Going Home to Mayberry

updated 04/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Before there was Lake Wobegon, there was Mayberry, a cozy country Camelot tucked away in the North Carolina pines. Mayberry was that rare, sleepy slice of Americana where Bug Month was a big event, the known world ended at the county line and local eccentrics flourished like wildflowers. Beginning in 1960, millions of Americans escaped to that small-town Utopia by way of The Andy Griffith Show on CBS, enjoying the shenanigans of Sheriff Andy Taylor (Griffith), his adorable red-haired son, Opie (Ron Howard), lovable Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier), preternaturally nervous Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts) and thick-skulled Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors).

But after eight seasons (all of them in the Nielsen Top 10), Mayberry's natives grew restless. Griffith, in particular, was eager to work in films. So in 1968, leaving behind a show ranked No. 1, Andy Taylor married sweetheart Helen Crump (Aneta Corsaut) and bid adieu to Mayberry.

This week Mayberry rises again, when the TV movie Return to Mayberry airs on NBC, bringing together nearly all of the stars for a reunion. We find, among other plot thickeners, Andy Taylor returning to Mayberry to run for sheriff against none other than his former deputy, Fife. And Opie, married and facing fatherhood, is editor of the local paper. The only major characters missing are Howard McNear (Floyd, the barber), who died in 1967, and Bavier, now in her late 70s, who was too ill to leave a retirement home. "I didn't think the experience would live up to my expectations," says Howard, now 32, and Hollywood wunderkind director of such hits as Splash, Cocoon and Gung Ho. "But the feelings are still there."

With Hollywood touches such as a courthouse facade, a new Main Street sign and a plaque from a nonexistent chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, the town of Los Olivos, Calif, (pop. 350) has been transformed into fabled Mayberry. (The original series was filmed mainly on a Hollywood back lot.) For the stars the 19-day February location shoot is pure family reunion. They've kept in touch with each other over the years, but it's the first time they've all worked together since 1968. They greet each other with bear hugs usually reserved for long-lost relatives. "It feels like old home week," twangs Nabors, 52, who left the show in 1964 for his Gomer Pyle USMC spin-off.

"This was a family that we all grew up with." Adds Hee Haw star George Lindsey, 52, who plays Gomer's bumpkin cousin Goober: "They're going to have to bury me in my Goober hat." Indeed some 100 tourists, residents and passersby are straining for a peek at Griffith and Nabors as they shoot one scene. "I saw Bo Derek once, but nothing compares to this," pants one delighted middle-aged homemaker. "Today I'm a Mayberrian."

The stars gamely—and playfully—pick up where they left off, with Howard as the target.

"How's His Opieness?" teases George Lindsey.

"I thought you had to be 50 to get your name on a director's chair," joshes Griffith, who later is obviously pleased when Howard seeks his advice on how to play their first scene together.

The idea for the reunion was triggered when Griffith, Knotts and Howard presented an Emmy award together three years ago. "I was surprised at the amount of audience laughter," recalls Griffith. "We went out to dinner and talked about doing the reunion." Griffith found no holdouts among the large cast. "I think everybody would have been disappointed not to be asked," says Howard.

Reruns of The Andy Griffith Show still air on 73 stations across the country, keeping the stars ageless. In real life, of course, time has touched them all. For Griffith, now silver-haired and 59, revisiting Mayberry is particularly sweet. When the show ended, he had high hopes for a movie career. "I thought I was going to be hot stuff," he says. "Instead, I sat around the house for several years." He simply couldn't shake his country-boy label at a time when the nation was moving away from rural humor. Attempts to recapture the show in a Mayberry RFD spinoff, starring Ken Berry, failed after three years. Griffith survived on short-lived series such as 1970's The Headmaster and 1979's Salvage and later on made-for-TV movies such as Murder in Texas and Crime of Innocence.

