Excerpted from the book Andy Griffith’s Manteo: His Real Mayberry, which was published in May.
It was dusk, a gray-dog day surrendering to a cool sunset in August 2020. Island friends were taking me out on their wooden sportfishing boat, a 30-footer with clean lines, a vessel they took Andy Griffith out on when he grew too frosty-haired frail to take out his own boat.
They knew him well. They told me about enjoying drinks with him on Roanoke Sound, and we shared drinks as they wove stories about Andy. My friend at the wheel pulled out from his downtown Manteo dock and piloted the boat out of Shallowbag Bay, then cruised slowly north on the sound, rocking gently by a sandspit where Andy sometimes parked his buddy-laden pontoon boat (he hated to be alone, my friends told me) and fiercely competed in volleyball.
We cruised by Andy’s last big house peeking through the pines. It’s just south of the Waterside Theatre, the home of The Lost Colony outdoor drama, where it all began for Andy in the summer of 1947.
His memories of working in that play were the anchor to which he kept returning. During his six-decade career, he caught countless red-eye flights east from Los Angeles, headed home from the city where he made his living to the island that gave him that living. He’d sip drinks at night high above the lights twinkling on in thousands of heartland homes across the nation where lived his fan legion, first watching his namesake show on prime time on TV sets with rabbit-ear antennas, then in daily reruns on flat screens.
For the last leg of the trip, once he made it big, he’d catch a puddle-jumping small plane to his island, the sight of shimmering water and sand beaches fringed by pines always making his heart sing, the place that eventually became his full-time home.
As my friends told their stories and we rolled across the dream-drifting sound where Andy spent many of his happiest hours, the island’s barefoot legend was coming alive.
What was he really like? This year, 2022, the tenth anniversary of his death, that’s the question his fans nationwide continue to ask. We know him as the iconic Sheriff Andy Taylor of his namesake show.
Andy often said he was not Taylor, nowhere near as good as him, although there were parts of him in that character that, tellingly, bears his first name. In thousands of interviews, he sprinkled clues about his true self, sometimes speaking candidly about his artistic struggles and self-doubt. But he was never clear about who he really was, carefully keeping up his guard.
His closest friends on the island, who knew him best, joined him in the effort, mostly maintaining their silence after his death there on July 3, 2012. But by the summer of 2018, as I worked on another book concerning his island, I sensed something was changing. My sources began pulling out their scrapbooks, volunteering fascinating stories about Andy. I listened, spellbound. Andy’s island friends were finally ready to talk.
They wanted to set it right, to convey the true nature of this man who was a tangle of contradictions, separating the myth from the reality, as hard as that might be. He was a crack skeet shot and a hard drinker, and he was religious in his own way. He loved the gentle, slow-boat pace of the island, where he could pop in at a friend’s house and he and his buddy would break out their guitars and tall-boy Budweisers, porch-strumming and talking for hours. He was, by turns, good, generous, ornery and thrifty, and he often quietly helped underdogs like he had been. He demanded loyalty but was rarely cynical and often optimistic, retaining a wide-eyed, curious wonder about the world—and was sometimes, even into his last years, naïve. He could be humble at times but usually had to be the center of attention.
He was gentle and mercurial, by turns comforting islanders in grief and giving wise guidance, accidentally shooting off a shotgun in his island house and pounding his right hand so hard into a door of his California home that he broke it, causing him to appear in his show wearing a cast, his Sheriff Taylor saying that he’d hurt it in a scuffle with prisoners.
Andy was a chronic practical joker, once conning a local friend toward eating a horse-manure sandwich disguised as a hamburger. He loved anything with an engine and wheels, a child of the Great Depression buying up cars of that era and cruising around in them, even though some friends said he wasn’t that good a driver because he’d be looking all around, trying to take it all in. He jokingly tossed around words like “fag” but quietly stood up against religious leaders who preached against gay marriage because they hurt some of Andy’s closest friends who are gay.
