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Television legend Andy Griffith dead at 86

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MANTEO, N.C. -- Andy Griffith, legendary star of television and music, died at his home on Roanoke Island Tuesday morning.

He was 86 years old.

Griffith was best known for his starring role in "The Andy Griffith Show" and in the legal drama "Matlock."

Before "The Andy Griffith Show" -- a piece of American TV history -- hit the screen, and before dozens of theater and movie performances, he was just Andy.

“He was about as average as any, any kid you would want to know,” childhood friend Emmett Forest said.

Born June 1, 1926, Andrew Samuel Griffith grew up in Mount Airy, N.C., the only child of Carl Lee and Geneva Griffith, his father a textile worker, his mother a homemaker.

“They were just honest, hard-working people,” Forest said.

Forest said that when they were fishing and telling ghost stories, there was no way to tell what was to come. It was in high school that Griffith found his calling.

“I was interested in sports. Andy was not interested in sports,” Forest said. “He was more into glee club and acting.”

But acting was a hobby for him. In 1944, Griffith went to UNC-Chapel Hill to become a Moravian preacher, but changed his major to music.

“Music was his first love,” Forest said.

It was a side job in music that got him noticed.

In the early 1950s, Capitol Records promoter Richard O. Linke was driving from New York to Florida when he heard “What It Was, Was Football,” a comedy monologue performed by the young Griffith.

Linke bought the rights for Capitol Records, paying Griffith $9,000. But the talent scout found so much promise in the UNC graduate that he quit his job and became Griffith's longtime manager.

“It wasn't an overnight success, you know," Forest said. "He started out in entertaining in rotary clubs, line clubs.”

With the help of his manager, it didn't take Griffith long to hit the big time, appearing several times on the Ed Sullivan Show and landing roles on the stage and the big screen.

On Oct. 3, 1960, "The Andy Griffith Show" premiered on CBS.

“Each episode had some moral in it, and most any more you can think of,” Forest said.

The storyline was of a single father Andy Taylor working as a sheriff in a small country southern town called Mayberry. His sidekick was a bumbling deputy named Barney Fife played by Don Knotts.

In 2006, Knotts died of cancer at the age of 81.

“The love between these characters was so strong and so great,” Griffith said. “It was so much fun. We were like children.”

It was during the show's eight-year run that a national phenomenon sparked.

When the program started, Griffith claimed that the town of Mayberry was not based on his hometown of Mount Airy.

However, if you watch the show, you get little hints of Mount Airy. One of the closest towns to the fictional town of Mayberry in the program was Mount Pilot.

In real life, Pilot Mountain is the nearest town to Mount Airy. Snappy Lunch Diner is mentioned on the show several times.

In Mount Airy, it's the town's oldest business. As a child, Griffith used to sit and eat those now famous pork chop sandwiches.

Almost 20 years after "The Andy Griffith Show" aired for the final time in primetime, Mount Airy took on that Mayberry charm.

Ninety percent of the town's factories closed and the once booming textile town found a way to survive with a multimillion dollar a year tourism industry,

“I say that we have a four letter tourist industry: A-N-D-Y,” Forest said.

A number of businesses changed their names while others transformed into places from the show.

Barber Russell Hyatt has seen a lot of people coming in and out of his business, renamed for the fictitious one of the show. Every inch of his walls is covered with photos of tourists and celebrities like Oprah.

“I tell you, I get all kinds of people. But by and large, I get great people in here from every state and eighteen foreign countries,” he said.

Hyatt used to cut Griffith's hair.

“I know the first time I cut it, I know he didn't like it," Hyatt said.

You can spend the night in Griffith's childhood home which is now a bed and breakfast. You can take a few pictures in the reconstructed Mayberry courthouse or go on a town tour in a Mayberry sheriff's car. You can do it all in Mount Airy.

And every bit of it is highlighted annually with an event called Mayberry Day.

“Once a year, we go back to our roots of Mayberry and it's just a great event to welcome people from all over the country to see what Mount Airy and Mayberry means,” said an event coordinator.

Griffith didn't make it home that often, but when he did, it was a day of celebration. There were parades with thousands of spectators and mob scenes when he dropped by the old high school to sign some autographs.

In October 2005, the town renamed a portion of the highway going into Mount Airy "Andy Griffith Parkway.”

His achievements were not only honored locally. Griffith earned many awards from the entertainment industry. In Nov. 2005, he even received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush.

After leaving his hit show in 1968, Griffith found his way to a number of made-for-TV movies and series that did not make it past the initial runs.

In 1986, "Matlock" debuted. Griffith starred in the hour-long drama as a criminal defense attorney who used his country style to solve crimes.

In the late 1990s, he went to work again on his original dream in life, music. He struck double-platinum with his first collection of hymns and won a Grammy.

Achieving many of his goals, life had slowed down for Griffith, spending most of his time on the North Carolina coast and making appearances for those "Andy Griffith Show" tributes.

In 2003, the cable network TV Land dedicated a statue of Andy and Opie from the show in a Raleigh park.

TV Land unveiled the same statue in front of Andy Griffith's old elementary school, which is now a theater called the Andy Griffith Playhouse.

Over the years, Griffith donated many of his keepsakes, such as his old guitar, postcards to his parents, and scripts from "The Andy Griffith Show."

But when it comes to the ultimate collection of memorabilia, Mount Airy is the place to go. He gave the majority of it to his friend Emmett Forest who set up a museum.

“I just thought that someone needed to record Andy's achievements,” Forest said.

He was a man with a good heart who made a good family man. He was the father of two. An actor, a singer, and an American icon, Andy Griffith's legacy will live on forever.

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