Tour de France. With a swift narrative drive and a fierce attention to detail, Daniel de Visé reveals the dramatic, ultra-competitive inner world of a sport rarely glimpsed up close, and builds a compelling case for LeMond as its great American hero.
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Rance Howard, who died last month at 89, had nearly 300 acting credits to his name, including the lead role in a powerful film called Nebraska that was one of my favorites of 2013. You read that right: four years ago.
Busy as he was, Rance made time to speak to me over and over again as I wrote Andy and Don. Not quite a cast member on The Andy Griffith Show, Rance was nonetheless an insider, a near-constant presence on the set, playing the most important supporting role of his career: Father. Ronny, his son, was six years old when Griffith went on the air.
Here is a brief retelling of Ronny's journey to Mayberry, adapted from the book.
Rance and Jean Howard were New York actors who had met in college. Ronny was born while Rance served in the Air Force, touring the country and entertaining troops. “Backstage, Jean would have Ron in a bassinet or in her arms,” Rance told me. “He heard the sounds of rehearsals and audiences applauding and laughing early in his life.”
By age two, Ronny was attending his parents’ rehearsals and performances. Eventually, Rance discovered Ronny had an uncanny talent to learn lines, apparently by osmosis, as he could neither read nor write. The two began to entertain their friends by reciting scenes from the play Mister Roberts from memory.
One day, Rance took Ronny to see an a theatrical agent. They did a scene from Mister Roberts. “That is absolutely incredible,” the agent said. “Do you think he could learn anything else?” The agent gave Rance a two-page scene from a movie he was casting, called The Journey. They took it home, and Ronny learned the scene. They returned to the agent the next day and read it flawlessly. The Howards then put their own careers on hold and cast their lot with their four-year-old son, traveling to Vienna so Ronny could join The Journey. Acting in a Hollywood movie “was playing games for him,” Rance recalled.
When The Journey was over, the Howards sailed back to New York. Ronny’s next project was a television pilot called “Mr. O’Malley.” Hosted by Ronald Reagan as part of the series G.E. True Theater, “Mr. O’Malley” was based on the intellectual comic strip Barnaby and meant to launch a comedy-fantasy series built upon the relationship between Barnaby (Ronny) and his fairy godfather. The pilot was a hit. “The next day, the agent was getting lots of phone calls,” Rance told me. “And one of the calls that came in was from a guy named Sheldon Leonard.”
Sheldon, creator of The Andy Griffith Show, had seen the pilot. He told Rance he wanted Ronny to play Andy’s son on the new show. The boy would be named Opie, after the southern bandleader Opie Cates, a favorite of Andy’s.
Sheldon wanted a long-term commitment from Ronny. Rance wondered what that would mean for his son. “He’s entitled to a childhood,” Rance told the producer. Sheldon reassured him: "We will provide him with all the things a kid needs to be a kid.”
Rance sat in on script meetings as a valued contributor, not a meddling parent. He was an actor in his own right and a crucial companion for Opie when it came time to learn the lines.
“They took one of the dressing rooms and made it into a little schoolhouse,” Rance recalled. “And if he wasn’t in school, if he wasn’t on the set, he and I would play games, checkers, marble checkers, or learn his lines. I was there when Ron was there. A pact Jean and I had made was that one of us would be there with him all the time. We wouldn’t send a tutor or a nanny.
“Being an actor myself, I knew what was going on. I wasn’t awed by it. And I think I did know how to be helpful, and also I knew when to get out of the way.”
In the crucial first season, Rance helped shape the Griffith Show from a promising but flawed production into a timeless classic. Early on, Rance recalled, “a script came in where Opie had all these smart alecky lines, kind of flip and kind of sassing his dad.” At a script meeting, Rance piped up: “You know, these lines, the direction you’re going with Ronny’s dialogue, it’ll get you laughs right now, but it will seem like he’s a smart-ass kid, and you’ll want to slap him down. And in a year or two, when he gets a little older, it’s not going to be funny.”
