Andy Griffith explained how he made Matlock into a funnier version of Perry Mason
With a little help from his comedy partner Don Knotts!
Images: The Everett Collection
The format of Andy Griffith's legal drama Matlock is pretty much snatched straight from Perry Mason. It featured Griffith as the titular defense attorney, who always manages to get the right guy to confess in the courtroom. But while the structure of each episode connects the two shows, Griffith said the character of Ben Matlock was not inspired by Perry Mason, but instead, the character just naturally came to him. He told the Archive of American Television, “I let my imagination roam. I never worried about the law. They said that Raymond Burr did, but I knew that somebody else was there to look after the law part. I just wanted it to be entertaining within that framework.”
While working on Perry Mason, Burr was famously dedicated to building his character into the moral pillar that remains his legacy. The actor would even work with directors to get the closeups on his face just right, so every twitch of his eye pulsed onscreen with the drama of a revealed red herring. Griffith took a different approach, because his background was in comedy, he wanted his character to bring a lightness to his courtroom battles. Griffith said, “I got in a lot of fights with the judges. I got in a lot of fights with the prosecutor, because it was funny.”
His attempts at adding humor to the show continued, eventually reworking scripts to get his character to read right. Griffith said, “I would orchestrate those fights often. I would get myself thrown out of the courtroom. Put in jail. Because it was funny. Hot dogs. This character loved hot dogs. That’s funny.”
And, of course, when it comes to adding humor to a show, there's no quicker way to do that than to beef up the comedic actors on your cast. That's why Don Knotts said Andy worked his former partner into the show, introducing Knotts as Matlock's next-door neighbor Ace Calhoun. Knotts said in an interview with Archive of American Television that Matlock was challenging for him as a sitcom star, explaining, "I wasn’t on it that much because the stuff that we had done together, you know, was strictly comedy and Matlock was not a comedy show. There was only so much we could do. We couldn’t go too far. We couldn’t do too much.”
For his part, Griffith was always willing to do a little more and go a little further. In fact, he said he barely paid any attention to the legal mumbo jumbo and focused more on Matlock being folksy. Of the legal consultant on the show, Griffith confirmed: “The only thing I learned from him is never to put my hands up on the judge’s table."
And you know who we saw plenty of putting his hand on the judge's table? Perry Mason.
He does it right there in the opening credits at the start of his otherwise extremely by-the-book show. Guess even Perry Mason wasn't perfect!