This memorable Mayberry villain was actually a real troublemaker who did time in San Quentin
Meet Leo Gordon, one of Mayberry's most authentic character actors.
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Every now and again, The Andy Griffith Show would really dig its boots in and play around with its Western TV roots, and in the third season, "High Noon in Mayberry" tinkered with audience expectations of the classic cowboy shootout at high noon.
Because this was Mayberry, fans probably knew not to get too tense when the episode starts with Andy getting a letter from an ex-con that the Mayberry sheriff once shot in the leg. Since the ex-con took the bullet, he writes to Andy, he's lost almost all feeling in that leg, and he tells Andy that he intends to come to Mayberry to set things straight with the lawman who injured him.
For the most part, Andy's unfazed, but as you'd expect, this news gets quite the rise out of Barney, who spends the rest of the episode sneaking around behind Andy's back to provide protective cover for when the ex-con arrives. When the moment finally arrives, though, the ex-con, whose character name is Luke Comstock, doesn't come at Andy guns blazing, but with a polite knock on the door of the sheriff's home. Soon, they’re about 10 paces each apart, staring each other down across the Taylors' living room.
You’ve likely seen this scene countless times. It's a favorite TAGS episode at the height of the show's run, arriving right after we've met Gomer, who plays a hilarious sidekick role to Barney the entire episode along with the Mayberry jail's most familiar face, Otis.
But you may not have realized that Leo Gordon, the actor playing Luke Comstock, was one of the most authentic character actors to ever stroll into Mayberry.
You see, before Gordon was cast in this episode, he had played many menacing roles in movies. Having studied at the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts, he had the chops to pull of a wider range of roles — which he did, occasionally, get to play friendlier roles — but his piercing eyes and chilling voice made him too good a choice as a villain.
In the 1950s, one director even described him as the scariest man he'd ever met.
This wasn't just an impression, either. Between his acting studies and his acting career, Gordon was arrested for armed robbery. And just like in The Andy Griffith Show episode, he was wounded by police during the course of his crime, shot several times. He survived to see the inside of San Quentin State Prison, where he spent five years and gained a reputation as a troublemaker.
Once he got out, he got back into acting, but when he was cast in a movie that was being filmed at Folsom State Prison, the story goes that his San Quentin reputation followed him, and the prison tried to stop Gordon from being in the film.
The same director who said Gordon was so scary vouched for him until the prison conceded, and filming went off without a hitch. He continued acting in movies and on TV, appearing in shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Get Smart, Adam-12, and many more on through the mid-1990s.
In that way, Gordon's true story paralleled the plot of his guest episode on The Andy Griffith Show. In the episode, Luke Comstock also gets a second chance at going straight after getting shot by a lawman.
We learn this in the episode when a gun finally does get drawn, but it happens when Luke extends a shotgun to hand off to the sheriff. He explains that Andy may have put his leg out of commission, but in doing so, Andy triggered a series of events that caused the ex-con to get his life together. He returned to his studies, learning math and electronics. He turned everything around, running a successful chain of electronic stores.
So it turns out that Luke isn't vengeful. He's grateful. The gun is a gift. Peering through the window, all Barney, Gomer and Otis see is a five-fire alarm they need to put out, which of course they try to do in a fashion that’s as slapstick as humanly possible.