‘Matlock’: A Producer on the Show Had ‘Unease’ With Andy Griffith’s Bringing Too Much ‘Mayberry’ Into the Drama
According to a Griffith biographer, the show, which lasted nine seasons, became funnier, folksier, and for one of the producers a little too Mayberry as each season went on.
‘Matlock’ was built around Griffith
With the popularity of CBS’ Murder She Wrote, NBC saw the opportunity to build a similar mystery series around the former Andy Griffith Show star. The network’s president of entertainment Brandon Tartikoff assigned producers Dean Hargrove and Fred Silverman the task of creating Griffith’s next big hit.
In his biography of Griffith and actor Don Knotts Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show, author Daniel de Visé sums up the identity of the show’s lead character: “Ben Matlock is a venerable Atlanta defense attorney whose just-folks persona conceals a fierce intellect. He hates to lose almost as much as he hates injustice. He’s cheap enough to shine his own shoes, and sufficiently mercenary to shake down a client for his last $100,000.”
He invited many ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ friends to the legal drama
From the drama’s first season, Griffith began bringing on board his old Griffith Show friends.
Thelma Lou actor Betty Lynn played his secretary for four episodes in the first season. Griffith’s old sidekick Don Knotts played Matlock’s neighbor Les Calhoun in 17 episodes.
And his old on-screen (and real-life) flame Aneta Corsaut portrayed a judge on the series in a handful of episodes.
NBC even arranged a press conference to publicize the start of Knotts’ appearances in 1988.
“Don Knotts is the best comic actor I ever met,” Andy said at the time. “I play straight for him better than any man in America.”
The producer who grew concerned at the ‘Mayberry-ization’ of ‘Matlock’
When Griffith approached Matlock‘s producers about inviting Knotts onto the show for an undetermined number of episodes, one producer in particular was concerned, according to de Visé.
“Joel Steiger, who was taking over day-to-day business on Matlock, watched the creeping ‘Mayberry-ization’ with growing unease,” he wrote. “Andy seemed intent on re-creating his greatest television success on Matlock, even if it imperiled the success of his comeback.”
Steiger told de Vise: “He wanted to put Don on the show. I didn’t know how we were going to use him, because Don as a character could really only be Andy’s friend. We came to the conclusion that we would not use him in every episode. And we’d use him as a friend who stopped by the office, and stuff like that…I didn’t want to rip the show apart just to have Don in it.”
In the end, Griffith and Knotts agreed the arrangement wasn’t working and the former Barney Fife actor stopped his appearances on Matlock.