After the meeting, Andy came up to Rance. “You know what, Rance? You’re right about that, between Andy and Opie,” he said. “We’re gonna change it. We’re gonna try to develop a relationship between Opie and Andy the same as your relationship with Ronny.”
Rance surprised everyone on the set one day by bending the child star over his knee and administering a spanking. It happened only once.
“I don’t really remember what I was doing,” Ron told me. “But I knew the director, Bob Sweeney, had talked to me about trying to concentrate a little bit more. I was getting a little relaxed and probably acting up. I remember pretty well that I was testing something there. It was startling as hell, and of course I cried.”
The whole set grew quiet. As Ronny took in the surreal scene, his father made a little speech worthy of a Griffith script, recounted in the book Mayberry Memories. “Anywhere you are -- I don’t care who’s watching,” Rance said. “I don’t care what’s going on. I have only one job and that’s to be your father and that’s to teach you right from wrong. And nothing about that job embarrasses me.”
Jim Nabors died today on his macadamia plantation in Hawaii. Here, in adapted form, is some of what I wrote about him in Andy and Don.
The Horn was an artifact of authentic Hollywood: A Santa Monica music hall owned by the vocal coach from 20th Century Fox; the sort of place, Andy Griffith once told Larry King, where "you could go in . . . and order a cup of coffee and stay from 9 till 2 and never see the same act twice.” The room attracted big stars, studio insiders and brash newcomers like James Thurston Nabors.
Born on June 12, 1930 in Sylacauga, Alabama, Jim Nabors grew up singing in glee club and church choir. His father was a cop. His mother worked seven days a week at a truck stop. She also played the piano by ear, a talent she bequeathed to Jim.
“I didn’t realize I had a kind of legitimate voice until I started doing it,” Jim recalled. “I never had a vocal lesson. I was gifted with a very good ear; I could emulate sounds.”
Jim joined Delta Tau Delta fraternity at the University of Alabama and began writing skits to perform at frat parties, mostly song parodies, not unlike the act Andy Griffith had assembled at the University of North Carolina a few years earlier. Jim graduated with a business degree and moved to Los Angeles in hope that the warm, dry weather might ease his asthma. He got a job at NBC, stacking film in the warehouse and making deliveries. He was eventually promoted to film cutter.
One night, Jim showed up at The Horn. He watched Fred MacMurray leap up with his wife, retired glamour girl June Haver, and take the stage to play the saxophone while June sang. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is the real Hollywood,’” Jim recalled.
Jim retooled his fraternity act and took it to The Horn. He would talk in an exaggerated Alabama drawl, then rear back and unleash an aria from Pagliacci in a perfectly formed operatic tenor. Then he would stop, in mid-aria, and revert to his molasses drawl: Waal, you see, there was this clown fella, and everyone thawt he was a real happy fella with that painted smile and awl, but he warn’t happy a bit, cause...
The character represented the two sides of Jim Nabors: the cultured, opera-loving sophisticate on the one hand, and the gentle, unassuming naif on the other. What made the act funny was the raw shock of watching Jim transform in one breath from sophisticate to rube. Jim was caricaturing his own provincial heritage, invoking an ensemble of unflattering stereotypes drawn up by northerners and urbanites. Jim was doing with Pagliacci what Andy Griffith had done with Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. His work would later draw comparisons to Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton for its childlike innocence; but Jim hadn’t studied those men or their films. “That was from me,” Jim recalled. “That was just from my head.”
The Horn was a place where untapped talent would go to get discovered. Soon enough, Bill Dana caught wind of Jim Nabors and brought Steve Allen to see him. Jim was invited to appear on The New Steve Allen Show, which had moved from CBS to ABC and was breaking in new talent to replace Don Knotts and other departed comics. Jim Nabors briefly joined a cast of regulars that included Tim Conway, Buck Henry and the Smothers brothers.
One Sunday, a mutual friend brought “this strange-looking man” to Andy Griffith’s home in Toluca Lake and dropped him off. “I gave him a bathing suit and let him get in the pool, and I took him for a drive in the car,” Andy recalled to King. “And he finally left, and I was so thrilled.”
