You can trace Mayberry's roots back to Bill Idelson's Golden Age radio show
The Andy Griffith Show was an attempt to recreate the small-town lunacy of "Vic and Sade."
Before Ron Howard ever considered playing Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show, Bill Idelson was the young boy tapped to draw audiences into small-town stories on the radio show "Vic and Sade."
The year was 1932, and Idelson was 13. When his mom suggested that he audition for the radio show, he threw a tantrum because he’d already decided he was done acting, before he even hit his teen years. Little did he know that acting would remain a huge part of his life.
Eventually, his mom persuaded him to go to the audition.
When Idelson met "Vic and Sade" writer Paul Rhymer, he told the Chicago Tribune in 2006 that he instantly understood that Rhymer was "the most remarkable person I ever knew."
Considered one of the most idiosyncratic radio shows of the Golden Age of Radio, "Vic and Sade" was a comedy show that featured interludes about family life, including father Vic, mother Sade and their adopted son Rush.
Rush as a character was based on Rhymer’s childhood in the real world, and Idelson decided that day to join the program so he could get to know Rhymer by playing Rush, stepping right into his new hero’s shoes.
"Vic and Sade" aired from 1932 to 1946, becoming one of the most popular radio shows of its time, with millions tuning in. Avowed fans included celebrities like Cary Grant, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and famous satirical writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury.
But perhaps among the show’s biggest fans was Andy Griffith.
The year The Andy Griffith Show premiered was the same year that Idelson turned away from acting and started writing, including contributing 19 episodes to The Andy Griffith Show. Idelson said Griffith told him every chance he got that there would be no Mayberry if not for Idelson’s radio show.
The Chicago Tribune reported that "Andy Griffith repeatedly told Idelson that The Andy Griffith Show was an attempt to recreate the small-town lunacy of ‘Vic and Sade.’"
In the Sixties, though Idelson was probably best known for playing Sally Rogers’ boyfriend on The Dick Van Dyke Show, at the same time he was also writing for hit shows including The Twilight Zone, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Flintstones, Get Smart and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
He was so good, he won Writing Guild Awards for episodes of The Andy Griffith Show and Get Smart.
This set him up to do more writing on every show where writing mattered, including Seventies shows like M*A*S*H, The Odd Couple, The Bob Newhart Show and Happy Days.
But no matter how much more Idelson came to enjoy writing, he never completely stopped acting. You can spot him as Fonzie’s shrink in the Happy Days episode "A Mind of His Own" and a judge on The Odd Couple.
Carl Reiner, who worked with Idelson on The Dick Van Dyke Show, said Idelson was "a very subtle actor," which made him perfect for playing losers.
"He made no big movements and every time you cut to him you could get a laugh," Reiner told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. "He was so in-character, you knew he was a loser just by his attitude and his physical being – the way he walked and moved."
His understanding of subtle comedy helped him make his mark on TV history, first by inspiring The Andy Griffith Show, then by helping launch Love, American Style, the comedy anthology series that introduced audiences to Happy Days.
"The whole project started with a sense of doom and people telling us that an anthology comedy series with no running stars wouldn’t go,"Idelson told the Chicago Tribune in 1970. "And when we went on the air, it was a disaster."
The show nearly tanked because it couldn’t compete with The Carol Burnett Show, but once it switched times, it caught the attention of critics. That kept Idelson writing, and soon he started a popular TV writing workshop where he mentored the next generation of TV writers getting their start in Hollywood.
His unique handle on subtle humor started with his admiration for Rhymer producing the radio show "Vic and Sade," and looking back on the show, he counted Griffith among the type of fans who truly got what the show was all about. His description of these fans will strike home for anybody who fell in love with Mayberry:
"The impression I got is that there were three different levels of ‘Vic and Sade’ fans," Idelson said. "There were housewives who thought of it as a little slice-of-life, mirroring their own situation with a little humor. Then there were the people who were a little more hip, and they saw it as a kind of satire. Then there were the people who were really in the know who saw it for what it was: a deep inspection of the small-town human being and what happens to them."