Not Andy & Opie
Typecasting is a curious thing. For actors with limited talent, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, one that allows them to go on working long after they’ve overstayed their welcome. But for versatile actors who become known for a single kind of role and are forced to go on repeating it, typecasting can be tragic.
Andy Griffith, best-remembered as the grinning and wholesome Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, is one of the latter. One of his earliest and finest roles was as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957). Shot in the years before cinema switched to Technicolor, this film tells the story of a fast-talking country boy found in the drunk tank of the city jail by local radio reporter Marcia Jeffries (played by Patricia Neal at her droll best). Never without his trusty guitar, Rhodes improvises songs and humorous stories that touch a nerve with the local radio audience, and seemingly overnight, he goes from being a provincial curiosity to a national sensation.
With the help of a genteel businessman, Rhodes makes the transition to television and becomes something more than an entertainer. Immensely popular, he’s tapped by politicians and captains of industry to back a candidate for president. In a relatively short time, he undergoes a startling transformation from indigent to kingmaker.
But Rhodes’s story is not your typical rags-to-riches story: it is an analysis of power itself. Having decided to back Senator Worthington Fuller for president, Rhodes tells Marcia Jefferies that his audience is nothing more than a bunch of
"…rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers - everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don't know it, yet, but they're all gonna be 'Fighters for Fuller'. They're mine! I own 'em! They think like I do. Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em.”
While he achieves fame by becoming a comical parody of the everyman, Lonesome Rhodes also feels out of place in the world of penthouses and cocktail parties. After a night on the town, he walks onto the terrace of his expensive apartment overlooking New York’s Central Park. In his anguish, he fingers the shriveled frond of a potted plant and says “Can’t keep anything alive up here. Dust in this city kills everything.” It’s then that the viewer realizes that Rhodes is not a character – he’s a caricature, and that by converting himself into a parody of homespun wisdom, he’s neither hobo nor power broker. He’s a figment of the imagination conjured by the very audience he despises, and without their validation, without their love and approval, he’s nothing.
This weekend, take a look at A Face in the Crowd. It’s a film at once humorous and sad, light and complex – one that has survived the test of time remarkably well. After laying eyes on the calculated shenanigans of Lonesome Rhodes, you’ll never be able to look at Opie’s dad in the same way again.