RALEIGH, N.C. -- It was all too easy to confuse Andy Griffith the actor with Sheriff Andy Taylor, his most famous character from "The Andy Griffith Show."
After all, Griffith set his namesake show in a make-believe town based on his hometown of Mount Airy, N.C., and played his "aw, shucks" persona to such perfection that viewers easily believed the character and the man were one.
Griffith, 86, died Tuesday at his coastal home, Dare County Sheriff Doug Doughtie said in a statement.
Although he acknowledged some similarities between himself and the wise sheriff who oversaw a town of eccentrics, they weren’t the same. Griffith was more complicated than the role he played -- witnessed by his three marriages if nothing else.
He protected his privacy in the coastal town of Manteo, by building a circle of friends who revealed little to nothing about him.
Craig Fincannon, who runs a casting agency in Wilmington, met Griffith in 1974. He described his friend as the symbol of North Carolina.
That role "put heavy pressure on him because everyone felt like he was their best friend. With great grace, he handled the constant barrage of people wanting to talk to Andy Taylor," Fincannon said.
In a 2007 interview with The Associated Press, Griffith said he wasn’t as wise as the sheriff, nor as nice. He described himself as having the qualities of one of his last roles, that of the cranky diner owner in "Waitress," and also of his most manipulative character, from the 1957 movie "A Face in the Crowd."
"But I guess you could say I created Andy Taylor," he said. "Andy Taylor’s the best part of my mind. The best part of me."
Griffith had a career that spanned more than a half-century and included Broadway, notably "No Time for Sergeants;" movies such as Elia Kazan’s "A Face in the Crowd"; and records.
"No Time for Sergeants," released as a film in 1958, cast Griffith as Will Stockdale, an over-eager young hillbilly who, as a draftee in the Air Force, overwhelms the military with his rosy attitude. Establishing Griffith’s skill at playing a lovable rube, this hit film paved the way for his sitcom.
He was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts Hall of Fame in 1992 and in 2005, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the country’s highest civilian honors.
His television series resumed in 1986 with "Matlock," which aired through 1995.
On this light-hearted legal drama, Griffith played a cagey Harvard-educated attorney who was Southern-bred and -mannered with a leisurely law practice in Atlanta.
Decked out in his seersucker suit in a steamy courtroom (air conditioning would have spoiled the mood), Matlock could toy with a witness and tease out a confession like a folksy Perry Mason.
This character -- law-abiding, fatherly and lovable -- was like a latter-day homage to Sheriff Andy Taylor, updated with silver hair and a shingle.
In 2007, Griffith said "The Andy Griffith Show," which initially aired from 1960 to 1968, had never really left and was seen somewhere in the world every day. A reunion movie, "Return to Mayberry," was the top-rated TV movie of the 1985-86 season.
Griffith set the show in the fictional town of Mayberry, N.C., where Sheriff Taylor was the dutiful nephew who ate pickles that tasted like kerosene because they were made by his loving Aunt Bee, played by the late Frances Bavier. His character was a widowed father who offered gentle guidance to son Opie, played by little Ron Howard, who grew up to become the Oscar-winning director of "A Beautiful Mind."
"His love of creating, the joy he took in it whether it was drama or comedy or his music, was inspiring to grow up around," Howard said in a statement. "The spirit he created on the set of ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ was joyful and professional all at once. It was an amazing environment."
Don Knotts was the goofy Deputy Barney Fife, while Jim Nabors joined the show as Gomer Pyle, the cornpone gas pumper. George Lindsey, who played the beanie-wearing Goober, died in May.
Griffith and Knotts had become friends while performing in "No Time for Sergeants," and remained so until Knotts’ death in 2006 at 81.
The show became one of only three series in TV history to bow out at the top of the ratings (The others were "I Love Lucy" and "Seinfeld."). Griffith said he decided to end it "because I thought it was slipping, and I didn’t want it to go down further."
Griffith was born June 1, 1926, and as a child sang and played slide trombone in the band at Grace Moravian Church. He studied at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and for a time contemplated a career in the ministry. But he eventually got a job teaching high school music in Goldsboro.
His acting career began with the role of Sir Walter Raleigh in Paul Green’s outdoor pageant, "The Lost Colony," in Manteo.
He and his first wife, Barbara Edwards, had two children, Sam, who died in 1996, and Dixie. His second wife was Solica Cassuto. Both marriages ended in divorce. He married his third wife, Cindi Knight Griffith, in 1983.
Griffith also suffered over the years with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that can cause sudden paralysis.
He had suffered a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 2000.
AP Television Writer Frazier Moore and Entertainment Writer Jake Coyle, both in New York, contributed to this report.