Everybody Remembers Floyd the Barber…and if You Don’t, You Should!

by Doug Snauffer

In October 3, 1960, TV viewers were introduced to the fictional small-town of Mayberry, North Carolina—home to an oddball assortment of lovable characters on a new CBS comedy, The Andy Griffith Show.  The pleasant hamlet quickly became as definitive a depiction of rural America as Norman Rockwell’s classic Saturday Evening Post cover illustrations.

There were few lawbreakers in Mayberry.  In one episode, the town was even recognized as the most crime-free community in the country.  Andy never even carried a gun, and Barney kept his one and only bullet in his shirt pocket.

Don Knotts (standing) and Andy Griffith in The Andy Griffith Show, circa 1960.

Over the years, a flurry of local citizens was seen on a recurring basis.  More often than not, they were presented as country bumpkins, but rarely were the portrayals offensive.  

Over the years, a flurry of local citizens was seen on a recurring basis.  More often than not, they were presented as country bumpkins, but rarely were the portrayals offensive.

The most prominent of these characters was hyperactive town barber Floyd Lawson, played by character-actor Howard McNear.  The men of Mayberry would gather at Floyd’s Barber Shop to play checkers and share a few laughs while waiting for their haircuts.  Floyd was endearingly quirky and perfectly suited for the leisurely pace of life in Mayberry.  His biggest ambition was to someday add a second barber chair to his small shop.

By the fall of 1962—thanks primarily to exposure from the Griffith show—56-year-old Howard McNear’s career was on an upswing.  He had landed

Howard McNear (left) and Elvis Presley in Fun in Acapulco.

featured roles in a number of high-profile films: Fun in Acapulco starring Elvis Presley; Irma la Douce with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine; and The Wheeler Dealers, a romantic pairing of James Garner and Lee Remick.  On TV, as The Andy Griffith Show rolled into its third season, McNear was receiving increased screen-time.

Two episodes in particular focused the spotlight squarely on McNear.

In “Floyd, the Gay Deceiver,” (Nov. 26, 1962) Floyd wound up in a bind when a wealthy widow (Doris Fowling) whom he’d been corresponding with decided to pay him a visit.  He’d misled her into believing he was a wealthy philanthropist, and couldn’t face her with the truth.  He turned to Andy—typically the voice of reason—who instead went to extreme lengths to help Floyd continue the charade.

That episode was followed by “Convicts at Large” (Dec. 10, 1962), in which Barney and Floyd’s big fishing weekend was interrupted by three escaped convicts—three very rowdy, female convicts (Jane Dulo, Jean Carson, Reta Shaw)—who took the men hostage.  It was a physically demanding episode for McNear—featuring dance sequences which had to be choreographed, rehearsed, and blocked for the cameras.  Yet throughout the production, he remained as lively and animated as ever.

“Convicts at Large” is widely considered the most popular Floyd-centric episode of the Griffith show.  Unfortunately, it very nearly became his final appearance as well.  In December 1962, McNear suffered a massive stroke which left him severely impaired.  It affected his left shoulder, most of his left arm, and both of his legs.  He was fortunate to have survived, but it appeared his acting career was over.

Reta Shaw (standing, left) and Jane Dulo keeping an eye on Howard McNear in the episode “Convicts at Large.”

Losing Howard McNear was a huge blow to the series.  He was sorely missed by his fellow actors on set, and the series’ writers were thrown into a quandary over how to deal with the creative void left by McNear’s sudden absence.

Ultimately, their solution was to add another character to the rolls.  On Christmas Eve 1962, Jim Nabors made his debut as naive young gas station attendant Gomer Pyle.  Gomer pumped gas, washed windows, and checked under hoods for customers of Wally’s Service Station.  He was a hometown boy who loved comic books, monster movies, and cherry sodas.

Gomer became an immediate hit with viewers and was soon moonlighting as a reserve deputy, thus allowing him to interact more closely with Andy and Barney.

Now most TV producers would be exceedingly protective of a character as popular as Gomer Pyle, but not Andy Griffith.  He thought so highly of Jim Nabors’ talent that he was reluctant to hold the young man back.  It was Griffith who so generously pulled the strings with CBS to get Nabors his own spin-off series.

Don Knotts, Andy Griffith, and Jim Nabors on the set of The Andy Griffith Show. They made the show a hit; the show made them stars.

In the final episode of the 1963-64 season, Gomer enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and shipped off to basic training.  In the fall, his cousin Goober (George Lindsey) took over his duties at the service station.  Goober had been mentioned periodically but had made only one on-screen appearance.

