While virtually all of the featured guests of the annual Mayberry Days festival have some tie to “The Andy Griffith Show” — even if that tie is being related to a member of the cast or crew — a few guests are more widely known for their work elsewhere in the entertainment industry.
James Best, Jack Nicholson and Barbara Eden are perhaps three of the best known examples, all of whom made stops on the show early in their careers.
Eden went on to star as the iconic title character in “I Dream of Jeannie,” while Nicholson has been the star of far too many movies to list. The late James Best, of course, went on to star as the lovably clueless Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane in “The Dukes of Hazard.”
This year, a newcomer to the festival fits that bill, though few would recognize him as a household name today. But he was already well known by television fans across the nation by the time he first appeared on “The Andy Griffith Show.“
Keith Thibodeaux, who was acting under the name Richard Keith at the time, appeared in a dozen episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” spread across seasons three through six. He was a childhood friend of Opie, appearing first as a child named Carter French in the episode One Punch Opie in season three, then making 11 more appearances as a friend of Opie’s named Johnny Paul Jason over the next three seasons.
Sharp-eyed Andy Griffith Show fans, however, recognized him from another iconic American show — he played Little Ricky in “I Love Lucy” and “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.”
A musical prodigy, he was part of the Horace Heidt Orchestra which played a regular television show and toured the United States.
“My first show was in North Carolina,” Thibodeaux said recently of that touring experience. “I think it was in Raleigh.”
That he might not remember clearly is understandable, given that Thibodeaux was just 4 when he joined the band.
During a hiatus from the show and tour, he auditioned for the role that would change his life — that of Little Ricky. He landed the role in 1955, and appeared in the two shows regularly from 1956 to 1960.
“I was there normally all day,” he said of the show’s production schedule. “I had tutoring for three hours a day that I had to complete, with a teacher from the California Board of Education. A wonderful lady named Catherine Barton.”
That tutor later became a part of “The Andy Griffith Show” team, being an on site daily tutor to none other than Ron Howard who, of course, was Opie. She also reunited with Thibodeaux, who was still required to do tutoring work on the set when he appeared on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“It would take about a week to film each episode,” he said of his time on Griffith’s show.
That gave him ample opportunity to see how the two shows were different.
“’The I Love Lucy’ set was a wonderful set, great people,” he said recently. “But there was a little bit more pressure.”
The show was filmed before a live audience, with three different cameras shooting the action, with what he called “simultaneous editing” on the fly.
Even when not filming, he said the vibe was a little different.
“Desi (Arnaz) was from Cuba, Lucy was from New York … they were great, but it was a whole different atmosphere,” he said. While he became close friends with Lucy and Desi’s children and often spent time with their family, it was still a more formal atmosphere on the set.
“The Andy Griffith Show” was a whole different story.
“’The Andy Griffith Show’ was shot with one camera, so it was a lot more like shooting a movie,” he said. “They’d stop the filming, then do close ups, then do other shots (from different angles).”
“And ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ was a wonderful experience. The set was more laid back, more country…they (the actors) were basically like they were on the show. Andy would play checkers with the make-up man…he’d often strum his guitar with the cast in the back. It was just a good, down-home set.”
While Thibodeaux said he and Ron Howard spent off-camera time together on the set, once he left the show he drifted apart from the cast.
“I was a couple of years older than Ron. We were great friends on the set, we’d hang out, but I was just older than him, I didn’t really have a lot in common with him off the set. He was really a nice guy.”
After his time on the show, Thibodeaux went on to make appearances in other productions, then became involved with the rock group David and The Giants in 1969. While the group never made it big nationally, it was a popular band in the South, and even had some recognition in Britain.
He left that group in 1977 when he was married, became a Christian, and despite the opportunity to work with other pop groups found his new-found beliefs didn’t match up well with the rock world.
But he wasn’t done with music, nor with David and the Giants. After sharing his Christian beliefs with his former bandmates — all of whom eventually converted to Christianity — the group reformed as a Christian rock band.
Since then he and the group spent 10 years together, and have reunited for concerts and to record albums several times. He even has a concert scheduled in Florida — in a joint appearance with the Christian rock group Petra — a week before this year’s Mayberry Days.
Thibodeaux and his wife, Kathy, own and manage Ballet Magnificat!, a professional ballet company in Jackson, Mississippi, as well as Ballet Magnificat! Brasil, based in Curitiba, Brazil.
While Thibodeaux, 68, has stayed active in the entertainment industry, and has reunited with a few Andy Griffith Show castmates at various events around the nation, this will be his first visit to Mayberry Days.
“I’ve always heard about this festival in Mount Airy,” he said. “People have been telling me I need to go there, need to see it … but my schedule just never worked out … this year it did. I’m excited to see it, I think it’ll be fun.”
Thibodeaux will be among several Andy Griffith Show alumni and friends making their first appearance at this year’s Mayberry Days.
Dennis Rush, who played Opie’s friend Howie Pruitt/Williams in eight episodes spread over three seasons, will be onhand for this year’s event — “I’m looking forward to seeing Dennis again,” Thibodeaux said.
Another first-timer will be Stark Howell. While Howell did not appear in the show, his father, Hoke Howell, did as Charlene Darling’s husband.
Others scheduled for the event include:
• Clint Howard, who played Leon of cowboy suit and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich fame;
• Karen Knotts, daughter of the one-and-only Don Knotts;
• LeRoy McNees, who appeared in two episodes of the show;
• Maggie Peterson, who played Charlene Darling;
• Margaret Kerry, who portrayed Bess Muggins and Helen Scoby;
• Rodney Dillard, one of the Darling boys;
• Ronnie Schell, who portrayed Jim Martin and Bernie the furrier, as well as Duke Snyder in the Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. spin-off show;
• Bettina Linke, wife of Andy Griffith’s long-time manager Richard O. Linke;
• Dick Atkins, producer for A-Films;
• Laura Hagan, wife of Earle Hagen, who composed “Fishin’ Hole,” the theme song for The Andy Griffith Show;
• Henry Cho, a comedian who will be performing in Mount Airy as part of the Mayberry Days festivities.
John Peters is editor of The Mount Airy News. You can reach him at email@example.com or 336-415-4701.