An Invitation to Mayberry…
Woody Allen once said 80 percent of success is showing up. Had Art Spelman followed that advice half a century ago, it’s just possible we might be honoring him today as a celebrated alumnus of Mayberry.
Edward Arthur Spelman appeared one day on the Desilu set of The Andy Griffith Show in the midst of its celebrated run. He’s not certain of the date, but I put it in spring or summer of 1965.
It was an eventful time. Don Knotts was leaving the program after five marvelous years as Andy Griffith’s deputy and comedy partner, a relationship I explore in the new Simon & Schuster book Andy and Don. Producers were searching high and low for someone to replace him.
Art was a young flamenco guitarist. He was dating a woman who knew someone who knew someone, and he wound up visiting the Andy Griffith studio as an invited guest. It wasn’t long before he met Andy.
“And I played for Andy, and he liked it,” recalled Art, who is now 77 and living in Tennessee.
What follows is Art’s account of the months he says he spent as friend, confidant and protégé to Andy Griffith. I have yet to find a surviving member of cast or crew who remembers him; then again, after all these years, there’s hardly anyone left to ask. His account sounds plausible, and it matches my own understanding of events on the set in the months after Don’s departure.
Andy Griffith had a boundless passion for music. As a youth, Andy credited the trombone with delivering him from the sullen anonymity of a working-class existence in the North Carolina hamlet of Mount Airy. He later discovered guitar, and much of his early vaudeville act comprised guitar-and-voice parodies of folk ballads and hymns. Andy would remain fascinated with music throughout his adult career, using every opportunity to bring professional musicians to the set and frequently joining them in jam sessions. The most obvious example is the Dillards, the bluegrass combo that appeared in several Griffith episodes in the guise of hillbilly clan the Darlings.
Soon enough, Art found himself fielding regular invitations to visit Andy on the Desilu set.
“He wanted me to teach him,” Art recalled. “That’s why I kept getting the invitations. Every once in a while, when I went on the set, I’d pick up the guitar and I’d show him licks. . . . Every Friday, after the show, we would go and have a drink. I think it was Jack Daniels. He’d have a big bottle there.”
Andy went around introducing Art to his co-stars as his guitar teacher. Art was in Hollywood heaven. He played catch with Ronny Howard. He met George Lindsey and Jim Nabors, who, contrary to his celebrated sweetness, dismissed the young visitor with an indifferent glance.
Andy and Art spent many hours talking about music and fame. Art told Andy he was looking for his break. Andy observed, “You know, Art, somebody told me the definition of ‘break’ is the point where opportunity and preparation meet. You could have all the opportunities in the world, and all the breaks in the world, and none of it will do you any good.”
The secret, Andy said, was preparation. Andy would know: He had spent years perfecting his caricatures of Southern clichés before he hit it big in 1953 with a record titled “What it Was, Was Football.”
In time, Andy learned that Art, too, had talents beyond music. He was a big fan of Sid Caesar and had perfected an ensemble of comedic accents. Art was also a man of taste, and one night he left Andy deeply moved with a commentary on his past work with the great filmmaker Elia Kazan.
Art told Andy, “Your movie A Face in the Crowd was one of the best films I ever saw. That was pure genius.”
Andy looked startled. “You really liked that?”
“It was genius. I’m gonna tell you something: I think you should’ve got the Academy Award for that.”
Andy was floored. “Really?! Thank you!”
Soon, Andy was plotting to insert Art into his hit show. One week, he told Art he wanted to feature his guitar-playing in a forthcoming episode titled “Andy’s Rival.” The story had Sheriff Andy grow jealous of another man who seemed to be courting Helen Crump, his girlfriend. Andy wanted to reshoot a scene in which the would-be suitor impresses Helen with his playing, swapping in a close-up of Art’s hands playing the guitar.
The talk came to nothing. But then, Andy approached Art with a far more serious offer.
“Listen,” Andy said. “I don’t know if you’d be interested in this, but Don Knotts is leaving the show, and we’re looking for a replacement for him.”
“God,” Art replied. “What do you have in mind?”
“I like the comedy, the accents you do,” Andy said.
“Thank you,” Art replied. “But I’ve always considered Don Knotts one of the comic geniuses. What am I going to do?”
“Just do your usual shtick, your German accents and stuff.”
Art protested: “Andy, I don’t know what the hell I can do in terms of Don Knotts.” But Andy raised the topic again and again, and finally Art agreed to meet with some agents from the William Morris talent agency.
“I said I would,” Art recalled. “Then, I got scared to death.” He didn’t show up.
It’s hard to know how serious Andy was about casting Art as a character in The Andy Griffith Show. In any case, Andy never did find a suitable replacement for Don. Several comedic actors paraded through Mayberry and one, Jack Burns, spent several painful weeks as Barney’s would-be replacement. In the end, no one worked out, and Andy carried on without a sidekick.
After skipping out on the meeting, Art was too embarrassed to return to the Desilu studio. Some weeks passed, and he took a job as a courier. He showed up at Desilu one day to collect some film and ran into Robert Culp, the star of I Spy and an acquaintance of Art’s.
“Man, where’ve you been?” Robert asked. “Andy Griffith is really pissed with you.”
“What’s he pissed about?”
“Because you had an appointment and didn’t keep it.”
Art sat in his car, feeling sheepish. Then Andy walked up to his own station wagon and spotted Art, who was blocking his space. Andy glared at his erstwhile protégé as he asked, “May I back out?” He said nothing else.
Art eventually quit the courier job to play his guitar, searching for the point where opportunity and preparation meet. He found it, and he enjoyed a long and fruitful career as a professional musician. Last year, Art published a book about his memories of childhood in wartime L.A.
He never saw Andy Griffith again.
–Daniel de Visé for Classic Movie Hub
Daniel de Visé is Don Knotts’ brother-in-law and author of Andy and Don, a lively and revealing biography, and the definitive work on the legacy of The Andy Griffith Show and two of America’s most enduring stars. The book features extensive unpublished interviews with those closest to both men. De Visé shares a wealth of new information about what really went on behind the scenes, including personal struggles and quarrels. Click below to purchase the book on Amazon.