Obituary: Jack Elinson (1922-2011)
November 23, 2011
Elinson was best known as a Golden Age gag writer for radio and early television, but to me he was of most interest as the writer, with then partner Charles Stewart, of a slew of early Andy Griffith Show episodes. (His much older brother, Irving “Iz” Elinson, was also a prolific comedy writer whose pen passed occasionally through Mayberry). Elinson and Stewart wrote the first episode following the pilot, “The New Housekeeper,” which introduced mother figure Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) and subtly underlined the rarely mentioned tragedy of orphan/widowhood around which the show’s central father-son relationship revolved.
A lot of the Elinson-Stewart collaborations were tentative outings in which Griffith had not yet settled into his pure straight man role, and which focused on failed characters like early love interest Ellie (Elinor Donahue) or the roving musician Jim Lindsey (James Best). But some of Elinson’s work stands with the series’ best, particularly “Barney and the Choir,” in which Barney Fife remains a member of the town choir, even though he “can’t sing a lick,” just because everyone is too nice to point that sad fact out. This is the episode in which Barney (Don Knotts) utters the immortal line, “All God’s children got a uvula.”
As a diehard Andy Griffith fan, I very much wanted to get either its creator, Aaron Ruben (who died last year, at 95), or Elinson to talk to me for my long-in-the-works book on early television writers. But Ruben turned me down, and when I spoke to Elinson on the phone, I detected some issues with memory loss that ultimately led me to back out of doing an interview.
They were both very funny men, but while Ruben’s sardonic wit is on ample display in several long interviews (including this one and Jeff Kisseloff’s book The Box), Elinson remains a neglected figure. There’s a brief, not very good interview with Elinson in Max Wylie’s Writing for Television – so inconsequential, in fact, that I can’t find a single pull quote worth repeating here – and nothing else that I’ve ever come across. I would have hoped that an Andy Griffith Show enthusiast might have gotten to Elinson, and some others among the creative staff. But out of all the volumes published on that series, none of the authors seems to have been particularly curious about the actual circumstances of the show’s production. Richard Michael Kelly’s 1981 book, simply titled The Andy Griffith Show, has a few good chapters on the subject, and I’ve encountered nothing as good since. (Along the same lines, the conventions organized by the show’s fans always seemed to invite the actors, all the way down to bit players and favorite guest stars, but never the surviving writers or directors.) It’s a very regrettable void that can probably never be filled now, unless a trove of the show’s production records exists in the archives somewhere.
Meanwhile, there’s the curious case of Andy Griffith’s autobiography, which was tentatively titled I Appreciate It and announced for publication last year. Since then, it has disappeared from Amazon and all the other places one goes to find books. Griffith’s collaborator, Jim Clark, is the great keeper of The Andy Griffith Show flame; his decades-long newsletter about the series has morphed into the online-only eBullet, the latest issue of which contains a nice tribute to Gomer Pyle star Barbara Stuart. Griffith is notoriously private and Clark’s writings on the show have always hewed toward the fannish, so I took those as cues that Griffith’s book would not be especially penetrating. But, still: I want to read it. What happened?!