He could party down with the best of the drinking Outer Bankers, occasionally downing a fifth of liquor in a night in his younger days, and study his Bible like the best of the sober Bankers, sometimes within the same twenty-four-hour period, just another pilgrim on the path. He loved singing gospel songs, and one year served as the choir director of Mount Olivet United Methodist Church in Manteo.
At other times, he would dock his pontoon boat at a popular soundside dive bar, the Drafty Tavern, to reload, with his friends, on pizzas and cases of beer, belting out “When the saints go marching out,” his twist on the old gospel song, as they lugged their bounty out to his boat.
He made people laugh and country-boy charmed them, onscreen and on the island. Sometimes the lines blurred, his close friends say, and it was hard for even them to discern the real Andy. But when he told them, “I ’preciate it” for small and big acts they did for him, they knew he was their real man.
He was a comedic genius, and, at times, a dramatic genius, but he left behind few public written words of his own. What I do know is that he was driven by the power of stories. At the start of his career, when he did his greatest dramatic acting in his film debut as Lonesome Rhodes in 1957’s A Face in the Crowd, director Elia Kazan forced him to crawl inside the skin of that tortured character and into the darkest parts of Andy himself. “It’s a tremendous performance,” Ron Howard told me, “but it took a toll on him.”
When he arrived on Roanoke Island in 1947 as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to act in The Lost Colony, he was a work in progress, hitchhiking around the island and bumming rides from friends because he lacked a car. He was restless and determined, open to all venues, having tasted what he could do at the Carolina Playmakers, which had, a few decades before, launched another hill genius out of the Old North State, the novelist Thomas Wolfe. Progressive Chapel Hill stretched Andy’s mind, but the island took that evolution to the galaxies.
It has become conventional wisdom to say his comedic breakthrough was his monologue, “What It Was, Was Football,” but that 1953 debut in Raleigh came after his real break on the island a year before. And the Raleigh appearance was engineered by one of his best friends from The Lost Colony.
The island, especially as Andy encountered it in the late 1940s, when the downtown Manteo streets were paved with oyster shells, is endlessly fascinating, with its ancient live oaks and yaupon trees, a grapevine stretching back hundreds of years, moody sound waters surrounding and a garden of stone on a quiet side street with eclectic gravestones full of their own stories. But most important to Andy were the human forces of creativity, his fellow actors and the locals who told him their stories. It was, he would later say, an “emotional draw.”
He met a people of daring dreams and found a way to tap into their watery ways and make them his own. He listened closely to islanders chatting and interacting and transformed it to comedic art, a style that was all his own. It was, like much of the best comedy, forged in the comedian’s own insecurities.
Andy was not especially book-wise, but he was rural-road smart and ambitious as all get-out, inherently recognizing three fellow actors who could ease his hurt with their art and launch his career, then repeatedly turning to them. He was fired up by the competitive spirit among the cast and by the sexual energy going on all around him, both among his fellow cast members and the locals. He absorbed the islanders’ risk-taking spirit, soon rolling the dice on Broadway and in Hollywood.
The islanders accepted him and gave him the sense of belonging he had long sought, damaged by being called “white trash” by a fourth-grade female classmate in his hometown, Mount Airy, in the North Carolina foothills. He was an only child with loving and supportive parents, a mother who taught him to love music and a father whom Andy said was a natural comedian in his own right.
But Andy had not felt that love from his town. “Once you have s—— on your shoes, you can’t shake it off,” he said in an unpublished 1982 interview with Outer Banks author David Stick. “You cannot get it off. But when I came here [to the island], I was in the same boat everybody else was… Everybody started from scratch here.”
He never forgot it, that boy who never saw the sea before he came to their island, eventually becoming one with the locals. He was there for them in sickness and health in many ways, ranging from securing a jet ride home from Texas for a cancer-stricken beloved to visiting with a sick buddy in Chapel Hill to singing at a friend’s wedding. “He did a lot of things nobody ever saw,” one longtime island friend, Della Basnight, said.
Andy poured lessons he’d learned on the island into his show. “If Mayberry is anywhere, it is Manteo,” he told Manteo author Angel Ellis Khoury for her 1999 book Manteo: A Roanoke Island Town. He also said, “Mayberry is not Mount Airy.”
