The actor behind Barney's cousin Virgil became one of Mayberry's biggest movie stars
Michael J. Pollard got nominated for an Oscar seven years after playing Don Knotts' awkward cousin.
In 1962, The Andy Griffith Show introduced Barney Fife’s cousin Virgil as an awkward kid who needs Andy’s help to build some self-confidence.
Although Cousin Virgil only appeared once, the character is memorable because we didn’t meet very many of Barney’s relatives on the sitcom, and the actor who played Cousin Virgil went on to become a major movie star and even unlikely sex symbol in the Sixties.
Michael J. Pollard started his acting career with TV roles in the late 1950s and early 1960s on shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Gunsmoke, Star Trek and Lost in Space.
Off-screen, he was a painfully shy hippie who spent years surfing couches before finding success as an actor at the end of the 1960s.
That’s when he got cast to play C.W. Moss in Bonnie & Clyde, a character based on a gang member named W.D. Jones, a real gangster who actually ran with the real Bonnie and Clyde.
The real Jones said Pollard’s depiction of him was accurate, saying, "Moss was a dumb kid who ran errands and done what Clyde told him. That was me all right."
Pollard impressed so much as C.W. Moss that he garnered an Oscar nomination for the role. And though he didn’t win, he went from earning $14,000 for the movie role to $150,000 for his next picture, and soon, a quarter million per picture.
By 1968, Pollard had made the leap that pretty much only Don Knotts had made, going from Mayberry to major movie star.
After Bonnie & Clyde, Pollard became, as one critic declared in The Des Moines Register in 1969, "the idol of young America." Asked whether he was surprised that he became a sex symbol, Pollard answered, “Nothing surprises me.”
Although he became especially popular with the ladies, Pollard was married to his second wife by the time he became famous.
He said they fell in love so instantly, she moved in with him two hours after they met, and they married very quickly after that.
As Pollard’s popularity grew, though, his shyness never really subsided, and soon, he was declining celebrity interviews "because of his basic shyness and timidity."
This timidity shrouded the movie star in mystery, with Pollard’s fans clinging to details released in limited interviews, where the actor mostly just talked about being a homebody.
"I usually keep myself locked in the house unless I’m working," Pollard said.
After finding success, Pollard bought a modest home in New York, preferring to live in a rougher part of the city with hippies and artists he could relate to, where he felt he blended in.
Through the Seventies, Eighties and early Nineties, he did anything but blend in, though, garnering attention on the big screen in roles across from major movie stars, from Robert Redford to Steve Martin. He also joined Harvey Korman on the cast of a short-lived Eighties sitcom called Leo & Liz in Beverly Hills.
By the early 2010s, he could still be seen featuring in movies and TV before retiring from acting in 2012, then passing away in 2019.
Back in 1969, his dream after becoming a big name in Hollywood was to direct his own movie, but his idea "about a guy who can’t tell the difference between reality and illusion" never made it to the big screen.
Perhaps he never directed the movie, though, because he changed his mind and decided he didn’t want to direct movies after all.
In his 1969 interview, Pollard tells his interviewer that he’s decided in the middle of their conversation that he’s going to stop giving interviews.
When asked why, Pollard said something very relatable: "You ask me questions, and I have to think about answers. Then you go away, and I’ll change my mind about a lot of the things I said."
"I change my mind at least 20 times a day," Pollard said.