8 Non-Objectionable Facts About Matlock
It can be difficult for stars of popular television series to repeat their success, but Andy Griffith had no problem scoring a second hit—it just took a couple of decades. Following his much-loved The Andy Griffith Show, Griffith starred in Matlock, a leisurely-paced legal drama that aired on NBC and ABC from 1986 through 1995. Though the show has been a frequent punchline for satirists behind The Simpsons, Griffith’s portrayal of Atlanta criminal defense attorney Ben Matlock and his act-four courtroom grandstanding is the television equivalent of a warm blanket. Check out some facts you might not know about the show, from a guest appearance by ALF to the on-set conflicts stemming from a lack of peanut butter.
1. IT WAS TAILOR-MADE FOR ANDY GRIFFITH.
Following the end of The Andy Griffith Show in 1968, Griffith proceeded to star in a number of made-for-television features, some of which were intended to be the launching pad for new series. In two (Fatal Vision and Street Killing), he played attorneys. None caught on with viewers, save for one: Watching Fatal Vision, NBC entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff thought Griffith’s wry, salty federal prosecutor could be the kind of performance that could sustain a series. Tartikoff enlisted Perry Mason producer Dean Hargrove to write something customized for Griffith. The result was Matlock, a promising pilot guest-starring Dick Van Dyke as a sinister trial judge. As part of a spring 1986 Griffith comeback blitz that included a TV movie, Return to Mayberry, Matlock premiered in March 1986 to an impressive 28 million viewers.
2. GRIFFITH GOT A STANDING OVATION FOR HIS TRIAL SCENES.
In most episodes of Matlock, the attorney is able to finger the real assailant during cross-examination of a witness. These scenes required Griffith to spend considerable time standing—owing to Guillian-Barré Syndrome, he wore knee braces due to temporary paralysis of his lower legs—and delivering lengthy monologues. The actor also carried notes to help him recall dialogue and spent weekends rehearsing. When he finished, the crew would typically applaud the actor for nailing the complex and arduous “gotcha” speeches. According to co-star Nancy Stafford, Griffith almost always got the speech right on the first take.
3. GRIFFITH WANTED MATLOCK TO GET DARK.
Playing morally ambiguous characters was nothing new for Griffith, who had a turn as a power-hungry television personality in 1957’s A Face in the Crowd. But most of America identified him as Andy Taylor, the Mayberry sheriff who doubled as a moral compass for viewers. Doing Matlock, Griffith sometimes butted heads with Hargrove, with the actor arguing for his character to delve into the seedier side of law practice. Matlock, he argued, should have a drinking problem, or maybe land himself in jail. Hargrove fielded character tips, but blanched when Griffith wanted to alter the mystery plots of the series.
4. PEANUT BUTTER WAS A SOURCE OF FRICTION ON THE SHOW.
As the star of a hit show, Griffith was entitled to certain amenities. But he reportedly didn’t have much interest in lavish trailers or special treatment. The only thing he expected the production to cater was peanut butter, which Griffith considered one of his favorite foods. The actor would reportedly get extremely upset when he went to fetch some to use as a dip for his apples and found it missing. “Andy would get distressed sometimes because people who were not part of the crew would come on and eat the peanut butter and the apples,” Hargrove told author Daniel de Vise. “Andy was a hawk-eye on it, too.”
5. ALF MADE A GUEST APPEARANCE.
In 1987, Matlock attempted to entice viewers of other NBC shows to sample Griffith’s by concocting a plot in which Matlock defends a Hollywood producer accused of murdering a network executive. Betty White, Jason Bateman, and Malcolm Jamal-Warner made appearances, and so did the star of one of the network’s biggest hits: the alien-puppet sitcom ALF. The appearance comes at the end of the episode, with ALF remembering the producer’s abrasive demeanor on set. Whether he may have been a puppet or an actual alien in Matlock continuity is left for the audience to decide.
6. IT LAUNCHED A SPINOFF OF A SPINOFF.
A television spinoff series launched by an existing series is nothing new, with Frasier filling the void left by Cheers being one of the most notable examples. But Matlock pulled off a rare double spinoff: Hargrove used a 1986 Matlock episode to introduce Joe Penny and William Conrad as the crime-solving duo Jake and the Fatman. That show ran from 1987 to 1992. In one episode, the “Fatman” received help on a case from Mark Sloan, a physician with an instinct for investigation. Portrayed by Dick Van Dyke, Sloan got his own show, Diagnosis: Murder, in 1993. This byzantine Matlock television universe came full circle in 1997, when Griffith visited Sloan on Diagnosis: Murder to help him with a medical malpractice plot.
7. NBC GAVE IT THE BOOT.
After six seasons, Matlock was in trouble. Incoming NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield was looking to back away from series that skewed to older audiences. In addition to In the Heat of the Night, he canned Matlock, which still ranked a respectable 40th out of 123 network shows of the era. Griffith and producers managed to move it over to ABC, telling them the show could move filming to North Carolina and save money on production. The show ran three more seasons before going off the air for good in 1995.
8. IT WAS RESURRECTED AS PART OF A PROTEST.
In 2013—long after the series left the airwaves and a year after star Griffith’s death—an NBC affiliate in Cleveland decided to resurrect a two-hour Matlock and air it in place of the network’s standard Thursday night lineup: The Office, struggling sitcom 1600 Penn, and Law & Order: SVU. Surprisingly, it did about as well in the Cleveland market as the sitcoms did nationally, though Law & Order drew a better overall rating. The affiliate, WKYC, decided to air Matlock as a protest to Griffith being excluded from an Oscars “In Memoriam” segment the previous Sunday. Media outlets looking to pick on NBC’s new offerings thought it was amusing that 1600 Penn, a White House comedy, was trumped by a 21-year-old TV movie. The lesson: Never underestimate Matlock.