Life Lessons From Andy Griffith And Ernest Borgnine

July 11, 2012 at 10:23 am

You don’t have to be beautiful to be a movie star, or even a supporting actor, thank goodness. But two actors who have done some beautiful work passed away recently, and I had the good fortune to work with both of them. For several decades, a couple of the most recognized faces in America have been those of Andy Griffith and Ernest Borgnine. Griffith died on July 3rd; Borgnine passed away six days later.

Type-Casting, And Two Greats Who Broke The Mold

Griffith grew up in the foothills of North Carolina and, although he was a musician, he became known as a country bumpkin comedian for his monologue, “What It Was, Was Football,” and the film “No Time For Sergeants.” He would also go on to be a Tony-nominated performer on Broadway, as well as dramatic actor in the Elia Kazan film, A Face in the Crowd.

Borgnine was originally known for playing a mean, sometimes vicious villain –“From Here To Eternity” and” Bad Day At Black Rock.” Type-casting is both a blessing and a curse for an actor; it means that you’ve been successful at what you do and producers and directors want you to do it again. Moguls risking tens of millions of dollars know what they’re getting. However, that can also mean that that’s the only kind of role you’ll get. You wind up essentially playing the same part over and over again. What’s most interesting to me, professionally, about both of these gentlemen is that they both broke out of the “type” that they had been labeled with and in doing so achieved their greatest successes.

Andy Griffith, of course, is best known as the steady and likable sheriff of Mayberry in his number-one rated TV show in the ’60s. Almost every episode would likely elicit a laugh or two from the escapades of his nervous deputy, played by the comedic genius Don Knotts, as well as a tear in the eye as Andy would lovingly point out to his son, Opie, the lessons to be learned from the boy’s latest mistake. In all probability the show was about a place that never was and people who never existed, but we wished they did. And every once in a while we would get a glimpse of a town or a funny character or a Dad we once knew. Interestingly, it was only when Griffith decided to play the straightman to Knotts that the show took off and became a success.

Working With Andy Griffith

Later Griffith took on yet another kind of role as a wily defense attorney in “Matlock,” and I appeared in two of the episodes. By that time he could make a show’s production come to him, so we did my first one in 1989 in Manteo, his home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In what some folks might consider another example of type casting, I played a not-too-bright local official who Matlock crossed up on the witness stand. The second time in 1993 I played a District Attorney prosecuting one of Matlock’s innocent (naturally) clients.

During these shoots, we sat around and a couple of us elicited a few war stories from Andy. He was beloved by everybody who owned a TV set in the ’60s and I was no exception. He was a genuinely nice guy but a little more standoffish than I would have thought. Even I, at my age, was expecting a little more of the Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, which aptly demonstrates what actors who play such iconic characters have to deal with. At the end of the day it’s a job and you have to keep the trains running –especially if you’re carrying the show. There’s limited time to reminisce or entertain those around you at the shop.

Borgnine, The Nicest Guy In The Business

I met Ernest Borgnine more recently. A couple of years ago we both appeared in a little independent film called The Genesis Code. I took it in part because the script called for a scene between us. While I loved his villain roles, he had long since risen above his stereotype and established himself as a versatile dramatic actor, starting with his role in Marty, a lonely butcher who wanted to be loved. It was a low-budget movie from which little was expected.

A bigger budget would have probably called for a bigger “name” actor. He wound up winning the Academy Award for best actor. He did countless movies after that and, of course, was the happy-go-lucky lieutenant commander in “McHale’s Navy,” (the branch he had actually served in for a decade).

When we did our bit together he was 93-years-old. He lived up to his reputation as one of the nicest guys in the business – one of those wonderful people who, when receiving a compliment, acts like it’s the first time they’ve heard it. He had a bit of trouble remembering some of his lines but, when he got it, it was vintage Borgnine. He knew better than most that in the film biz, regardless of the number of “takes” you need, you only have to get it right once.

Their Secret To Great Acting

Most of the old timers like Griffith and Borgnine came from real places, held other jobs and knew hardship. They also knew and appreciated how lucky they were. When I finished my first movie, I found myself seated on an airplane next to the late Charlton Heston and told him about my first effort. He smiled, leaned over and whispered “Don’t tell them how easy it is.” (He later campaigned all over Tennessee for me when I ran for the Senate.).

Actors like Borgnine and Griffith played reality so well because they had lived it. They understood the human condition. I think that’s why, although they could “play it mean,” it made them more gentle. That’s also why younger actors, the smarter ones, anyway, study the films and works of men like these, and read their biographies. And it’s why I consider having gotten to know some of them and worked with them to be a privilege.

- Fred Thompson