Two weeks later, the friend escorted Andy to The Horn to see Jim perform. Mayberry lore generally credits Dick Linke, Andy’s manager, with spotting Jim’s act and urging Andy to see it. But Jim says Andy arrived at The Horn in the company of a blind psychiatrist named Bill Cannon and his wife, who came from Jim’s hometown and happened to know both Andy and Jim.
“I didn’t want to go,” Andy recalled. “I went kicking and screaming. But the man got up and was electrifying.” Afterward, Andy caught up with Jim on the sidewalk outside. “I don’t know what you do,” he told him, “but it’s magic, whatever it is.” They chatted amicably. Andy pledged, “If a part ever comes up on our show, I’ll give you a call.”
Sure, Jim thought to himself. Two weeks later, the telephone rang.
The Griffith producers wanted to expand the regular cast to include another comic, someone to play a dimwitted gas-station attendant. Howard McNear’s stroke had left a shortage of funnymen on the Desilu lot; without a critical mass of comedic talent to surround Andy, the writers would be forced to dial back the comedy and retreat to “soft” episodes that relied less on humor and more on light drama.
The character was named Gomer Pyle. The first name was borrowed from cowboy radio writer Gomer Cool, the surname from TV western actor Denver Pyle. Gomer was a creation of writers Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum. “The character was inspired by an actual experience,” Everett recalled to writer Neal Brower. “I was having car trouble, and the guy at the service station could think of no cure except to put more gas in the tank.” The attendant explained, “Sometimes she’ll say F when she’s E.”
Producer Aaron Ruben thought he had already found an actor to play Gomer: George Lindsey, a former college football quarterback and Broadway actor who had migrated to Hollywood and landed several bit parts on television. “He read for me and he sounded very good, a real pro, and I was about to hire him,” Aaron recalled for the Archive of American Television. “And Andy came in after rehearsal one day and said, ‘Have you already hired the guy to play the filling station attendant? And I said, ‘I’m about to.’ And he said, ‘Before you do, would you meet somebody?’
“So in comes Jim Nabors. He has a script, he reads, and what he lacked in professionalism and experience he made up for with a certain naive charm that he had,” Aaron recalled. “And I said, ‘Andy, let’s try him. He sounds good.’”
Jim couldn’t believe he had gotten the part. He told the Griffith producers, “Guys, I gotta level with you, I never acted.” Andy replied, “Ain’t nothing to it.”
Andy first brought Jim to the set in December 1962. He assembled the cast and said, “This week, our guest star is Jim Nabors. Everybody be real nice to him and go real easy on him, because he’s never done this before.”
Jim’s first appearance came in Episode 76, “The Bank Job,” broadcast on Dec. 24.
On the first day of shooting, Frances Bavier walked up to Jim and asked, “Is really your first time?” He nodded. Frances retreated behind the camera to watch. Jim proceeded to read his part as if he were standing onstage at the Horn, giving a performance too broad for television. Between takes, Frances called Jim over. She told him, “Darling, the camera never misses anything. It never misses a wink or a blink or a smile. I know you’re from nightclubs. You don’t have to do any of that expository, expressive acting. Just settle down and be yourself.”
When Entertainment Weekly ranked the “100 Greatest CDs” (remember those?) in 1993, the resulting list included an entry from the musical artist Slayer – - no doubt a worthy ensemble, but not one likely to populate many desert-island lists today.
In 1999, Rolling Stone magazine listed the quirky Albert Brooks comedy Lost in America as one of the 100 greatest films of the prior 100 years. These days, Lost in America garners a rating of 7.1 out of 10 at the Internet Movie Database, not even the highest mark for an Albert Brooks film.
Now, in a recent issue, Rolling Stone has given us the “100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.”
Okay: No one regards Rolling Stone as the periodical of record on American television, or film. It is the periodical of record on records. Music is its bailiwick, although some recent judgments – - such as awarding four stars to every Rolling Stones album since 1990 – - have prompted even record fans to search elsewhere for counsel.
Yet, the new list has drawn substantial press coverage, partly because the publication apparently invited television critics from other mainstream publications to cast votes. (A canny move, come to think of it.)
