Hal Smith faced a little backlash for playing Otis Campbell
"I enjoy making people happy as Otis."
One of the last things a fan of The Andy Griffith Show might expect to see happen on the show is a champagne toast for the town drunk Otis Campbell. Usually, folks prefer to keep Otis away from the bubbly.
But in the first season episode "A Plaque for Mayberry," they pop the cork for Otis to celebrate Otis, as the town has just learned he is a descendant of a Revolutionary War hero. For fans of Hal Smith, the funny scenes that follow form an indulgent tribute to the veteran character actor, featuring some of his funniest exchanges with Don Knotts.
For Smith, however, not everybody got the joke. He said playing Otis toyed with the public's perception of him as a person. In an interview heard on the TAGS podcast Two Chairs No Waiting, Smith even once said his young son got picked on during elementary school because other kids didn't know what to think of his dad, who as far as they could tell was always locking himself up in the Mayberry jail.
"They used to call him Little Otis," Smith said. "He didn’t really like that."
"When I took him to school, the other kids gave me funny looks," Smith added, explaining that he felt bad that his curious public image had blurred the lines between TV sitcom fantasy and actual reality for some folks in their own hometown. He said the confusion even introduced real tension at times.
"I was in a hardware store one time," Smith said. "My son Terry was with me. There was a guy looking through some nuts and bolts and stuff, and he looked up at me and said, 'Oh, you're the guy from The Andy Griffith Show. I hate you.'"
As in Mayberry, Smith said he rolled with the punches, and that the majority of his encounters were with fans who clearly understood the comedy of the classic TV character that made him famous.
"People today love the show and the character," Smith said. "It's unbelievable. They come up to you and want to hug you."
For his part, in the real world Smith had a reputation for going out of his way to be warm to the people around him, known behind the scenes for cracking up the cast of The Andy Griffith Show. Apart from playing Otis Campbell, Smith also became well-known as a voice actor. His reputation as Otis Campbell followed him there, too. "Hal Smith was Otis the town drunk on The Andy Griffith Show," said Barbara Donatelli in an interview for the book Think Pink! The Story of DePatie Freleng.
Donatelli said that’s how she knew him in her early days working in the animation department for the 1970s cartoon Doctor Dolittle. For that show, Smith voiced Tommy Stubbins, the boy who becomes Doctor Dolittle's assistant. But behind the scenes, Donatelli said Smith made time to make her laugh, too, even though she played such a minor part in the production.
"My function was to gather the scenes and all the backgrounds and transport them over to the camera service," Donatelli said. "That was at night. I had a little room outside the camera department and across from Ink and Paint. Hal Smith would come in and stick his head in and he would always tell me that I looked like Cher. At that time, my dark brown hair was long and I did resemble Cher — a shorter version of Cher. He would always come in and tease me about it. He was the sweetest man. It was really nice of him to come in and tease me like that."
So the lovable part of Otis Campbell's character absolutely checks out, if the kids who picked on Terry Smith in elementary school happen to be reading this post and still wonder if his dad Hal Smith was anything like his Mayberry character.
The important thing to Smith remained how connected he continued to feel with The Andy Griffith Show fans through time. "I enjoy making people happy as Otis," Smith said.
We enjoy it, too, and it’s our favorite reason to toast to Otis when you re-watch "A Plaque for Mayberry."