Some Credit, Please, for Aunt Bee…
A reader named Larry posed an interesting question by e-mail the other day: Why wasn’t Frances Bavier‘s name listed on the opening credits of The Andy Griffith Show?
Why not, indeed? Frances was one of only three Griffith Show regulars who stuck with the show from beginning to end, an eight-year run. A quick check of the Internet Movie Database reveals that Frances appeared in more Griffith episodes (177) than any other cast member save two: Ronny (210) and Andy himself (249). Frances also performed in 25 episodes of Mayberry R.F.D., the sit-com sequel that replaced the Griffith Show in 1968 and ran for three more years. She was, in the end, the most enduring Mayberry character of them all.
Anyone familiar with the show will recall those credits and the warm announcer’s voice that rang in each episode: The Andy Griffith Show. Starring [Surprise!] Andy Griffith. With Ronny Howard. Also starring Don Knotts.” (Click here for an example.) As far as I can tell, those credits endured, more or less without interruption, for the duration of Don Knotts’ five-year tenure on the show.
But the first season of Griffith brought one fascinating exception, which I discuss in my new Simon & Schuster book, Andy and Don. The arrival of Elinor Donahue in Episode Four briefly upended the status quo: Ellie’s name suddenly turned up in the opening announcements, inserted between Ronny’s and Don’s, no doubt to Don’s dismay. (Click here.) Then, two episodes later, Ellie was gone, banished from the announcer’s roster altogether, although not from the show. Sadly, Ellie’s tenure as the program’s female lead would be short-lived, as the hoped-for chemistry between Ellie and Andy never materialized.
Aunt Bee’s first appearance, “The New Housekeeper” (The Andy Griffith Show, Season One, 1960)
By Season Six, Don was gone and the Griffith Show was in color. The new credits removed the announcer’s voice and inserted Aunt Bee, finally, into the roster of Griffith stars. (Click here to see.) To the best of my knowledge, those credits held through the final Griffith episode in spring 1968. Frances even won an Emmy in 1967 for her work as Aunt Bee, the only Griffith actor apart from Don Knotts to be so honored.
What factors, then, determined whose name would appear in the Griffith Show credits? Andy, Ronny and Don all were series regulars – - but so was Frances. Why, then, was she omitted from the credits for five full years? And what about George Lindsey, who appeared in 86 episodes between 1964 and 1968, or Jim Nabors, who rarely missed an episode during his brief run on the show?
I asked Richard Kelly, author of the definitive book The Andy Griffith Show, if he knew the reason for Frances’ omission from the credits. He did not. “Perhaps a touch of 1960’s sexism?” he mused.
I asked Neal Brower, author of Mayberry 101, a close analysis many classic Griffith stories. Neal, in turn, asked Bruce Bilson, who served as assistant director of the Griffith Show in its early seasons. (I quote Bruce extensively in my book.) Bruce told Neal that “the names mentioned in the opening credits were determined by the contracts the actors signed with the series.” Perhaps Frances didn’t have the Hollywood clout to merit a mention in the credits, or maybe she just didn’t care.
If contracts and clout determined whose names would be read at the opening of the Griffith Show, it’s easy to guess why Ronny Howard and Don Knotts edged out their co-stars. Ronny Howard was a coveted child actor, and Griffith creator Sheldon Leonard made a hard sell to persuade the Howards that Ronny should join the Griffith cast; perhaps a promise of Ronny’s name — and face — in the credits was part of the deal. As for Don, I recount in my book how Sheldon moved swiftly to sign a long-term contract with Andy’s deputy after watching the dailies from the very first episode, which revealed an immediate and powerful chemistry between Andy and Barney.
As for Frances: After Don’s departure, Griffith producers were looking to Bee and Opie to pick up some of the creative slack. Perhaps they decided it was time to honor Frances, finally, for her tireless service to Mayberry.
–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.