Andy Griffith was a proud country boy who defended his roots
You can call Andy Griffith many things: a genius, a great actor or Mayberry's finest. Just don't call him a "hillbilly."
Andy Griffith was an unexaggerated version of his character on The Andy Griffith Show. Besides both being named Andy, the actor and his character shared a similar love for North Carolina, they both had a twangy Southern drawl and were good-natured at heart.
While many actors needed to put in years of work to figure out who their onscreen characters were, Griffith already knew who his character was. That's because Andy G. and Andy T. were one and the same.
In fact, part of what made The Andy Griffith Show so popular was that Griffith felt familiar to the viewers at home. His character represented himself, his family, and his friends who all grew up alongside him in his small, country town of Mount Airy, North Carolina.
Griffith was proud of where he came from, and how he sounded, despite many critics assuming he was "uneducated" by the way he spoke.
Throughout The Andy Griffith Show's successful eight-season run, Griffith said he became sensitive whenever the phrase "country folk" or jokes about his Southern accent came up in interviews and publications.
But if there was one word that made Griffith want to fight on sight, it was "hillbillies." For Griffith, it was personal. It was his way of life people were poking fun at.
"Many people think that the character I play is one [a hillbilly] but he's no such thing," Griffith said in a 1961 interview with Daily News. "I portray a Southern country man."
While growing up in Mount Airy, Griffith said he had no intentions of becoming an actor, let alone the star we know him as today. He was interested in music so he learned to play the trombone and guitar, but in a small town like his, acting was far from his mind.
It wasn't until he started classes at the University of North Carolina that he met a professor who inspired him to start acting.
With an education, a charming accent, and some acting experience, all Griffith needed was a platform to show off his simple country lifestyle and defend those who were quick to be called "hillbillies."
"The people who live in hillbilly country of the South are hill folk," Griffith said. "They resent 'hillbilly' because it suggests a man with a coonskin cap, carrying a rifle. As a matter of fact, these people wear shirts, ties, and coats when they come into town."
"And don't think they're ignorant," Griffith added. "Many are college graduates. But even if they were illiterate — remember this: A fellow can be without book learnin' and still be intelligent."
Griffith said he wasn't sure why anyone would choose to live in a big city such as New York. In big cities, even the basic necessities cost too much or are limited. Griffith was all about the simple things in life, including where he chose to call home.
"Don't you big city fellers who live in New York snoot us Southern country folks whom you wrongfully call 'hillbillies,'" Griffith said. "We have it better than you. Life here is pretty tough. People down in my home fight the elements — ocean, water, and wind. You New Yorkers fight people."
His hometown was a huge part of who he was and who his character was on The Andy Griffith Show. In a 1961 interview with Longview Daily News, Griffith said being a small-town boy in a big city had some challenges, but it was worth all the trouble for Mayberry.
"Back in North Carolina where we live, we don't have bars," Griffith said. "We have a liquor store. Down there, you can't get as far away from home."
Griffith was never truly away from his hometown, or his family. They were always with him, and that's why his character was so familiar to us. He was. He was just like a neighbor, or a friend in your hometown.