Andy Griffith explained how he made Matlock into a funnier version of Perry Mason
With a little help from his comedy partner Don Knotts!
The format of Andy Griffith's legal drama Matlock is pretty much snatched straight from Perry Mason. It featured Griffith as the titular defense attorney, who always manages to get the right guy to confess in the courtroom. But while the structure of each episode connects the two shows, Griffith said the character of Ben Matlock was not inspired by Perry Mason, but instead, the character just naturally came to him. He told the Archive of American Television, “I let my imagination roam. I never worried about the law. They said that Raymond Burr did, but I knew that somebody else was there to look after the law part. I just wanted it to be entertaining within that framework.”
While working on Perry Mason, Burr was famously dedicated to building his character into the moral pillar that remains his legacy. The actor would even work with directors to get the closeups on his face just right, so every twitch of his eye pulsed onscreen with the drama of a revealed red herring. Griffith took a different approach, because his background was in comedy, he wanted his character to bring a lightness to his courtroom battles. Griffith said, “I got in a lot of fights with the judges. I got in a lot of fights with the prosecutor, because it was funny.”
His attempts at adding humor to the show continued, eventually reworking scripts to get his character to read right. Griffith said, “I would orchestrate those fights often. I would get myself thrown out of the courtroom. Put in jail. Because it was funny. Hot dogs. This character loved hot dogs. That’s funny.”
And, of course, when it comes to adding humor to a show, there's no quicker way to do that than to beef up the comedic actors on your cast. That's why Don Knotts said Andy worked his former partner into the show, introducing Knotts as Matlock's next-door neighbor Ace Calhoun. Knotts said in an interview with Archive of American Television that Matlock was challenging for him as a sitcom star, explaining, "I wasn’t on it that much because the stuff that we had done together, you know, was strictly comedy and Matlock was not a comedy show. There was only so much we could do. We couldn’t go too far. We couldn’t do too much.”
For his part, Griffith was always willing to do a little more and go a little further. In fact, he said he barely paid any attention to the legal mumbo jumbo and focused more on Matlock being folksy. Of the legal consultant on the show, Griffith confirmed: “The only thing I learned from him is never to put my hands up on the judge’s table."
And you know who we saw plenty of putting his hand on the judge's table? Perry Mason.
He does it right there in the opening credits at the start of his otherwise extremely by-the-book show. Guess even Perry Mason wasn't perfect!
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Speaking of Perry Mason; it is probably my favorite series on METV (tied with Gunsmoke, and Svengoolie).
There are only so many ways to commit murder and so many motives. So, like with Columbo, the process became the focus. We understand the wheels working in Columbo's mind. And he picks over his clues. But an awful lot of declaration has to be done at the end of PM episode.
But it doesn't matter. That's the beauty of the series. RB kept that focus perfectly on PM. It's beautifully produced with so little they had to work with. We can count on a couple of fingers, the scene changes. The bad guy, the really bad guy, and the murderer. The rest are just whiners.
I loved it best when the principles of the cast had a personal reason for the case. When Della dragged in a poor soul. Or PM drove on the "wrong side of the street" just to prove his friend was innocent. I mean, did the character 𝙚𝙫𝙚𝙧 get paid?
RB's work ethic was amazing. I mean Shatner had studio accommodations. But I doubt he hung around at the end of a six hour week to "tweak" the camera angles on his facial muscles. And I love ST:TOS, don't get me wrong.
But RB gave a decade of his life to that character and that production. He was fortunate to have lived as long as he did, considering his physical challenges.
But he had fire in his soul for leaving a legacy.
Maybe it was the child he never had.
𝒷𝓊𝓉 𝒽𝑒 𝓌𝑜𝓃'𝓉 𝒷𝑒 𝒻𝑜𝓇𝑔𝑜𝓉𝓉𝑒𝓃
But Don was just an annoying neighbor. He had nothing to do with Matlock's law practice. Well, he bought a car, and that caused legal problems.
Billy was played by Warren Frost, who always seemed to have another role going while he was on Matlock. When he first appeared on Matlock, he was also a regular on another ABC series, Twin Peaks, co-produced by his son Mark Frost. Near the end of his Matlock stint, Warren Frost began his recurring role as Susan's (George Costanza's fiancee) dad on Seinfeld.