Three great actors gone: A reminiscence of Andy Griffith, Ernest Borgnine, and Celeste Holm

This month, we lost three top-quality actors and human beings.

Photo: Andy Griffith with Don Knotts, 1970

WASHINGTON, July 20, 2012 — I’ve heard it since childhood. In fact, I’d be surprised if you were to tell me you’re hearing it here for the first time.

“They always go in threes.” In my Pennsylvania hometown, my older sister would say, “Well, that’s two. I wonder who’ll be the third.”

“The third what?” I’d ask on my way out to play ball. 

“The third movie star to die,” she would answer nonchalantly. “They always die in threes, movie stars.” She announced this as if reciting an arithmetic answer from the back of one of my grade-school flash card. “This week two died. I wonder who’ll be the third.”

The screen door banged behind me, but all the way to the ballpark I kept thinking about that. Who would be next? I hoped it wouldn’t be Johnny Weissmuller or Hopalong Cassidy. And who controls a thing like that? God? Why would God care about it being in threes? Or was this another of those superstitions like broken mirrors and walking under ladders, (neither of which I’d do if I could help it)? 

I never found a really good answer as a child, yet all too often, it seemed to happen that way. Fact is, I continued to hear this theory throughout my life. 

In 1963, two loveable actors died on the same day: Jack Carson and Dick Powell. My sister, Bib, said, “Oh, no. I wonder who’ll be next.” 

In 1997, the death of the veritable institution, Jimmy Stewart, was followed by one day with the death of the legendary Robert Mitchum. My longtime friend John Manticas called me first thing that July 2 morning to say, “Well, that’s two. I wonder who’ll be the third.” Over the years he and I had long discussed and noted this triumvirate phenomenon.

Farewell to Three Movie Greats 

Now, this month, we lost three top-quality actors and human beings. In the first week we lost Andy Griffith and Ernest Borgnine. “Wonder who’ll be the third?” I heard a few people say. Then on July 15 came the sad answer. It was the elegant Celeste Holm.

Both of the men, coincidentally, started their movie careers by playing unforgettably villainous characters. Griffith scored big time as the deceitful Lonesome Rhodes in “A Face in the Crowd,” a film which has grown more and more popular through the years.

Borgnine, in “From Here To Eternity,” registered big as the sadistic sergeant, “Fatso,” who beat to death Frank Sinatra and helped land the singer an Oscar and a comeback. 

Similarly, too, both men turned around and played some of the loveliest and unforgettable characters of the silver screen and television: Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry town, and Borgnine as the sympathetic, “Marty,” for which he garnered an Oscar. 

Griffith Began As A Comedian and Then A “Monster”

Andy Griffith receiving the Medal of Freedom from Pres. George Bush, 2005


Andy Griffith launched his long show-business career with standup comedy records, a couple of which became not only big sellers, but also classics in the humor field. His  most famous is: “What It Was, Was Football,” in which he describes a football game through the eyes of a country bumpkin who never saw a game.

In his 1957 movie debut, “A Face In the Crowd,” Griffith delivers one of filmdom’s strongest representations of a truly reprehensible character. Not only are his woman producer, Patricia Neal, and his agent, Tony Franciosa, taken in by his charismatic charm but also fooled is his devoted television audience.  

The character of Lonesome Rhodes was based on the popular TV-radio star Arthur Godfrey who was America’s biggest homespun headliner since Will Rogers in the 1930s. Folksy, down to earth, a big, burly teddy bear of a guy, “the old Redhead” hosted an hour-and-a-half simulcast TV-radio show every weekday morning with a loveable cast of talented people, called, “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends.” He also hosted a weekly primetime show equivalent to today’s “American Idol,” called “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.”

His slide from grace into disgrace began the morning he fired one of his “friends,” popular singer, Julius LaRosa, and did it “on the air.” From then on, it was down hill and out.

Lonesome Rhodes’s downfall comes when he thinks the microphone is off,  as he ridicules his TV audience during a sign-off. Thanks to his girlfriend producer, the mic is hot, and people are able to discover what an egotistical ” monster” he really is.

Griffith Found His Calling in Mayberry

Andy the Actor, however, got a chance to show his easy, breezy, funny side by playing in “No Time for Sergeants,” on Broadway and then in the film production. From there he would soon transition into the pleasing, kind loveable Sheriff of Mayberry with an array of enjoyable, memorable and loveable townsfolk. Not the least of this cadre were Don Knotts. who won five Emmy’s as his bumbling deputy, and Ron Howard as Andy’s adorable little son, Opie Taylor.

Mayberry reminded us of another time, when people were sweeter and kinder. Can we say that? Or is that heresy? 

This remembrance, however, is not about Mayberry. It’s about Andy Griffith, a fine actor whether serious or funny. It’s the big-smile guy who brightened rooms and homes and hearts for decades. This is intended to honor the unforgettable actor and television icon, Andy Samuel Griffith.

[Next time we will talk about boundless Ernie Borgnine and the elegant Celeste Holm.]

Vance Garnett’s writings have won the praise of  Paul Harvey, William Safire, and Shirley Povich. Vance has shared his life experiences and knowledge of D.C. with the Washington Historical Society, the Kiwanis clubs of the Washington area, and on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show.”   

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Vance Garnett

Vance Garnett is an eclectic observer of life, politics and sports. 

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