With Nabors gone, concerns arose once again over how to best handle the departure of a primary supporting player.  Then one afternoon in the production offices, Griffith, writer-producer Aaron Ruben, associate producer Richard O. Linke, and a couple of writers were trying to fix a problematic script, when Ruben uttered, “Boy, do I wish we had Howard.”

Suddenly, Andy Griffith was hit by an epiphany. Why someone like Howard McNear when they could have the genuine article?  Griffith quickly picked up the phone and called McNear’s wife Helen to inquire about her husband’s condition.  Helen loved the idea of Howard returning to the program.  She explained that Howard had been making progress in his recovery, but that he’d grown depressed at being so inactive after having lived such an industrious life.

Producer Sheldon Leonard (right) working with Andy Griffin (left), Don Knotts (2nd left) and the rest of the cast during rehearsal of The Andy Griffith Show. (Photo by Allan Grant/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Helen said she’d speak to Howard to see how he felt about the idea and then get back to Griffith.  When the phone rang about an hour later, it was McNear himself.  He sounded well, and seemed thrilled at the prospect of playing Floyd again.  He was forthright, however, in regards to his limitations, but his old-friend Andy Griffith assured him that if he felt ready to return, that together ”they’d work it out.”

And together they did.  Due to his paralysis, McNear couldn’t walk.  When a script required him to stand, a special device was employed to support his weight.  To conceal the rigging from view, McNear would then be positioned, for example, behind Floyd’s barber chair.  A majority of the time, however, scripts were written and staged with Floyd in sitting positions—a favorite location being the bench in front of the barber shop.  It sometimes appeared a bit odd, but the important thing was that they made it work, and Floyd the Barber was once again a part of the Mayberry community.

A year later, in the spring of 1965, Don Knotts announced he was leaving The Andy Griffith Show to pursue a feature film deal with Universal Studios.  It was a tremendous career opportunity for Don, but his departure was a major blow to the series.

Although Griffith had made a name for himself in such films as A Friend in the Crowd (1957) and No Time for Sergeants (1958), he had left the comedy in his TV show to Knotts.  Now Griffith was a straight-man without a comedic sidekick, and the supporting players—Ronny Howard, Frances Bavier, George Lindsey, and Howard McNear—were more vital to the program than ever before.

Still, due to his fragile health,  McNear’s workload was kept relatively light throughout most of the sixth season.  A new character was added that season, Floyd’s nephew Warren Ferguson (played by actor-writer Jack Burns), who became Andy’s new deputy.  The idea had been to team Warren and Goober for laughs, and have them play against Griffith’s straight-man.  But Burns never caught on with viewers and Warren was fazed out by the end of the season.  Another tactic was to bring back several of the programs most popular recurring players, like the Darling family (featuring patriarch Denver Pyle), rock-throwing nuisance Ernest T. Bass (Howard Morris), and nomadic Brit Malcolm Merriweather (Bernard Fox).

In the fall of 1966, at the outset of the seventh season, another new character was introduced to viewers.  This time it wasn’t a deputy.  The producers had evidently learned their lesson about trying to replace Don Knotts’ Barney Fife.  Instead, county clerk Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson) was added to the series.

McNear had become alarmingly frail and was having trouble remembering his lines.  He often became frustrated at the situation, and had fallen into a deep depression.

In September 1967, The Andy Griffith Show returned for it’s eighth and final season, but town barber Floyd Lawson was nowhere to be found.  Floyd’s shop on Main Street was also gone.  In its place stood Emmett’s Fix-It Shop.  The transition, however, was never explained on-screen—not on the Griffith show anyway.

But later that season in an episode of Gomer Pyle, USMC  (“Gomer Goes Home,” Jan. 5, 1968), Floyd’s disappearance was finally explained.  On leave from the Marines, Gomer returned to Mayberry only to learn that all his friends were away on a fishing trip.  While there, he noticed Emmett’s shop and inquired about Floyd; a passer-by explained that Floyd had retired and was living with his daughter in Mount Pilot, and Emmett had bought him out.

The Andy Griffith Show finished its eighth season as the top-rated program on television, an outstanding achievement.  Yet Andy Griffith had decided he was ready to move on, and what better time than with the show being number one.  Obviously, CBS wasn’t happy with his choice to end the series, and neither were the 27.6 million viewers who’d remained loyal to the program over the previous eight years. 

Doug Snauffer is TVWriter™ Contributing Editor.  His work has appeared in myriad publications and on SyFy Channel. He’s also the writer of several cult horror films and the books The Show Must Go On and Crime Television. Learn more about Doug HERE.

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