Mount Airy annually draws thousands of visitors to its fine September celebration of The Andy Griffith Show, Mayberry Days, claiming to be the fictional town’s inspiration. Geographically, the show, with its foothills and lake references, was loosely set in Andy’s hometown. But Manteo, with its old courthouse anchoring downtown streets surrounded by modest businesses and cozy homes, was close on the town setting.
Most important, the overarching theme of supporting flawed friends—and strangers—and rarely judging them, even those on the wrong side of rigid laws, laughter into healing, is straight out of Andy’s heart and feel for his island, a vibe he never felt in Mount Airy. In a 1960 episode of the show, “Stranger in Town,” Sheriff Taylor ends the show with a powerful speech to his fellow Mayberry residents about welcoming a quirky newcomer and not judging him.
As Andy became a star, he broke his carefully constructed privacy to give back in a big way, becoming a powerful voice for Manteo’s revitalization and preservation, reeling in the governors who were his friends and the purse strings they controlled. He helped start the Outer Banks Community Foundation, assisting locals facing a wide range of problems. When Andy made his comeback in the 1980s on prime-time TV as Matlock, the flawed, funny and winning lawyer, he filmed a segment on the island to bring its inhabitants needed money, a glorious homecoming for him.
Later, to support friends who ran local grocery stores and fight a chain store coming in, Andy spoke out at meetings and did a commercial, free of charge, putting in hours of retakes to get it right, taking the production as seriously as he had his TV shows. He helped in a push to provide the children of Manteo with free internet access for their schoolwork.
Andy, while maintaining a California house for most of his career, remained centered on his Roanoke Island home, its people, and The Lost Colony. He and his first wife bonded in the play before marrying. Years later, he met his third wife through the colony, the one who would be with him until the end.
Summer after summer, night after night, Andy would anchor his boat at the Waterside Theater and pad barefoot up to the backstage, all long-armed and loose-limbed, his hair a stormy mess, cigarette in hand, thrilling young actors and actresses with a few words, encouraging them to go for it by the sound as he had, slipping off into the moon-cast water before the show started, not wanting to steal their limelight.
He inspired numerous Lost Colony hands, including North Carolina native Leon Rippy, who would go on to be a star character actor, most notably in his roles in The Patriot, Saving Grace and Deadwood.
For the Lost Colony crew and longtime Outer Bankers who would see Andy barefootin’ around Manteo town, he was the epitome of coolness, hard work paying off, blowing off steam with partying, Hollywood cool come home to see them. Long before Jimmy Buffett, Andy defined the fun-loving island locality way of life. When Buffett performed in Raleigh in 2014, two years after Andy died, he and his band played the theme song from Andy’s show, “The Fishin’ Hole.”
Andy, like many of his fellow islanders and his fellow Southern artists Hank Williams Sr., Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, with whom he starred in a TV movie, was frayed and forged by the tension between dreams of heaven and nightmares of hell in the Christ-haunted South.
Andy first dreamed of being a Moravian minister, then spent most of his career working hard and playing hard before, in the twilight of his life, doing gospel albums and ribald film roles that harkened back to the powerful promise he’d shown as Lonesome Rhodes and gained him a new set of fans—young ones.
He had long since tapered off hard liquor, but did not give up the white wine he loved, albeit sparingly, until near the end. Shortly before his death, he raised his hands in prayer and re-embraced his faith in a small church near his beloved Roanoke Sound. He was mourned by North Carolina governors, the president, and The New York Times.
His incredible rise from early childhood poverty drew clichés like “grit and determination,” and there was that, but there was nothing clichéd about this American original. He was deadly serious about being funny as all get-out in his own way, making big money with it, and giving back to his island. It is all true and all real and all Andy.
In his complexities, he was much like many of his fellow islanders: he wanted to be a good man.
John Railey, the former editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, is the author of The Lost Colony Murder on the Outer Banks.
Andy Griffith’s Manteo, copyright 2022, is reproduced with the permission of The History Press of Charleston, S.C.