Andy at the movies: the 5 best Andy Griffith performances on the big screen

He played characters miles and miles away from Mayberry.

Andy Griffith played the perfect principled Southern gentleman on both The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock. But the man had range. Between those two long-running roles, Griffith portrayed killers, a space adventurer, an educator, military brass, a helicopter pilot sidekick to the Bionic Woman, a grifter and more.

He was a regular presence on the small screen, from The Danny Thomas Show to Dawson's Creek. What goes overlooked is his body of work on the big screen. While he made several TV movies, his cinema credits are comparatively slim. But these handful of roles showed off just as much range, if not more. He could do unhinged comedy or dark, troubled characters. And, yeah, of course he played a perfect Southern gentleman, too.

Here are the highlights of Griffith's film career. All fans should seek out these juicy performances.

1. A Face in the Crowd (1957)

The mid-'50s seemed to offer Griffith a fork in his career path. His folksy comedy record, "What Is Was, Was Football," moved almost a million units, and the comedy routine got him air time on the networks. Meanwhile, he was filming a dark moral tale about celebrity and political power, directed by Elia Kazan. In A Face in the Crowd, a hard-drinking, womanizing drifter from the Ozarks (Griffith) is plucked from obscurity. He rises to fame through a charming act that hides a monstrous personality behind the scenes. The more power and fame he achieves, the more isolated he becomes, in a story that is shockingly prescient of our modern reality TV era.

Image: The Everett Collection

2. No Time for Sergeants (1958)

Griffith perhaps had the option of pursuing comedy or dramatic film roles in 1957. A year later, this success helped cement his image as an amiable good ol' boy. He plays Will Stockdale, a naive Air Force private from the countryside. The role would heavily influence future TV character Gomer Pyle. Just as importantly, No Time for Sergeants showcased Griffith's comedic chemistry with Don Knotts, in material that lovingly, tactfully poked fun at rural folk. In other words, The Andy Griffith Show in many ways truly begins here.

Image: The Everett Collection

3. Hearts of the West (1975)

Judging by his recent roles, Jeff Bridges has always yearned deep down to be a grizzled cowboy. His work puts this early, overlooked film in an interesting light. Here, Bridges plays a young Western writer who heads to Hollywood in the 1930s, where he ends up in pictures. Along the way, he gets tangled up with some crooks. Meanwhile, a veteran character actor (Griffith) steals one of his manuscripts and tries to pass it off as his own. It's a pleasant, lighthearted film with a light punch, but everyone seems to be having a grand old time. They don't make 'em like this anymore, do they?

Image: Warner Bros.

4. Spy Hard (1996)

His dark roles might have shocked Aunt Bee, but no Griffith gig perplexed quite like this 1996 parody film starring Leslie Nielsen. After the success of The Naked Gun series, Nielsen turned his slapstick approach to James Bond. Unlike the police procedural parodies of The Naked Gun, this was far more well-worn territory. Get Smart had done the same thing decades earlier. Nevertheless, the casting was rather inspired. Dressed like Napoleon in space and sporting robotic arms, Griffith was the villain, General Rancor. In the end, the silly and sadistic Rancor loses his bionic arms, has cement blocks piled on his head, fights Hulk Hogan (sort of) and is launched into space. Proof that Griffith was game for anything.

Image: The Everett Collection

5. Waitress (2007)

In one of his final roles, Griffith returned to his roots — playing a sweet elder gentlemen in the Deep South. In many ways, his "Old Joe" character in Waitress is a Mayberry denizen. He's a regular at Joe's Diner, where he heads on Wednesday for a slice of heavenly strawberry-chocolate pie. It's a minor role, but who better to set the tone? Putting him in the movie is instant Southern charm. Otherwise, it'd be like trying to make a pie without sugar.

Image: The Everett Collection

SEE MORE: Ranking the top 5 Don Knotts movies

Andy's buddy had a bigger career on the big screen. So we count down a handful of Knotts comedies. READ MORE

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