Andy Griffith was unexpectedly brilliant in his TV movies, playing killers, sociopaths and alcoholics

He may be best known as the Sheriff of Mayberry and Matlock, but the actor portrayed a fantastic villain, too.

Image: The Everett Collection

For many, it's hard to separate Andy Griffith from his iconic role on The Andy Griffith Show. Andy Taylor seems to be just like Andy Griffith, and Andy Griffith seems to be just like Andy Taylor. His sitcom role as the wholesome, moral sheriff of Mayberry, coupled with his breakout performance of "What It Was, Was Football," made the North Carolina native the epitome of folksy Southern charm. Griffith seemed like the best celebrity to sit with on a front porch, sipping lemonade.

That being said, his acting career demonstrated surprising range. He could be just as brilliant playing a man wrestling with demons. In his first lead role, the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, Griffith portrayed a sudden celebrity who becomes drunk on power and fame.

After wrapping production on The Andy Griffith Show, the star repeatedly tried to get another series off the ground in which he played a sheriff. Griffith played policeman Abel Marsh in a few TV movies, including Deadly Game and The Girl in the Empty Grave.

As those pilots failed again and again to become series, Griffith began playing more and more wicked characters in the 1970s. Here are some of the dark roles he filled later in his career.

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1. Pray for the Wildcats (1974)


William Shatner and Robert Reed portray two ad men trying to sell a demented businessman, played by Griffith, on a campaign shot in Baja California. To seal the deal, Griffith demands they all take a wild dirt bike ride through the desert. When the men roll their motorbikes to the edge of a bluff overlooking the ocean, they spy two naked hippies skinny dipping in the surf. "That's what I call real scenery!" Griffith proclaims. In the end, after trying to drive Shatner over a cliff, Griffith plummets to his own death atop his cycle. We're a far way from the fishing hole here.

Image: ABC

2. Savages (1974)


Months later, Griffith played another psychopath in the desert. His character in Savages, Horton Madec, accidentally shoots a prospector then tries to eliminate the only witness, a young gas station attendant (Sam Bottoms). It's a game of rattlesnake and mouse in an arid landscape. In the end, the mouse wins. Bottoms nails Griffith with a slingshot.

Image: The Everett Collection

3. Street Killing (1976)


Griffith was at least on the other side of the law in this failed pilot. The script was originally for a show titled For the People, a.k.a The D.A. That being said, Griffith was still cast against type, playing a hard-nosed district attorney in New York City who takes on the mob. And Barney Fife thought Raleigh was the big city!

Image: The Everett Collection

4. Murder in Texas (1981)


As hard as it is to believe, Griffith received just one Emmy nomination in his career. Even more unfathomable is that it was for this TV movie, featuring Farrah Fawcett and Sam Elliott. Based on a true story, Murder in Texas centers around the mysterious death of a plastic surgeon's wife, played by Fawcett. Her father (a strong willed Griffith), suspicious of the wealthy doctor (a deliciously sinister Elliott) who quickly remarried, makes it his mission to prove his former son-in-law's guilt.

Image: The Everett Collection

5. Murder in Coweta County (1983)


Griffith is a little deeper south than Mayberry in this Georgia-set thriller. In a flip on expectations, the Man in Black himself, outlaw country legend Johnny Cash, headlines as the heroic and incorruptible Sheriff Lamar Potts. He butts heads with a sociopathic tyrant from the next county over. That would be Griffith, in one of his most chilling performances. Frankly, it's a little shocking to see Andy strapped to an electric chair. The TV movie was based on a true crime in the 1940s, the first instance in Georgia in which a white man was given the death sentence upon the testimony of two black men. 

Image: The Everett Collection

6. Crime of Innocence (1985)


A couple years later, Griffith was back on the other side of the law, playing Judge Julius Sullivan. Sounds honorable, right? Not quite. He is a malicious judge who sentences two teenage suburban joyriders to jail. The girls are raped behind bars, leading their families to seek justice. "The assault… the indifference!" the trailer sleazily teased, cutting to a shot of Griffith on the "indifference." Griffith masterfully crafts a particularly despicable character in this role, which was again based on a true story.

Image: CBS

7. Under the Influence (1986)


A young Keanu Reeves starred alongside Griffith in this appropriately somber look at the ravages of alcoholism on a family. Griffith portrays the drunk patriarch with a profoundly negative influence on his son, played by Reeves. It proved to be an early breakout performance for Reeves, hitting the small screen the same year River's Edge made his name on the big screen. It's fascinating to watch the passing of the torch between two generations, a few years before Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.

Image: The Everett Collection

8. Gramps (1995)


The title hints at some kind of treacly Hallmark hug-fest. Heck, the movie even opens with a picture of Griffith's character fishing with his son, in an obvious nod to Mayberry. But Gramps is far closer to Alfred Hitchcock Presents than The Andy Griffith Show. He sets fire to a house, breaks a housekeeper's legs with a baseball bat, and frames his daughter-in-law for cheating. Griffith and John Ritter elevate the psycho-grandpa script.

Image: The Everett Collection



The versatile Andy also played bad guys in kids movies… and won a Gospel Grammy. READ MORE

Image: Buena Vista Pictures

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DeborahRoberts 12 months ago
He was brilliantly despicable under Elia Kazan's direction in "A Face in the Crowd." I recently read the book on which "Murder in Texas" is based and watched the film on YouTube. Whether Griffith's character was a bad guy is debatable.

Another great role for Andy was the prosecutor in the miniseries "Fatal Vision," about the Jeffrey MacDonald murders in North Carolina. That part brought him to the attention of network execs who thought he'd be great in a legal show, though they wanted him to play a defense attorney rather than a prosecutor. "Matlock" came soon after.
User1982 12 months ago
Does anyone recall the name of a TV movie he stared in about about a local mailman that was also the small town bully ? Would really like to see that again.
KyrilaScully 45 months ago
You forgot his dramatic role in FACE IN THE CROWD with Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau. I think it shows Andy Griffith was as good an actor as Marlon Brando.
Kiyone57 KyrilaScully 32 months ago
This article is about his TV movies. Face in the Crowd was a theatrical release.
Beta6 53 months ago
I am not surprised. In my opinion...others likely won't agree I am sure, Griffith's ability to do acting in a darker vein was also shown in The Andy Griffith Show occasionally. His, to me, extreme stern behavior toward Opie about Mr. McFeebie, and about the bird who was accidentally killed was shown on his face toward Opie. Just a TV show, I know. Only speaking of his excellent acting. A bit strong toward a child I thought occasionally-- to me.
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