The success of Matlock’s TV movie pilot convinced Andy Griffith to return to his first regular TV role in years
It scored high ratings and showed that audiences were ready to see a new side of the beloved actor.
In the 1950s, Andy Griffith was a favorite late night show guest performing his brand of southern-fried humor. He soon won roles in movies like A Face in the Crowd and No Time for Sergeants.
Danny Thomas cast Griffith as Mayberry sheriff Andy Taylor in a seventh season episode of The Danny Thomas Show in early 1960 and by that fall, The Andy Griffith Show was born. The small-town sitcom would go on to be one of television’s most beloved programs, still entertaining millions of fans to this day.
But the more popular a first show is, the harder it can be for a lead actor to repeat that success. Audiences only see them as one character and attempts to do less conventional work can be met with resistance.
When Andy Griffith left Mayberry behind, he went into darker, but still funny, territory with the short-lived prep-school series Headmaster. The failure of that series morphed into The New Andy Griffith Show which didn’t fare much better.
After these two ratings flops, Griffith stuck mostly to guest starring roles in shows like The Mod Squad, Hawaii Five-O and Here’s Lucy. He also appeared in many acclaimed miniseries during the late 1970s like Washington: Behind Closed Doors, Centennial and From Here to Eternity.
In 1979, he headlined another sadly short-lived show about a space-traveling junkman called Salvage 1. It seemed as if Griffith’s only long-lasting success on television would be his time in Mayberry, even if he had a lot more to give.
Griffith continued to make special appearances on shows like Fantasy Island and The Love Boat, and even had a cameo on Saturday Night Live when Ron Howard hosted in 1982. He also starred in many TV movies.
One of those movies from March 1986 was called Diary of a Perfect Murder. Griffith starred as a defense attorney who joins his daughter, Charlene, in Atlanta to defend a famous TV reporter charged with murder. They enlist the help of investigator Tyler Hudson, much to the chagrin of police lieutenant Frank Daniels. And, of course, Griffith’s character was named Ben Matlock.
The movie was a resounding success with both critics and audiences. Andy Griffith was the perfect person to play the clever and theatrical lawyer, a part very different from Sheriff Andy but still full of Griffith’s trademark charm. He even said it was the best role he ever played on TV. Sixties stars returning to TV courtrooms was becoming a theme – Raymond Burr had just brought back Perry Mason the year before and would star in over 20 TV movies as the iconic attorney stretching into the Nineties.
Just like the introduction of Mayberry on The Danny Thomas Show before The Andy Griffith Show debuted in October 1960, Diary of a Perfect Murder led to the debut of Matlock in the fall of 1986. It was the start of nine successful seasons for the classic court drama.