“Our list is guaranteed to start plenty of loud arguments,” writes Rob Sheffield, the magazine’s popular-culture concertmaster, in a short introduction to the list.
Read the rest of my latest post at Classic Movie Hub.
I am delighted to announce that I will be traveling to Mount Airy, Andy Griffith's birthplace, for a book-signing at 1 p.m. on Friday, September 23, right in the middle of the definitive annual gathering known as Mayberry Days. The venue is Pages Books, Mount Airy's bookstore, right on Main Street in the historic downtown.
Mayberry Days draws twenty-five thousand of the most devoted Andy Griffith Show fans to the real-life Mayberry for a fall festival. The first Mayberry Day, a one-day affair, was staged in 1990, organized to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of the Griffith Show's debut. A lot has changed in twenty-six years. Mayberry Days now stretches across five days of the September calendar, the centerpiece of an $80 million annual tourist industry in little Surry County, with 95 percent of it lavished on Mount Airy.
Read the full story in my latest blog post for Classic Movie Hub.
Dick Linke died this week at his home in Hawaii. He had served Andy Griffith as faithful manager across five decades. He was, at 98, the oldest survivor of the creative team responsible for The Andy Griffith Show.
When I first telephoned Dick to request an interview for my book, back in 2012, he was defiant and gruff. “Hey -- I might write my own book,” he growled. By the time we had our final conversations, a few months ago, Dick was just about my favorite source. Over the intervening years, he had gradually loosened his vise-like grip over Andy’s legacy and had shared some wonderful details of their time together. He loved the fact that I wanted to recount the career of his greatest client. Dick was funny, cutting, and sharp as a tack. He was Old School.
Richard O. Linke was born in Summit, New Jersey, a New York suburb, the child of German immigrants. He studied journalism at Ohio University and got a job with the Associated Press at Rockefeller Center. He used the journalism job as a springboard to enter public relations, joining a firm run by a former newsman, where he soon represented Perry Como. He then moved into record promotion, working for the Capitol and Columbia labels and briefly running his own business; his clients included Doris Day.
In 1953, Dick was head of promotion at Capitol. Sitting in his New York apartment one day, he caught a radio segment that showcased regional stations around the country. A particular recording caught his ear. It was out of North Carolina: “. . . It was that both bunches full of them men wanted this funny-lookin’ little punkin to play with. . . .”
Dick was listening to “What It Was, Was Football,” a forty-five RPM comedy single pressed by one Orville Campbell for the tiny Colonial Records label in Chapel Hill. The record had become a regional hit.
Dick flew down to Chapel Hill with another Capitol man to meet with Orville and his recording artist, Andy Griffith. When Andy beheld Dick, he whispered to his record producer, “His teeth are too close together,” according to an ancient account in The Saturday Evening Post.
“And we went over every word of the contract,” Dick told me in a 2012 telephone interview. “They were always worried about Northerners: Were we going to take them?”
When the meeting was over, Dick owned “What It Was, Was Football,” and Andy was a Capitol recording artist, earning $300 a week. Dick became Andy’s manager.
Andy moved to New York with his wife, Barbara. He and Dick started work together in January 1954. Dick immediately noticed Andy had a charming habit of saying “I ’preciate it” at every opportunity. Eventually he told Andy to keep saying it, as often as he could.
Dick took quick and complete control of Andy’s life. “Dick told me where to live, where to buy food,” Andy later told The New York Times. “He didn’t suggest; he told me. He led me to agents; he personally took me to auditions.”
Dick Linke eventually quit his job in the record industry to manage Andy full-time. His friends were concerned. A music publisher approached him on a train and asked, “Dick, you have a good job at Capitol Records. Why would you leave that for a hillbilly?” Dick replied, “Lemme tell you something. He’s not a hillbilly. He’s a mountain-billy from North Carolina. And I have an intuition for talent. And this guy’s gonna be a big star, believe me.” Dick recounted that story to me in a 2014 interview.
