Bavier left Mayberry RFD in 1970, the series was cancelled after the next season. That was the only year the Griffith/Mayberry show(s) fell out of the top 15, after there was no more Aunt Bee.
Frances Bavier, the Emmy-winning actress who gave life to Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show was, by all accounts, the polar opposite of her alter ego. Hardly the domesticated matriarch, Ms Bavier was a sophisticate who resided in New York and Los Angeles her entire life, working alongside screen legends like Bette Davis and Henry Fonda. A Broadway and motion picture performer turned small screen superstar who, in 1970, abruptly decided to take the money and run a year before her Top Ten sitcom Mayberry RFD left the air.
After fifteen years of the grind of a weekly television series she’d had it with the business of show. She didn’t care much for people either, one of the reasons she moved—alone at age seventy—all the way across the continent to Siler City, North Carolina where her biggest fan operated a family furniture store. In this mythical shire mentioned so fondly in scripts produced for her by former writers from Amos & Andy and Leave it To Beaver she hoped to find the small town goodness she herself came to represent in the minds of middle America. Something she clearly had no concept of.
She was warmly bosomed into this community of 3,700 aw-shucks-just-plain-folks. Grand Marshall in the parades, an honored guest at civic functions, a flower of verisimilitude as she maneuvered the narrow streets of Siler City in the very same pea green 1966 two-door Studebaker Daytona she drove on Mayberry RFD now seen five days a week in syndication.
But what began as an immersion in Americana collapsed into a menagerie existence, like a black and white Twilight Zone episode. On Saturday mornings school buses pulled up in front of her split-level brick home on West Elk Street to let the Cub Scouts out with instructions to, “Go find your Aunt Bee.” Folks were peering through her windows at all hours of the day, everyone expecting her to be in character at all times, a role she didn’t care for at all. Even the few townsfolk she was close to insisted on calling her “Aunt Bee.” Irritating, but she had to have some friends.
In the South, particularly in that era, if people knew your family you were accepted in the community; newcomers were kept at arm’s length. Sure, it’s all kissy-kissy, ‘Can I get you some more sweet tea, Hon?’ but you will always be that person who moved to town in 1972… from California no less. They had a saying in these parts, “God turned the country on its side and all the nuts fell into California.”
A visit to the town center meant all eyes casting judgment on her every move, the ladies at the beauty parlor never forgave her for not joining their church. There were unceasing invitations to Sunday services wherever she went, “Don’t forget, you went to church in Mayberry,” delivered with a sickly-sweet, curt grin… insult to injury, that was one of Aunt Bee’s signature bits on the show.
Week after week the same goobers would bump into her asking, “Was that Opie I saw mowing your yard on Saturday?” She’d want to scream, “Why are you fixated on my yard?!?” Young couples would follow her down the aisles of Byrd's Lo Mark grocery store, “You’re not making pickles this summer are you, Ain’t Bee?”
No wonder she took to living out of her back bedroom with fourteen devoted kitties for company. She loved her feline companions so much she converted her two hundred fifty square foot downstairs bathroom into a sprawling cat box. What few visitors she had in her final years, store clerks and deliverymen mostly, were overwhelmed by the peeling paint, filthy living conditions, and an atmosphere steeped in soft cream clouds of ammonia that hung over everything like a suffocating umbrella.
Even her ‘Smart New Look’ Studebaker sedan fell prey to the furry Borg, the immaculate vinyl interior shredded, its Chevrolet 355 cubic inch V8 engine impossibly clogged with animal dander.
In a late-1980s TV interview, Andy Griffith talked about the last time he spoke with Frances Bavier. It was when he and Ron Howard (Opie) had rang her doorbell in 1985, unannounced, to try and talk her into doing at least a cameo as Aunt Bee on Return to Mayberry which was filming nearby.
“I hadn't talked to her in a long time,” Griffith says. “I went to see her one time in Siler City, I went to see her unannounced, and she flew all over me because I had come unannounced. So Lee Greenway was the makeup man on that show [Andy Griffith Show] and Lee Greenway was able to get Frances on the stage, because she wasn't always in real great shape emotionally. So Lee called me and said, ‘Frances wants to talk to you.’ So I called her up, ’Hi, Frances.’ ‘Oh Andy,’ she said. She said, ‘I must be made of cast iron. I've had a heart attack, now I have cancer. I'm only now just starting to die.’ I said, ‘Well, Frances…’ she said, ‘No, you can't do anything for me,’ and she said, ‘I’m sorry we didn't get along better.’ She said, ‘It was my fault,’ and she said, ‘I just wish I had. You ran the show and you made the show a success, and I'm just sorry we didn't get along better.’ We got along fine. It's just that she didn't feel like it lots of times.
