I was saddened by the recent passing of Andy Griffith. Of course I will miss his uniquely likable, reassuring presence; who couldn't feel sorrow that Sheriff Andy and Ben Matlock are with us no longer? But once upon a time--before "Matlock" or even "The Andy Griffith Show" ever aired--Griffith showed a completely different, and monumentally deeper, side of his talents.
In Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd," released in 1957, Griffith played Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, one of the most hateful characters ever committed to celluloid. From the beginning, when radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) discovers Rhodes in an Arkansas jail cell, to the end, when Rhodes raves maniacally in his New York penthouse, Rhodes is the ultimate mass-media con man. He fools all of America--and, for a time, even those closest to him--into accepting his Will Rogers facade, when underneath lurks the heart and mind of Joseph Goebbels.
Griffith reveals the successive layers of Rhodes' treachery with feral intensity as he persuades America to buy first a worthless patent medicine, then a worthless presidential candidate--both of course backed by the right-wing, big-money men who pay Rhodes' princely salary. Anyone who sees a parallel between "A Face in the Crowd" and the currrent political scene is free to do so; I will merely say that "A Face in the Crowd" is even more relevant today than when it was made 55 years ago.
Griffith's performance is frightening even today, and all evidence suggests that it even frightened Griffith himself. (According to Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies, Griffith was so immersed in Rhodes that he brought the role home with him--a situation that nearly destroyed his marriage.) In any case, Griffith never played a character like Rhodes again, although he did occasionally play a villain in the odd TV-movie. Griffith's last big-screen appearance was in Adrienne Shelly's "Waitress," playing a cynical old curmudgeon who turns out to be a softy in the end. It was nice to see him blend Sheriff Andy and Lonesome Rhodes, with the skill of the old master that he was.
The world lost a great dramatic actor when Andy Griffith pinned on his sheriff's badge and headed toward the fishing hole with little Ronny Howard. However, the world undoubtedly was happier to go fishing with Sheriff Andy and leave Lonesome Rhodes to rant by himself.