Andy considered Don Knotts his best friend. But for decades of Andy’s life, Dick would be his closest confidant. Andy once told an interviewer, “If it hadn’t been for Dick Linke, there would be no Andy Griffith.” In 1961, the two men were walking along Seventh Avenue in New York when Dick apprised Andy that their seven-year management contract had lapsed. He asked if Andy would sign another. “Contract?” Andy replied, according to Dick’s account. “You don’t need a contract with me. You have a contract for life.”
Dick guided Andy through every stage of his career, from his breakout Broadway performance in No Time for Sergeants to his beloved television vehicle The Andy Griffith Show to his autumnal comeback on Matlock.
Andy and Dick borrowed several hundred thousand dollars as seed money to launch the Griffith Show, an investment that gave them a majority stake in the show and made Andy half owner. Their interest would give the two men a rare measure of artistic control over the show; in time, it would also make them very wealthy men.
By the close of the 1960s, Andy Griffith sat at the center of a Dick Linke empire. At his peak, Dick managed ten clients: Andy, the Big A, followed, in rough order of celebrity, by Jim Nabors, Ken Berry, Bobby Vinton, Jerry Van Dyke, and the rest. Three of the clients, including Andy, lived within a few miles of Dick’s North Hollywood home. Dick found them housing, helped with birthday presents and insurance policies and wills, procured cars and jewelry and furs, and oversaw various side businesses and tax shelters launched in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
As an overly caffeinated Hollywood manager, Dick seemed straight out of central casting. “I remember him crying at his father’s funeral,” recalled Ronnie Schell, one of Dick’s clients, when I interviewed him for the book. “And as he was crying, he was checking his watch to see how long the ceremony was going to last.”
TV Guide probed the workings of “The Wondrous Andy Griffith TV Machine” in a July 1968 cover story: “Day-by-day operations of a complex structure involving six separate corporations are conducted behind the poker face of Linke, a former publicity man whose thinning hair is trimmed each week by a shapely female barber. He hunches in a Naugahyde judge’s chair, responding to incessant jarring buzzes which signal incoming phone calls—the fuel that fires the machine. They are relayed by either of his two secretaries to any one of 11 extensions illuminating his desk-side console.”
When the reporter asked Dick his marketing strategy for his most famous client, Dick replied, “Right down the middle for the masses,” channeling Lonesome Rhodes, the hero of No Time for Sergeants. “Give me the rest of the country, the mashed potato belt. You can have New York and Los Angeles.”
The partnership endured until December 1991. The parting was bittersweet; Dick felt he was being usurped by Andy's third wife, Cindi, who had moved to the center of Andy's life. At their final meeting, Dick sat across the table from Andy wearing a gold ring on his right hand, a recent present from Andy, with the number 35 etched on its face, for thirty-five years together.
Of all the facts in a person’s life, the birthday is supposed to be an easy one.
Yet, to this day, I’m not exactly sure of Andy Griffith’s birthday. I’m not even sure he was.
Andy Samuel Griffith was born in Mount Airy, North Carolina, on June 1, 1926. Or perhaps on June 7, ninety years ago today. He died July 3, 2012, at his estate in Manteo, on the Carolina coast.
The University of North Carolina, which houses Andy’s collected papers, gives his birth date as June 1, 1926. So does the Biography network, and the Film Reference website, and Wikipedia. And that would seem to settle it.
Except that it doesn’t. Deep within the birth registry for Surry County, North Carolina, home to Andy’s birthplace of Mount Airy, I found a handwritten entry that neatly records the birth of one Andy Samuel Griffith - - on June 7, 1926. The same birthday, June 7, is clearly typed on Andy’s draft registration card from the 1940s.
Click here to read the rest of my new post for Classic Movie Hub!
On television and in the movies, comedic actor Don Knotts generally played second banana, deputizing himself — literally or figuratively — to someone else. Off screen, the reality of his theatrical relationships was a bit more complicated.There was the time, for example, when Don spent a month of his life more or less babysitting the great Orson Welles.
