NEW YORK -- Cops, doctors and lawyers have always been a prime-time television staple, but this year the legal eagles are launching something of a major comeback.
NBC is responsible for two of them: 'L.A. Law,' about a pack of shysters in a bustling Los Angeles law firm, and 'Matlock,' starring Andy Griffith as a gentleman lawyer in Atlanta. The show, which debuts Sept. 23 (8-9 p.m. EDT), is kind of a throwback to the old Perry Mason days, where the lawyer always gets his man.
The thing is, Matlock would never have made it to the courtroom if Griffith had not killed off Barney Fife for good.
For eight years on 'The Andy Griffith Show,' Griffith played Andy Taylor, the sheriff in a small town called Mayberry. His friend, Don Knotts, played Barney Fife, his bumbling deputy and buddy.
It was an easygoing show, with gentle humor, warm relationships and proper values. And it developed an incredible cult following that still thrives in the form of more than 100 fan clubs across the country.
After that show was over, Griffith had a tough time finding work. He had been typecast almost to the point of extinction. So Griffith tried to break out of the Mayberry prison by finding parts that were the antithesis of friendly old 'Ange.'
That helped, but it really came down to this: he had to kill Fife. It happened the night before he began work on a made-for-TV movie called 'Pray for the Wildcats.'
'I woke that night before -- I was going to play a scene the next day, like a rape scene -- it's the reason I took the part -- and that night before I had a nightmare,' Griffith said during the network press tour in Los Angeles.
'I dreamed I killed Don Knotts. I did. And I woke up the next morning and my conscience was killing me. I called Don and I couldn't find him anywhere.'
Griffith went to the set, mustered up enough energy and shot the rape scene. His conscience had eased but the nightmare still concerned him.
'I, like a lot of people, every now and then, go to the shrink, see, so I called him up and says, listen, I had this nightmare but I think I've analyzed what it was. I said, I think I was killing my character, my image, and it bothered me.
'He said, 'Yeah, that's right, that's what you were doing.' Isn't it funny? I was killing the image of Andy Taylor that day and it bothered me to the point that I had that nightmare.'
Griffith's troubles were not over. While fixing his roof, he fell off and broke his back. Then, after he had recovered from that painful injury, he was stricken with Guillain Barre syndrome, a rare disease that paralyzed him from the knees down and left him in agonizing pain. He still wears plastic braces.
In all, he was off the screen for five years -- an eternity for an actor -- and the plastic braces on his legs serve as a constant reminder of the pain and depression.
Griffith doesn't need the psychiatrist anymore.
'I haven't gone for a while,' he said, 'but at one point I thought I was crazy so I needed a little guidance there.
'I just felt I was a little nuts and I met a man who was a wonderful psychiatrist. My friend Don Knotts says everybody could use a little psychiatry, and I think all of us could use a little guidance once in a while.'
The worst is over for Griffith and now he returns as 'Matlock.'
In the premiere episode, Dick Van Dyke guest stars as Judge Carter Addison, who kills his unfaithful young mistress and then presides over the murder trial af the victim's framed boyfriend. Defense lawyer Ben L. Matlock takes the case.
The despicable class-conscious judge, who snubbed Matlock years ago in law school, is about to get his comeuppance.
Again, Griffith plays the good guy, but this time the guy has more teeth. And Griffith couldn't be happier.
'Those of us who are older who get a shot at it (TV), we better have something to say when we get there, and say it well,' Griffith said. '... I'm delighted for myself. I'm delighted to be working, just tickled to death.'