Neal Brower continued his popular Mayberry Days lecture series with a Q and A with “Andy Griffith Show” former child actors Keith Thibodeux, Dennis Rush and Clint Howard.
The three men run the gamut from Howard, who made his first appearance on the show when he was only 2 years old and has no memory of the experience, to Thibodeaux, who came to the show as an established child star after playing the part of Little Ricky on “I Love Lucy” and “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour,” to Rush, who was discovered by James Cagney and was cast in his first part due to his resemblance to the young Cagney.
Host Neal Brower is the author of “Mayberry 101” and has taught “The Andy Griffith Show: An Indepth Study” at community colleges throughout North Carolina for many years. His lectures are also presented at the Andy Griffith Museum during the summer. He led the three men through a series of questions and video clips that was part walk down memory lane, part therapy session and completely enjoyable to the sold-out audience, which broke into spontaneous applause throughout the presentation.
Clint Howard, who is Ron Howard’s younger brother, played Leon, the little tyke who is always gnawing on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that never quite gets finished. His usual costume, a cowboy outfit, was simply what he wore one day when his mother brought him along with her when she accompanied her older son Ron to the set. Young Clint, cowboy hat and all, got pulled into a scene.
Keith Thibodeaux played Johnny Paul, Opie’s pal who saw him through childhood traumas all the way from Old Lady Crump’s history class to their first dance. Thibodeaux was born in 1950 and is three years older than Ron Howard, though they played classmates on the show.
Thibodeaux started playing drums at 2 years old, a skill that made him a natural to play the son of bongo-playing Ricky Ricardo on “I Love Lucy.”
“It was a very professional set. Run tight,” Thibodeaux said of his Little Ricky experience. “It was tense at times with the relationship of Lucy and Desi falling apart.”
“It was a very lonely place,” he added, as he was the only child on the show.
He came to “The Andy Griffith Show” after Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz divorced and his run as Little Ricky ended.
“At 9 years old, I was on the unemployment line,” he said.
His new job on Andy Griffith’s set was a very different matter. There were other kids and they had a six-foot-high basketball goal where they could play, and the adults were always willing to play catch with them on set. Andy Griffith played his guitar during lunch breaks, someone would join him with a banjo and the cast and crew would sit and listen to music. The atmosphere was not like other sets, the actors remembered, easier and laid back. But very efficient; most half-hour sitcoms took five long days to shoot an episode. A half-hour “The Andy Griffith Show” episode only took three days to do.
Dennis Rush, who played Opie’s friend Howie, said a lot of child acting was a matter of luck. They want a big kid, or a fat kid, or they want a freckle-faced kid.
“I was the freckle-faced kid,” he said with a laugh. “These guys had talent,” indicating Howard and Thibodeaux on either side of him.
After playing Howie Pruett in several episodes, Rush got a script that said his name was Howie Williams. Rush was confused, and asked his mother what had happened, wondering if he had been adopted or something.
“Memorize the lines. Don’t say a word,” his mother advised him. He did both.
Rush, who was making his first Mayberry Days appearance, said to the audience, “I am amazed at what has happened in the last 48 hours. ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ was just something that was inside me. I didn’t know this was here,” Rush said of the Mayberry Days experience.
“I’m not sure what all this is,” he said, indicating the theater full of adoring fans, “but I know I love it.”
“It’s so reaffirming to know you guys have embraced something good,” said Howard. “There is so much snake oil out there, and it sucks. But it (“The Andy Griffith Show”) wasn’t snake oil.”
Howard then summed up the magic of ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’ It started out with Andy, who had a story to tell. And then Sheldon Leonard, who produced ‘The Danny Thomas Show’ with Danny Thomas, believed in that story. Together they made a show that the executives in New York didn’t know how to screw up.”
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.