Orson -- Broadway director at twenty-two, Citizen Kane producer at twenty-five -- first met Don in 1957 when he guest-starred on The Steve Allen Show, which employed Don as a regular. Though still in his early forties (he was born one hundred and one years ago this month), Orson was already in the twilight of his career, working on one of his final cinematic triumphs, Touch of Evil. The Steve Allen producers wanted him to read Shakespeare. Orson insisted that he first be permitted to perform his magic act. Orson was an accomplished magician -- just like Don, whose first great talent was ventriloquism.
Don revered the bearded legend and surely would have hung on his every word; but the mercurial star declined to mingle with the Steve Allen cast in rehearsal and “seemed, in fact, quite unapproachable,” Don recalled in his memoir.
Fifteen years later, Don took a phone call from a producer, who wanted to know if he would perform in a television adaptation of The Man Who Came to Dinner, an updated version of the Roosevelt-era play. The star would be Orson Welles.
Click here to read the rest of my new post at Classic Movie Hub.
Though Andy Griffith and Don Knotts were creatures of Hollywood, best remembered as stars of The Andy Griffith Show, both men spent their formative years in New York. Don first journeyed there in 1942, right out of high school, in a failed bid to establish himself as a Vaudeville performer. Andy turned up eleven years later, in 1953, on the heels of his first big hit with the comedy record “What it Was, Was Football.” Surprisingly, both men bombed, meeting with rejection and indifferent audiences in Manhattan theaters and clubs. Luckily for us, they kept at it. Andy retreated back South to polish his act in regional nightclubs, then returned to take Manhattan by storm as the star of the 1955 play No Time for Sergeants. Don decamped to West Virginia, went to college and served in the Army before returning to New York in 1949 to launch his career as a radio actor. Six years later, he won his own small part in No Time for Sergeants, and soon he and Andy were friends.
Here is my latest post for Classic Movie Hub: A list of 13 iconic addresses that figure prominently in Andy’s and Don’s careers. I assembled this virtual tour for an upcoming visit to the 92nd Street Y at noon on Monday, February 29. If you happen to live in New York, click here for details.
Families sit down to watch The Andy Griffith Show expecting not just a story but a lesson. The best Griffith episodes teach something - - about family, or friendship, or loyalty, or living well. It almost seems as if producers of the classic CBS sitcom set out to nudge the nation’s moral compass, although Griffith writers always denied any ethical agenda.
Some of the preachiest Griffith episodes were those that spotlighted Ronny Howard as Opie, because they allowed the writers to showcase Sheriff Andy at his most fatherly, dispensing paternal wisdom to his television son. In “Opie the Birdman,” Opie accidentally kills a bird and learns to take responsibility for his actions. In “Opie’s Hobo Friend,” Opie drifts away from his father’s influence, and Andy must reel him back in. And in “A Medal for Opie,” first broadcast on February 12, 1962, the sheriff teaches his son to find dignity in defeat.
Last week brought the Super Bowl, an annual ritual that yields arguably the biggest winner in all of American sports - - and also the biggest loser. The game produced two distinct story lines: the decisive victory of the Denver Broncos, and the brooding post-game performance of losing quarterback Cam Newton, who stormed out of a press conference.
Here, surely, was a moment for fatherly wisdom. A few days after the game, a Griffith Show fan named Richard Gilbreath craftily pasted Cam Newton’s face atop Opie’s body to repurpose a memorable scene from the season-two Griffith episode “A Medal for Opie.”
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A reader named Larry posed an interesting question by e-mail the other day: Why wasn’t Frances Bavier's name listed in the opening credits of The Andy Griffith Show?
Why not, indeed? Frances was one of only three Griffith Show regulars who stuck with the show from beginning to end, an eight-year run. A quick check of the Internet Movie Database reveals that Frances appeared in more Griffith episodes (177) than any other cast member save two: Ronny (210) and Andy himself (249). Frances also performed in 25 episodes of Mayberry R.F.D., the sit-com sequel that replaced the Griffith Show in 1968 and ran for three more years. She was, in the end, the most enduring Mayberry character of them all.
Click here to read the rest of my new post at Classic Movie Hub!