“The prettiest girl in the first grade” has returned to Mayberry Days for a second time.
Joy Ellison, as Mary Wiggins, was so proclaimed by Opie, played by Ron Howard, in a first-season episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” called “Beauty Contest.” In that episode, Ellison was crowned Miss Mayberry Junior by Sheriff Andy with an upside-down straw hat and a makeshift cape from Floyd’s barbershop.
On her first Mayberry Days outing 53 years later, she was presented the key to the city and was once again crowned Miss Mayberry with another upside-down straw hat and another cape, this time velvet with faux-fur trim.
When Opie described the charms of Mary Wiggins to his father, he says, “She has freckles, braids, a bandage on her knee and a tooth out.” And Ellison’s close-ups reveal that, indeed, she did have a tooth out.
When she returned to play another character in another episode, she had lost all her front teeth and it became a story point. For a child actor who was not a series regular, Ellison’s dental history is quite fully recorded.
Her character — another Mary but this time Mary Scobey — asks her father for a cookie and the sheriff says “You better get your mama to soak them a little bit. You’re going to bruise your gums.”
Ellison gives him a big gap-toothed grin and says “I’ll chew it in the back.”
She doesn’t remember in what order the four episodes she did that first year of the show were filmed.
“Now, shows have a through line. Back then,” Ellison said, “you’d shoot episodes and never know when they would be aired. Episodes two, three and four might come after six and seven.”
Looking back, it’s clear the one where she had one tooth out was shot before the one with two teeth out but they had to be filmed close enough together that the teeth hadn’t grown back.
However, they aired a full 13 weeks apart. She laughed and said the only thing they had to watch for as far as continuity was Andy’s girlfriends.
Of her early career, Ellison said, “I didn’t dream all my life to be an actor. It was a day I didn’t have to go to school.”
Ellison said her agent would call with a job and her mother would ask her if she wanted to do it. She’d say yes and then her mother would say, “You have to put your hair in braids.”
“But I don’t like braids,” was the reply.
“I asked you if you wanted to go,” her mother responded.
And on it went. Ellison said she resisted all the ‘little girl’ trappings being pushed on her because she wanted to look more grown up. “But little girls trying to look like big girls was not the idea on ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’”
As time went by, she got more interested in school and particularly in art, and for a time thought she’d like to pursue a career in package design. When she was warned that might be a hard thing to get into, she said, “I’ll just be an actor until I get in.” People who had not acted since before they had their permanent teeth might think she had it the wrong way round.
Ellison became interested in theater and studied it at LA City College but was so shy, she couldn’t get up to do her scene in front of everyone. She’d cut class when it was her turn.
Ultimately, the instructor pulled her aside and said, “Honey, I don’t think this is for you. You should stick with television.”
Ellison laughed at the story and said, “I thought ‘that can’t be right.’”
But the theater program included some dialect classes and Ellison realized she had a natural knack for the work. Before long she was helping her friends and fellow students with their dialects.
It didn’t take long for Ellison to realize, “I actually like this better.” She didn’t have to worry and be nervous.
“The first time I worked as a coach on a film set, I felt I was making a real contribution. I am grateful to be able to do something I love to do.”
Since embarking on her career as a dialect coach, Ellison has developed a star-studded client list. Lately, she has worked with Jennifer Aniston and Kathy Najimy in a musical comedy called “Dumplin’,” helping them to master a Texas accent. Jake Gyllenhaal calls on her whenever he needs to do an accent, and she coached Jessica Lange through the “Freak Show” season of “American Horror Story” when her character spoke with a German accent.
Ellison said of the Lange experience, “It was fascinating. Amazing, actually. She didn’t really learn the script right away.” Ellison explained that they often got rewrites right up until the morning a scene was to be shot. “I’d write out her speeches with the accent. She read from the paper using the accent. When she had it, she’d go off to hair and makeup, and by the time that was done, she knew everything.”
“The mind truly is a muscle,” she said. “Use it or lose it.”
So what does Ellison think of the North Carolina dialects on “The Andy Griffith Show,” which come and go like changes in the weather, even for Andy Griffith, whose natural accent varies dramatically from season to season. And what would she have done if her current self had been brought in to work on that show?
“It’s important to keep everyone consistent so that everyone sounds the same.” She mentioned an episode where a slick-talking New Yorker comes to Mayberry and speaks in a distinctly different way from everyone else. “It was clear he did not belong,” she said. “It works.”
“They mostly did it with casting.” And she remembers an episode where she refers to the actor playing her father as “Pa.” It wasn’t in the script and being a native Californian, she would not have said that.
When she is asked if she thinks she was channeling Andy Griffith’s accent, she said, “I think I was.”
The prettiest girl in the first grade was already on her life’s path. She just didn’t know it yet.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.