Calvin Peeler wrote his way into Mayberry with a letter
Don Knotts was the only other actor to talk his way into a Mayberry role.
On the night of February 15, 1960, six decades ago to nearly this very day, Don Knotts was at his friend Pat Harrington's house playing bridge. The two actors had met working together on The Steve Allen Show, and now they were having a couples night with their wives and a card game. The network was about to cancel The Steve Allen Show, so Harrington was looking for work. He was hoping to land a role on The Danny Thomas Show, so at 9pm, he halted the bridge game and asked to turn on the television.
Harrington flipped on a rather special episode of the sitcom. The airing that particular Monday evening was "Danny Meets Andy Griffith." A rural cop, played by Andy, pulls over city slicker Danny as his family is driving through Mayberry. It was the pilot for The Andy Griffith Show.
Knotts knew Griffith quite well. The two of them had starred together in the Broadway production of No Time for Sergeants, as well as its subsequent movie adaptation.
The following morning, Don phoned his pal Andy.
"Don’t you think Sheriff Andy Taylor ought to have a deputy?" Knotts asked.
"That’s a hell of an idea!" Griffith exclaimed.
The rest is history. Knotts would become a television icon as Deputy Barney Fife. But he was not the only actor to talk his way into Mayberry. The other was a young boy living just over the border from North Carolina.
Jump forward to 1968. Calvin Peeler was a 13-year-old paperboy in Greeneville, Tennessee. He and his father delivered The Greeneville Daily Sun. Calvin not only brought the newspaper to subscribers, he read through it every day. He also enjoyed perusing the latest issue of TV Guide.
The July 13–19, 1968, issue of TV Guide featured a cartoon illustration of Sheriff Andy, Gomer Pyle and Barney Fife on the cover. "The Wondroud Andy Griffith TV Machine," the headline declared across the top. In particular, the cover story focused on Richard O. Linke, Griffith's talent manager who also happened to oversee the careers of Mayberry performers such as Jim Nabors, Ken Berry, Maggie Peterson and Ronnie Schell.
The article explained that The Andy Griffith Show was coming to an end, but the small-town characters would live in a spin-off title Mayberry R.F.D. Peeler wanted to be a part of it. So he wrote Richard O. Linke a letter.
"If African-Americans had previously appeared on The Andy Griffith Show prior to the time that I wrote the letter, I was not aware of that fact," Peeler told the Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club in 2019.
A black actor named Rockne Tarkington had a speaking role in one of the later episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, playing Opie's football coach Flip Conroy in the episode "Opie's Piano Lesson." Peeler was not aware of that fact at the time.
Peeler recalled the contents of his letter: "I expressed two concerns: my sadness and disappointment that the original show was scheduled to end and also my recommendation that they consider adding an African-American child character to the Mayberry cast." He penned the letter in green ink so it would stand out.
"Everybody calls me Little Peeler. I would love to be in show business," he wrote. "I am smart enough to make A's, B's and some C's."
A young college student named Nanci was tasked with reading Mr. Linke's mail at the time. She noted the letter and brought it to her boss.
The letter charmed Linke, who brought up the idea of bringing Calvin Peeler to Hollywood for a casting session.
Linke phoned the Peelers and offered to fly young Calvin and his mother to Los Angeles. First class. All-expenses paid. Calvin would still have to audition with the rest of the kids. His only acting experience had been in school plays.
The savvy Linke turned the event into a press opportunity. The media covered the human interest story of a young Mayberry fan who wrote his way onto the show.
Peeler got the part. He played a key role in the episode "Youth Takes Over" during the first season of Mayberry R.F.D. He portrayed a classmate of Mike Jones (Buddy Foster) and shared a cute scene with Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson). It would be Peeler's only Hollywood credit.
In 2019, Peeler became a special guest of honor at the annual Mayberry Days Festival in Mount Airy, North Carolina, Griffith's hometown. The event was called "Calvin Peeler - The Kid Who Wrote His Way Into Mayberry." He and Don Knotts can share those bragging rights.