RALEIGH, N.C. - At age 81, Andy Griffith has been discovered. Sure, he'll always be known as Sheriff Andy Taylor, the gentle father to son Opie and gunless lawman in Mayberry who dispensed a homegrown wisdom on the "The Andy Griffith Show." Or as the disheveled yet shrewd Atlanta defense lawyer Ben Matlock.
But he's now a new type of star in the critically acclaimed film "Waitress." A supporting character in a movie starring Keri Russell as Jenna, a top-notch pie maker trying to leave her brutish husband, Griffith steals the show as the cranky owner of the diner where she works.
"I'm glad to be back," Griffith said. "I loved working in the film, and I just thought it was actually wonderful."
The movie was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, who was found slain in her Manhattan home office not long after "Waitress" was accepted at the Sundance Film Festival. Griffith said that Shelly, who also stars in the film, "knew exactly what she wanted to hear."
"She wanted me to be very firm, and she kept after me to be firm, be firm," Griffith said. "I said, 'I'M TRYING.' She said, 'That way.'"
Griffith lives a fiercely private life with wife Cindi in the North Carolina Outer Banks town of Manteo. Until "Waitress," he hadn't appeared in a live-action film since 2001. But he said he got three scripts at once and chose "Waitress" for the quality of Shelly's writing and because Joe "was a good, pivotal part. Joe means a lot to this film."
Producer Michael Roiff said he and Shelly couldn't believe their good fortune at landing Griffith for the role. Griffith was on the set for just four days of the 20-day shoot, but he didn't disappoint.
"We were so excited about the performance he was delivering," Roiff said. "In the editing room, putting scenes together, she and I would just look at each other and think, 'How did we get so lucky? Who let this happen in our movie?'
"Literally, on the set and in the editing room, there was a continuous process of looking at each other and breaking out in that wise, small smile and realizing we were working with one of the best out there."
Critics agree, with The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern calling Griffith an "inspired" casting choice: "An octogenarian who looks his age, and looks like he's enjoying it, this comic virtuoso is as commanding as ever, but with a new dimension of restraint."
Equally important to Griffith is the praise of his friends, including Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, who played Griffith's son, Opie, in "The Andy Griffith Show" - which airs every day somewhere in the world, Griffith said.
"Ron Howard called me a few mornings ago. He and his wife had seen it and he wanted to tell me how much he liked it. And he thought I was good in it, too," Griffith said. Griffith has been a success on stage for decades, starring in the Broadway and movie versions of "No Time for Sergeants" and in Elia Kazan's 1957 movie, "A Face in the Crowd," in which Griffith's character, the coarse Lonesome Rhodes, becomes a television star who mocks his fans off-air. When "The Andy Griffith Show" ended its eight-year run in 1968, it bowed out as the No. 1 show in television.
It's a career that's brought Griffith plenty of accolades, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. But the honor that Griffith mentions now is the collection of photographs from "Waitress" he received when he finished filming.
After he spoke his last line, Shelly said, "This is Andy's last shot in the picture," Griffith recalled. "And there is a picture of her embracing me at that moment, and it's a wonderful picture. And when she said that, the whole company started applauding, all up and down the hall. It was like opening night at 'No Time for Sergeants,' which was a long time ago. That's been 50 years now."
Griffith is still looking for work. Asked when he'll get a part in a Ron Howard blockbuster, Griffith chuckles again and mentions an earlier phone conversation with Howard. "And he said, 'Sometime, it will happen.' I look forward to it when it does happen.
"At least Ronnie still knows that I'm a pretty good actor."