Andy Griffith stars as Lonesome Rhodes, a country bumpkin discovered by television producer Marcia Jeffries, played by Patricia Neal, in a jail cell. With a voice dripped in southern charm, Lonesome sings, cajoles, and inspires the public, not to mention politicians. But Lonesome proves himself to be megalomaniacal, focusing on the power he can wield with his popularity.
When a senator with eyes on the White House craves the opportunity to appear on Lonesome’s television show, the newly christened star dismisses his humanity, the key to maintaining the audience’s adoration, in favor of influence. Marcia, too, was seduced by Lonesome’s celebrity, only to discover, to her horror, the immersion of Lonesome into the waters of the nasty side of fame.
At the end of one of Lonesome’s shows, Marcia watches from the control room as Lonesome makes sarcastic remarks about the audience, how they just follow whatever he says. It’s the breaking moment for Lonesome Rhodes. A dinner scheduled later that night for power brokers and Lonesome results in the star symbolizing his name when nobody shows up. Consequently, Lonesome realizes desperation, begging his black servants to love him. When Marcia admits that she betrayed him by leaving the microphone open so the audience could hear Lonesome’s mean-spirited remarks, Lonesome suffers a breakdown, shouting at Marcia through his penthouse window.
Accompanied by writer Mel Miller, who surmises that Lonesome will return to fame after a cooling off period, though he won’t be as powerful, Marcia saves herself from future corruption of the soul by refusing to provide Lonesome the emotional balm he needed. Walter Matthau plays Miller.
In an interview with Joe Hyams of the New York Herald Tribune, Face director Elia Kazan said, “It will stir up discussion, but that’s not the important thing. The picture is about the power of television as an instrument of public exposure. It is the story of a man who begins in jail and works up to a position of tremendous influence on public opinion. His power knows no end. It’s not any one in particular. It’s much more a protection of any one of many people in the future.”
Griffith’s portrayal of Lonesome Rhodes belies his later iconic characters of Will Stockade in No Time For Sergeants and Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show. Like Lonesome Rhodes, both characters have southern roots. Where Lonesome develops street smarts rather quickly, draftee Will sees every slight from a superior officer as an opportunity. Ultimately, Will becomes a hero, belying his academic ranking at the bottom of his class. No Time For Sergeants hit theaters in 1958, based on an eponymous play that was, in turn, based on an eponymous novel.
Griffith and Knotts appeared in the play and the movie, hinting at the unbelievable chemistry that made The Andy Griffith Show a television classic. Griffith’s character of Sheriff Andy Taylor patrolled Mayberry, North Carolina with wisdom, compassion, and patience. Deputy Barney Fife, on the other hand, showcased a gung ho attitude, usually resulting in failure. Knotts’s portrayal of Fife resulted in three Emmy Awards.