Viewers wouldn’t know it by watching Andy Griffith’s initial performances on the legal drama Matlock, but the actor was in great physical pain.
The former Andy Griffith Show star hid his discomfort, pushing through the aches and eventually reaping the reward of his persistence and determination to keep working regardless of his affliction.
The role of Matlock was created just for Griffith
One of Matlock‘s producers and writers, Dean Hargrove was part of the team that put together the character of Benjamin Matlock, fashioned just for Griffith.
“Andy was a remarkable actor. They had never really given him his due,” Hargrove told Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show author Daniel de Visé.
According to de Visé, Hargrove patterned Matlock’s character after “colorful Southern defense attorneys, men such as Percy Foreman” who won hundreds of death penalty cases.
“He always got his money in advance,” Hargrove said of Foreman. “He once saw a woman in a restaurant who owed him money, and he ripped the necklace off her neck.”
Griffith relished the idea of playing a character as nuanced and interesting as the cantankerous lawyer and signed on.
When he accepted the role of ‘Matlock’, Griffith wore leg braces
Shortly after his 1983 wedding to Cindi Knight, Griffith according to the biographer, “contracted a flu.”
After the flu had passed, Griffith described experiencing a pain that was “terrible, searing,” that “ricocheted through my entire body.” He was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition affecting nerves, resulting in extreme pain and paralysis.
“Doctors told him they could do nothing: ‘You’ve got to ride it out.’ Andy found the pain ‘so consuming that there was nothing else in my life.’” It took Griffith a year of physical therapy and learning to manage the pain before he began to recover.
After his recuperation was well under way, he was offered the lead role on the NBC courtroom mystery and drama. It was the lifeline he was waiting for and the star grabbed it. Despite his progress physically, Griffith still wore leg braces, hiding them under his boots.
‘Matlock’ invigorated Griffith and helped him put away the metal leg supports
Griffith was grateful for his new role and the steady work it provided, and felt especially so towards Hargrove for his part in “turning his career around.”
“He was enormously appreciative,” Hargrove said. “Because his career at that point was pretty moribund. This series was really bringing him back to life.”
The star felt once again back in his element and at some point, “threw off the leg braces he’d worn for three years.”
After The Andy Griffith Show‘s end in 1968, the actor hopped from one role to another without the consistency and routine of a successful show. Matlock arrived at just the right time and enabled the North Carolina native to leave in the past the extraordinary pain that had cast a shadow on his life for so long.
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