Andy Griffith’s breakout political movie

The passing of television legend Andy Griffith on Tuesday has people looking back at his first big dramatic role, as a shady TV host trying to influence a fictional presidential election.

Elia Kazan’s A Face In The Crowd has been highly regarded by film critics for years, and it was one of first movies to explore the connection between television and politics.

In 1957, Griffith was best-known as a comic actor, but Kazan cast Griffith against type as “Lonesome” Rhodes, a drifter who is made into a national multimedia celebrity with a thirst for power and disgust for the common man.

UPDATE: TCM says it will air “A Face In The Crowd” on July 18 as part of a Griffith tribute.

Rhodes winds up coaching a presidential contender to a lead in the polls, using his crowd-pleasing tactics. But it all falls apart as Rhodes’ handlers use the power of television against him.

The concept of television as a kingmaker in politics was new in 1957, and Griffith’s role was the linchpin of the movie.

At the time, the film received mixed reviews, although Griffith’s performance was noted as outstanding. But his career on television turned back to gentler roles when he got his own show on CBS in 1960.

Recently, A Face In The Crowd has seen renewed interest as it has appeared on cable TV, with themes that seem to echo the current political climate.

It has a 91 percent positive rating on the web site Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.1 (out of 10) rating on the Internet Movie Database.

In 2007, Vanity Fair looked back at A Face In The Crowd, and contributor James Wolcott notes that, “A Face in the Crowd might have become an acrid, worrywart exercise in elitist condescension if it hadn’t been for the seams-busting acting of Griffith, who unleashes a moody, gutsy force unsuitable for the future sheriff of Mayberry.”

Griffith also thought the film was underrated, and in one clip on YouTube, he talks about how producers gave him a bottle of Jack Daniels to drink before a key scene. He wound up re-shooting the scene the next day.

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