Not Just a Story, but a Lesson…
Families sit down to watch The Andy Griffith Show expecting not just a story but a lesson. The best Griffith episodes teach something – - about family, or friendship, or loyalty, or living well. It almost seems as if producers of the classic CBS sitcom set out to nudge the nation’s moral compass, although Griffith writers always denied any ethical agenda.
Some of the preachiest Griffith episodes were those that spotlighted Ronny Howard as Opie, because they allowed the writers to showcase Sheriff Andy at his most fatherly, dispensing paternal wisdom to his television son. In “Opie the Birdman,” Opie accidentally kills a bird and learns to take responsibility for his actions. In “Opie’s Hobo Friend,” Opie drifts away from his father’s influence, and Andy must reel him back in. And in “A Medal for Opie,” first broadcast on February 12, 1962, the sheriff teaches his son to find dignity in defeat.
Last week brought the Super Bowl, an annual ritual that yields arguably the biggest winner in all of American sports – - and also the biggest loser. The game produced two distinct story lines: the decisive victory of the Denver Broncos, and the brooding post-game performance of losing quarterback Cam Newton, who stormed out of a press conference.
Here, surely, was a moment for fatherly wisdom. A few days after the game, a Griffith Show fan named Richard Gilbreath craftily pasted Cam Newton’s face atop Opie’s body to repurpose a memorable scene from the season-two Griffith episode “A Medal for Opie.”
The Griffith story has Opie enter a local running race, dreaming of the moment when he wins first place and a coveted medal. Barney offers to train Opie for the contest; a hilarious montage ensues, with scenes of Barney manically jumping rope and huffing and puffing on his bicycle to keep up with Opie’s effortless trot.
Alas, for all his preparation, Opie loses the race, and loses badly. He wallows in his defeat. Andy finally sits down to counsel the boy, sulking on the couch.
“I don’t think it was very nice of you to walk off the way you did,” Andy tells him.
“I didn’t win,” Opie replies. “I didn’t win.”
Andy: “I know you didn’t win. But the important thing is, you was in there trying. That’s the important thing.”
Opie: “They don’t give you no medal for trying.”
“I know that. I know they don’t. And it’s nice to win something. It’s real nice to win something. But it’s more important to know how not to win something.”
“I know how to do that real good.”
“No, you don’t.”
The sight of Cam’s dejected face on Opie’s body underscored the essential immaturity of the quarterback’s reaction to a wrenching loss. To his critics, and there were many, Cam had displayed the emotional maturity of a seven-year-old.
“What might it look like if [Andy] could have a heart-to-heart with Cam Newton?” asked a Washington Post commentator. “[N]ow we know.”
Many news outlets noted Richard Gilbreath’s Facebook mashup, which has drawn more than nine million views. A few writers managed to identify the episode Gilbreath had excerpted.
“A Medal for Opie” is not, perhaps, one of the strongest episodes in the Griffith series, but it’s a worthy half-hour, highlighted by some classic moments.
The teleplay was written by Frank Tarloff but credited to one David Adler, a fictitious man who would pen nine Griffith episodes in all. These were the waning days of the McCarthy era, and Tarloff had been blacklisted. Executive Producer Sheldon Leonard gambled (correctly) that the sponsor and network would overlook the blacklisted writer as long as Leonard didn’t openly defy the censors by naming him. In his memoir, Leonard hinted that he had picked the “Adler” name from the phone book.
Apart from Andy’s stern speech, the finest moments in the episode come in a pair of skits performed by Andy and his deputy, Don Knotts, a comedy duo whose off-screen friendship is the subject of my book, Andy and Don. Andy and Don often wrote short sketches to pad out stories that ran short, which this one presumably did. The routines sometimes proved more enduring than the stories they framed. Two of their best bits wound up in “A Medal for Opie.”
Andy and Don loved to poke fun at Southern provincialism. In the first exchange, the deputy recounts a date with his unseen girlfriend, Juanita, a character who existed only as an imagined voice at the end of a telephone line.
“Last Saturday night I took Juanita to Mount Pilot for a Chinese dinner,” Barney says. “I didn’t even have enough to leave for a tip.”
“That right?”Andy replies.
“It was embarrassing. The waiter called me something in Chinese, it didn’t sound like ‘sport,’ neither.”
“You’ve gotta stay out of those high-priced restaurants, I guess,” Andy offers.
“It wasn’t high-priced. It was only 2 dollars and 75 cents.”
“Is that all?”
“Well, it’s a family dinner for one.”
The second routine offers a hilarious sight gag set on Andy’s front porch. Barney lays down, bends his knees and invites Andy to sit on the bottoms of his elevated feet, ostensibly to show Opie a leg-strengthening exercise.
“Now watch this, Op,” Barney says. “This’ll give you muscles like steel springs.”
Andy lowers himself onto Barney’s legs, which begin to shudder under his weight. A look of alarmed discomfort washes across his face. Finally, Barney can no longer bear it: “Andy, get up,” he says, his voice tensing. “Get up, you’re breakin’ my legs… Get up… GET UP!!!!”
They switch places. Now, Barney sits on Andy’s raised feet. On cue, Andy pushes off, and Barney flies off the porch and into a hedge.
The “Medal” episode is also notable for a curiously familiar musical number that plays during Opie’s failed track bid. Titled “Mayberry March” and penned by Griffith composer Earle Hagen, the tune was revived several years later as the theme for the spinoff Mayberry R.F.D.
Richard Gilbreath’s mashup is not the first time the didactic content of “A Medal for Opie” has been invoked for instructional ends. The story is a favorite subject for Sunday School, as evidenced by its inclusion in the spiritual volume A Way Back to Mayberry. “If we can learn from our losses instead of being consumed by them,” author Joey Fann obserbes, “then I believe the road to our championship will be a little bit easier.”
Andy plays the consummate father in “A Medal for Opie,” radiating genuine affection for seven-year-old Ronny as he embraces the boy and accepts his apology. Andy confided in Ronny years later that he truly regarded him as a surrogate son during their years together on the Griffith set.
“You gotta learn how to take disappointment. There could be more of them coming up, you know,” he tells Opie in the episode’s final act, as the sad violins play. “It don’t take courage to be a winner. It does take courage to be a good loser.”
–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.