“So she called, she wanted to talk to me and say goodbye. That's some experience.”
This reminded me of a funny and true story. When I was attending NCSU doing Mass Communication in 1989-90, one of my friends there was working part-time for WUNC. This was 6-7 months after Frances Bavier passed away.
Apparently, in her will, Frances left most of her furniture and many of her other belongings to WUNC with the intention of them auctioning them off for the purpose of raising money for the station.
So this friend of mine and a few other WUNC employees (WUNC is the public TV station supplying programming to most of North Carolina) were told to go rent a large U-Haul, drive to Frances’ home in Siler City, and pick these things up.
Upon arriving and going inside, they were almost knocked over by the cat piss fumes, it was so bad that they ended up going off and buying bandanas and wrapping them around their faces to filter out some of the smell. Apparently—according to them—when Frances died, she didn’t arrange to have someone look after the cats in the house. The cats had an ample supply of food / water but otherwise weren’t looked after which caused the smell to be even worse.
Well, they loaded up all of the stuff and drove it back to the station in RTP. Upon arriving, they asked “Where do we put this stuff?” They were told, “Well, we don’t have a place for it yet, just leave it in the truck while we clean out some storage space for it.” This was in the middle of Summer, 1990. The furniture sat out in the truck, in the NC sun, for about a week.
Eventually space was found and some of the employees went out and opened the truck. They were blasted with a cloud of 120-degree cat piss fumes and upon telling this to their manager, they were told “Well nobody will want any of this stuff now, go get rid of it!” so off they went to a landfill.
Even now, 30+ years later, every time I watch TAGS and see Frances, the first thing that pops into my mind is, “CAT PISS.” But, that aside, she was a great actor and a grand old lady, one of many that I wish were still around.
P.S. Me? I worked in radio in VA/NC for 18 years, then TV (WPTF-Raleigh on the crew). Then went to NCSU a second time and am now a geek at SAS Institute. But my hobby has always been media history—radio / TV / music (especially The Beatles). I love your site. Not long ago I saw you interviewed on a Sunday morning on WRAL and went out, found, and bought a used copy of your book, which I also loved. I’m 65, one day if I ever retire and have time, I’d love to contribute to the site.
-- Pat Garrett
EIGHTIES NETWORK PROMOS / TV 1986 / WOODY HARRELSON AS WOODY ON CHEERS / FALCON'S GOLD: CABLE TV'S FIRST MOVIE / BILL & TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURES SITCOM / CREATORS & CAST OF IT'S A LIVING THAT HAVE PASSED AWAY / MOST UNEXPECTED MOMENT IN TV HISTORY / NORMAN LLOYD TRIBUTE / ORSON WELLES INTERVIEWS ANDY KAUFMAN / FALCON CREST / 1981 CHARLES GRODIN INTERVIEW / THERE ARE FUNNY EPISODES OF MAMA'S FAMILY - HONEST! / HANGING WITH SEAN PENN 1986 / 1985 GEORGE CLOONEY INTERVIEW! / IT'S A LIVING / EDDIE MURPHY AS JAMES BOND? IT ALMOST HAPPENED! / AUNT BEE'S DYING WORDS TO ANDY GRIFFITH / THE GOLDEN PALACE / MARRIED WITH CHILDREN'S ED O'NEILL & AMANDA BEARSE'S LONGTIME FEUD / PAUL McCARTNEY vs MICHAEL JACKSON / HOW
NBC GOT ITS GROOVE BACK / 1980's WCW WRESTLING / ALAN ALDA DISCUSSES THE M*A*S*H FINALE / I WAS ALMOST CUJO IN THE STEPHEN KING MOVIE / 1986-87 TV SEASON / 1988-89 TV SEASON / 1990-91 TV SEASON / 1991-92 TV SEASON / WHY SHELLEY LONG LEFT CHEERS? / JASON ALEXANDER BEFORE SEINFELD / PEOPLE vs JEAN HARRIS / TROUBLED 1980-81 TV SEASON / "KISS MY GRITS" FLO HAD HER OWN SHOW? / CULLY HOLLAND / ONE SEASON WONDERS... THAT GOT RENEWED! / DWIGHT SCHULTZ ON WORKING WITH GEORGE PEPPARD / DEMPSEY & MAKEPEACE / THE BAXTERS / G.L.O.W. / FRIDAYS / GREATEST AMERICAN HERO / Great 1983 Carson Tonight Show / EARLY '80s TV COMMERCIALS / LOST
MOVIE POSTERS /RICH
TV WRESTLING STARS / TV
DADS / FOX'S JOAN RIVERS / CHEVY CHASE DEBACLES