Frances Bavier was born in 1902 near Gramercy Park — a few blocks south of Central Park — in New York City. She planned to become a schoolteacher. But working in vaudeville and getting her first role on Broadway (in the play “The Poor Nut”) at the age of 22 led to expanded stage work that included roles on and off the Big Apple’s Great White Way and even trips to entertain World War II troops in the Pacific with the USO.
In her final Broadway role, she starred alongside Henry Fonda in “Point of No Return,” the year-long run of which ended in 1952. It marked a full-time shift to television and film work for Bavier, which had begun a year earlier with her role in the science fiction classic, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
Of course it was Bavier’s 10-year stretch — the longest of any Mayberry character — as Aunt Bee on “The Andy Griffith Show” and its spinoff, “Mayberry R.F.D.,” that brought her fame and instant recognizability. Along the way, she won an Emmy Award, in 1967, as Outstanding Supporting Comedy Actress for that role; her costar, Don Knotts, also won for comedic supporting actor the same year, one of the five Emmys he’d collect for his portrayal of Deputy Barney Fife.
“Aunt Bee” — it’s typically styled “Bee,” instead of “Bea,” even though the character’s name was Beatrice — was launched after she was cast, not as Aunt Bee, but as a character called Henrietta Perkins, in an episode on Danny Thomas’s long-running “Make Room for Daddy” sitcom. That episode (the program was subsequently renamed “The Danny Thomas Show”) starred actors Andy Griffith and Ron Howard, who were portraying a North Carolina sheriff named Andy Taylor and his son, Opie; it served to introduce the new characters to a large TV audience.
Soon after, on Oct. 3, 1960, “The Andy Griffith Show” made its debut on CBS. Bavier was cast as Aunt Bee, the paternal aunt of the widower sheriff. In the show’s premiere episode, “The New Housekeeper,” Aunt Bee returns to Mayberry from Morgantown, West Virginia — coincidentally, the real-life birthplace of Knotts — after Andy’s housekeeper marries and moves away. Aunt Bee takes over management of Andy’s household and becomes Opie’s surrogate mother and grandmother.
A love/hate relationship
Numerous stories, some likely apocryphal, are told of Bavier’s clashes with her fellow actors and directors on the show, where she’s described as professional but rather aloof from the hijinks-loving cast. That cast, which of course included Griffith — who got his start with comedic monologues — and Knotts, one of the most popular comedic actors in history, perhaps made an odd mix when factoring in the New York-trained Bavier.
A brief marriage earlier in Bavier’s career didn’t produce any children; Howard, who played Opie, was once quoted as saying he didn’t think “she enjoyed being around children that much.”
There’s little doubt Bavier had a love-hate relationship with Aunt Bee, an unmarried, dowdy, homespun woman whose kitchen skills — despite her struggles in the pickle department, the focus of one of the show’s most popular episodes — and star-crossed romances were prominent features of the sitcom. Bavier was a trained stage performer who knew Broadway’s ins and outs. She was a pro’s pro, but was suddenly thrown into a show with the 5-year-old Howard and the Mount Airy-born Griffith, who first earned stardom with his rollicking, Hicksville-inspired “What It Was, Was Football” monologue.
Some speculate Bavier felt her talents were overlooked. Griffith was quoted as saying he and Bavier sometimes clashed during their time on the set together, but he said during a 2003 appearance on “Larry King Live” that Bavier telephoned him a few months before her death to apologize for occasionally being “difficult” to work with.
Her behavior may have partly stemmed from that serious training as an actor and the conflict she may have felt for the notoriety “Aunt Bee” gave her. Bavier herself once told an interviewer: “I had played Aunt Bee for 10 years and it’s very, very difficult for an actress or actor to create a role and be so identified that you as a person no longer exist, and all the recognition you get is for a part that’s created on screen.”
She elaborated the point in an interview with a reporter for a newspaper in Charlotte.
“Once in a while,” Bavier told The Charlotte News, “I get a hankering to play a really bad woman. Once a few years ago I was really vicious in a ‘Lone Ranger’ episode, but so many people wrote in outrage at what I was doing, I guess it was a mistake. Sometimes it gets me down to think I’ve lost my own identity and my identity as an actress. But other times I get a lift when I realize that I’m really doing quite well.”
Television producer Sheldon Leonard once described her as “a rather remote lady. Highly professional and a fine comedienne, fine actress with very individual character. She was rather self-contained and was not part of the general hi-jinks that centered upon Andy on the set.”
A move to Siler City
Still, that didn’t prevent Bavier from retiring, in 1972, to Siler City — famously, at least locally, named prominently in a Season 5 episode, and located not too far from Mount Airy, which, as Griffith’s birthplace, stakes a claim as the “real” Mayberry.
“I, like a child, came here looking for a fairyland,” Bavier once said. She told another interviewer: “I fell in love with North Carolina, all the pretty roads and the trees.”
As a part of the Siler City community, Bavier was an active supporter of many charitable efforts — notably the Easterseals Society — and, in her will, left a $100,000 trust fund that provides a Christmas bonus to members of the town’s police force.
In 1986, Griffith pulled together 16 members of the cast of his old show for a TV movie reunion called “Return to Mayberry.” Bavier, by then in poor health, declined a reprisal of her famous role. In one of the movie’s scenes, Griffith, as an aging Sheriff Taylor, is shown visiting Aunt Bee’s grave.
In real life, the decline of her health, combined with a seemingly endless stream of fans and the curious — who’d frequently knock on her door, asking for a photo or an autograph or a look around the house — naturally made Bavier more reclusive. That likely contributed to unflattering accounts of her leading up to and after her death. Even the Los Angeles Times, Kathy Nail’s local newspaper during her California days, published a story shortly after Bavier’s passing saying that she “lived her last years in seclusion in a dark, dingy house and kept a 1966 green Studebaker with four flat tires in the garage. The home of Frances Bavier reflects little of the coziness of the fictional house that Aunt Bee managed for Mayberry’s sheriff and his young son on the popular television series of the 1960s.”
Some obituaries say Bavier died with 17 cats in her house and that the feline infestation ruined part of the home’s interior — something those who knew her, and knew the house, have strongly denied.
Bavier’s death, from congestive heart failure, came on Dec. 6, 1989, about a week before her 87th birthday.
She died a Siler City resident, but didn’t turn her back on her legacy: Bavier’s tall headstone at Oakwood Cemetery in town has her name boldly chiseled at the top, and “AUNT BEE” just below — along with an inscription at the bottom which reads, “To live in the hearts of those left behind is not to die.”
These days, in addition to living in Bavier’s former home, Nail has found herself as caretaker of Bavier’s gravesite, too. She goes out once a month or so with friend and neighbor Nancy Harris.
“Nancy took me out there one time, because I didn’t know where it was,” Nail said. “And we’re looking at it. And it was just awful. It hadn’t been weed-eated and there were tons of pickle jars. And lots of change — you know, people leave pennies and things like that.”
The pair cleaned up the gravesite and have doing it regularly since.
“We decided to take care of it because she didn’t have any family,” Nail said. “The people who took care of her have passed away. So I live in her house — I might as well take care of her new house, too.”
- Bill Horner III
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