The Other Andy: Gramps (1995)
Everyone has that one relative that they would rather avoid (some of us have many), and it could be for any number of reasons. Perhaps it's what they said to Aunt Bernice last Christmas after a few too many Nogs. It could be bad breath or the scent of Vicks and moth balls that permeates the air around them. It could be you don't like their current and soon to be ex-spouse or their political or religious bent is just too much to bear. Or still, it could be some part of their past and yours intertwined and left a stain on your relationship. Such is the case in today's made for television triumph, but the perpetrator is not an expected menace. Instead, it's Matlock. Over the course of The Other Andy series, I feel like I've made a case for the genial protector of Mayberry being able to turn in the dark side in a number of under appreciated villain roles. He even got pretty evil on The Andy Griffith Show once. Just watch Season 5, Episode 17, "Goober Takes a Car Apart", for the first glimpse of menace in Andy's work since Kazan's A Face in the Crowd. I mention that first because I believe Gramps a.k.a Relative Fear is the last time Griffith played against type. In the abstract, having Andy Taylor as your Grandpa sounds pretty good, but Clarke MacGruder might share some of the same favorite songs with "The Sheriff Without a Gun" yet he’s a far cry from anyone Aunt Bee would invite over for dinner.
When Clarke MacGruder (John Ritter) was only a boy, his mother took him away from the home they shared with her abusive husband Jack. Now, in the wake of her death, Clarke wants to reconnect with his father for the first time in years. He asks the senior citizen to come stay with them for a few days, and Jack (Andy Griffith) soon works his way into the graces of Clarke and his son Matthew (Casey Wurzbach). John's wife Betsy (Mary-Margaret Humes) is more wary of their houseguest especially because she and John are working out problems stemming for an affair she had. Jack uses his son's distrust to his advantage slowly taking over the life of the boy he lost and, more importantly, his grandson. When the trio embarks on a hunting trip together, Jack shows his true colors, and the family reunion soon turns into a very dangerous game.
From the first moments of Gramps, Andy Griffith shows off why he can play villainy so well. When the camera lands on his face for the first time, as viewers, we have an expectation of Andy Griffith as a kind eyed, gentle person, but the character we are introduced to appears as cold and calculating. This sets the film's tone off right from the start. Griffith plays with expectations in this film. Jack palling around with Matthew brings to mind images of Andy and Opie, and at one point, Griffith sings "Salty Dog Blues", a tune Andy Taylor was often heard picking on his porch. Jack, instead of sitting around with some pals, is harmonizing with Matthew's nanny, a position he needs vacated if he wants to be Matthew's main caregiver. This chilling use of a familiar trope for Griffith showed that the actor and director knew anything that could remind the audience of Andy Taylor would only serve to show how far removed Jack MacGruder was from Griffith's most famous character.
The real attraction in Gramps is evil Andy, and the film shows strains whenever he's not on the screen. The relationship drama between Clarke and Betsy never rings true, and Ritter only scores as his character becomes increasingly paranoid while under the sway of his father. The climax, in which Jack Tripper and Matlock face off, is satisfying, but I do wish this had been a feature film so the action could have been a little fuller. Ritter does provide an affable and likable center to the film and it's still a shame that John died so very young. As evidenced both by this film and Stay Tuned, Ritter wasn't afraid to try out some risky, weird soundings projects. Mary-Margaret Humes had the most thankless job in the film. She is both the voice of reason and the catalyst which sets all of the elder MacGuder's plans in motion, but she's given so little character to work with that it’s hard for the audience to defend the behaviors that Jack brings to Clarke. She is never written in a way that makes it seem like she's into saving or repairing her marriage, in fact, the closest it gets is when Betsy asks Clarke why he can't "just get over it". While Humes' job may have been thankless, Child actor Casey Wurzbach was nigh intolerable. I'm not going to sit here and slam a child's performance out of hand, but another young actor might have brought more the pouting to the part.
Director Bradford May was a television journeyman if there ever was one. Starting off his career with a stint on Hawaii Five-O, May worked on shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Equalizer, and Midnight Caller. In 1989, he made the leap from series work and directed his first feature, The Lady Forgets, and from there he has worked in film and TV (series and movies) with a couple high profile gigs worthy of note. May directed the 1992 Long Island Lolita endorsed film Amy Fisher: My Story a.k.a Lethal Lolita, and followed that up with a string of sensational biopics such as Madonna: Innocence Lost and Marilyn & Bobby: Her Final Affair before moving on to direct two of the Darkman sequels and the 2000 TV film The Dukes of Hazard: Hazard in Hollywood (My man does love a colon.) May's catalog could only be described as eclectic. In 2008, he directed three films, Mask of the Ninja, The Nanny Express, and A Kiss at Midnight. From the titles alone, it's easy to see how broad his scope is. May handles the pacing and arc of Gramps' storyline very well, and, with such a magnetic villain in Griffith and likable second lead in Ritter, he is able to let the story build in a very natural way without having to insert intrusive direction to move the story along.
While Andy of Mayberry might replace Aunt Bea's homemade pickles with store bought ones that seems to be about the worst transgression against a family member that character ever mustered. Griffith's character in Gramps probably never did a good thing for anyone he ever knew, blood or not. When Andy is cast as the heavy, it almost always works well. I attribute that to two things, Griffith's persona in culture and his awareness of how to use it to his advantage as an actor. When I first heard of an Andy Griffith movie called Gramps, I imagined a holiday film designed to warm the heart, something ready made for the Hallmark channel. Maybe, at best, a version of The Christmas Carol. In a way, I wish I hadn't read a synopsis before watching so that kind of thought would have still been in my head upon viewing. Still, the difference between the Andy everyone knows and The Other Andy is so stark, and, because he is advanced in age, I find his ability and willingness to perform such a role admirable. Gramps might not be someone you want over for holiday dinner, but his movie might be a little therapeutic to put on when you get home.