By Bill Trott and Jane Sutton
(Reuters) - Actor Andy Griffith, whose portrayal of a small-town sheriff made "The Andy Griffith Show" one of television's most enduring programs, died on Tuesday at his North Carolina home at age 86.
Griffith died at about 7 a.m. at his home on Roanoke Island, Dare County Sheriff J.D. Doughtie said.
His wife of three decades, Cindi Griffith, was at his bedside and issued a statement saying: "I cannot imagine life without Andy, but I take comfort and strength in God's Grace and in the knowledge that Andy is at peace and with God."
The family said Griffith "has been laid to rest on his beloved Roanoke Island," but did not elaborate.
Griffith created another memorable TV character, the folksy defense lawyer in "Matlock" in the 1980s and 1990s, but it was his role as Sheriff Andy Taylor on the "The Andy Griffith Show" in the 1960s that gave him a place in television history.
The show depicted life in the friendly, slow-moving fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina, which was widely believed to have been based on Griffith's own hometown, Mount Airy, in that state.
"North Carolina has lost its favorite son," Governor Beverly Perdue said. "Andy Griffith graciously stepped into the living rooms of generations of Americans, always with the playful charm that made him the standard by which entertainers would be measured for decades ... In an increasingly complicated world, we all yearn for the days of Mayberry."
President Barack Obama said he was saddened to hear of Griffith's death.
"A performer of extraordinary talent, Andy was beloved by generations of fans and revered by entertainers who followed in his footsteps," Obama said in a statement.
Ron Howard, who played Griffith's son Opie on the show and went on to become an Oscar-winning director, praised him by telling Entertainment Weekly's website, "He was fantastic. There was a fantastic equilibrium between his love of laughter and jokes and funny stories and songs and all that, and then he could turn on a dime and be the utmost professional."
There was little crime to fight in Mayberry so the stories centered on the sheriff and his interactions with the quirky townspeople.
"The basic theme of our show was love," Griffith said in a 2003 interview with CNN. "All the characters loved each other. And all the actors loved each other, too."
The show, a situation comedy, was an entertaining diversion for viewers from the social and political upheavals of the 1960s.
"It was at a point where America was really in turmoil," executive producer John Watkin told USA Today. "'The Andy Griffith Show' and Mayberry represented in some sense this kind of idealized view of what America was. It contains such a heart, such a sense of community."
Some said Griffith's Mayberry was too sanitized, with none of the strife generated by the anti-war and civil rights protests of the time. In fact, there were no regular black characters on the show.
"We tried in every way to get that to happen but we were unable to do it," Griffith told USA Today in discussing Mayberry's all-white population.
Griffith was born June 1, 1926, and had ambitions of being a preacher. At the University of North Carolina he earned a degree in dramatic arts in 1949 and started performing in singing groups.
A RUBE WATCHING FOOTBALL
He first made a name with a comedy recording, "What It Was, Was Football," a spoof of a rube trying to follow the action at his first football game. That led to an appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and from there Griffith starred in both the stage and film versions of "No Time for Sergeants."
He made a big impact as a dramatic actor in his first movie, 1957's "A Face in the Crowd," playing a scheming drifter whose aw-shucks persona catapults him to success as a television show host until his dark side was exposed.
Griffith later played a small-town sheriff in a television episode of "The Danny Thomas Show," which led to "The Andy Griffith Show."
Don Knotts, who had appeared with Griffith in the stage and screen versions of "No Time for Sergeants," had seen "The Danny Thomas Show" episode and suggested the sheriff would need a deputy in a full-fledged TV series. He came aboard and his portrayal of bungling and overeager Deputy Barney Fife won Knotts five Emmy awards.
"When Don joined the show, by the second episode, I knew that Don should be funny and I should play straight for him," Griffith told CNN.
The Griffith-Knotts friendship endured until Knotts' death in February 2006.
"The Andy Griffith Show" ran from 1960 until 1968, the year it reached No. 1 in television ratings. Griffith decided to leave that year, and the show continued without him using new characters and a new name, before being canceled in 1971.
But "The Andy Griffith Show" has lived on ever since in syndication and on cable television, creating a cottage industry of fan clubs, websites and memorabilia.
"I wanted to prove that I could play something else, but there were 249 episodes out there of 'Mayberry,' and it was aired every day. It was hard to escape," movie database IMDB quoted him as saying.
On Broadway, Griffith was nominated for two Tony awards, in 1956 as a featured actor in "No Time for Sergeants" and in 1960 as an actor in the musical "Destry Rides Again."
He often recorded and won a Grammy award for his 1996 gospel album "I Love To Tell The Story."
Griffith spent most of his later years in the Atlantic Coast town of Manteo, North Carolina.
He was married and divorced twice before he wed Cindi Knight Griffith in 1983. He had two children.
(Editing by Eric Beech and Eric Walsh)