Then one day three years ago, Griffith was suddenly stricken with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a crippling and occasionally fatal muscular disease that left him partially paralyzed for three months. "In a matter of hours, my legs were paralyzed," remembers Griffith. Few outside his family knew of his condition as he recuperated for six months through extensive physical therapy. Now fully recovered, his career is flourishing. He starred in 1984's Fatal Vision miniseries and recently was the sly-fox Southern lawyer in Matlock, a TV movie that could become a series next fall. "I'm working harder than ever," he notes happily.

At his side throughout his illness and just about every other moment these days is his third wife, Cindi Knight, 30, a former teacher and actress from Jacksonville, Fla., whom he married in 1983. (He and first wife Barbara divorced in 1972 after 23 years; his five-year marriage to second wife Solicia ended in 1981.) He and Cindi live on Bing Crosby's former two-acre estate in North Hollywood. When he is besieged by autograph seekers on the set, it is Cindi who moves in protectively. "It's a splendid marriage," says Griffith. "Our thrust in life is to bring joy to each other."

For Ron Howard, returning to May-berry is like revisiting a childhood home. He started working on the show when he was 6, and it was Griffith who first taught him how to fish. Later when the ambitious 8-year-old announced that he wanted to be a "writer-producer-director," Griffith and the producers gave him his first camera. "Andy was like a wonderful uncle to me," says Howard, 26 years and millions of dollars later. "He created an atmosphere of hard work and fun that I try to bring to my movies." Howard, of course, went on to star for seven years in Happy Days before he took up directing in 1982 with his well-received comedy, Night Shift. But to his 5-year-old daughter, Bryce, Andy Griffith reruns are "like home movies of Daddy," he reports. Adds Ron: "I'm very happy about the way I grew up, but I want my kids to know there are people who do things besides make movies and TV shows." To prove it, he has moved his children (besides Bryce, he has 1-year-old twin daughters, Jocelyn and Paige) and wife Cheryl, 32, out of their San Fernando Valley ranch house and into a Colonial-style home in affluent—and by Hollywood standards, very staid—Greenwich, Conn.

With his skinny body and tremulous voice, Don Knotts's Barney Fife was the perfect foil for Griffith's soothing, unflappable persona. Knotts, now 61, seems frail, but his manager strongly denies a recent report that the actor is suffering from a severe eye disease. Since the Griffith show he has worked in a string of TV and movie comedies such as The Shakiest Gun in the West and The Apple Dumpling Gang. For four years he played the frantic landlord on Three's Company. Knotts first met Griffith, a fellow Southerner (Don is from Morgantown, W.Va., Griffith from Mount Airy, N.C.), in the 1950s, when both were appearing in No Time for Sergeants on Broadway. After Sheldon Leonard, the Griffith show's creator, cast Griffith as the sheriff, Knotts applied to be his deputy. "Andy and I just clicked," says the modest actor, who won five Emmys as deputy Fife and lives in Beverly Hills. (His first marriage to Kathryn Metz ended in divorce; his second to Loralee Czuchna reportedly ended in 1983.) Taking in the activity, he grows momentarily pensive. "I've missed the place," he says quietly. "This was the best thing I've ever done."

More than any of the show's stars, Nabors may be most linked to his character. At the height of Gomer Pyle USMC popularity in 1966, Nabors was commanding $40,000 a week moonlighting as a nightclub singer in Las Vegas. But in 1978 he retreated to his sprawling Maui ranch and went into semiretirement. "I felt my career had peaked after Gomer," he says. "I didn't want to stick around for lesser work." He later appeared in the movie version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Tex as with old pal Burt Reynolds and in Stroker Ace. Yet, "everywhere I go people call out, 'Hey, Gome,' " he says, smiling that goofy Gomer grin.

In the white-frame Berean Baptist Church in Los Olivos, Nabors is ready to sing for the wedding of Barney and Thelma Lou. Dressed in his Sunday finest, Knotts walks down the aisle with actress Betty Lynn, who plays Thelma. When the couple kiss, best man Griffith beams through teary eyes. At the wedding reception in a streamer-filled barn, Sheriff Andy Taylor toasts "old friends," and the assembled raise their punch glasses in unison. "Those were the best years of my life," says Griffith later. For a few moments all is perfect again in the town where nothing bad has ever happened.

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