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Otis the Drunk: 10 Sobering Facts About Hal Smith and His ‘Andy Griffith Show’ Character

Incredibly, the character only appeared in 32 episodes of the show — but it feels like so much more!

Hal Smith as Otis the Drunk on The Andy Griffith Show was, without question, one of the many beloved characters that populated the fictional North Carolina town of Mayberry. They and the town created a connection with viewers during the show’s original 1960 to 1968 run and have continued to do so all these years later.

At the center of it all is Sheriff Andy Taylor (Griffith), his deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), Andy’s son Opie (Ron Howard) and Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier). And then there were people like Floyd “The Barber” Lawson (Howard McNear), mechanics Gomer and Goober Pyle (respectively Jim Nabors and George Lindsey) and, of course, Otis Campbell, more affectionately known by his nick-name.

The man who brought Otis to life was born Harold John Smith on August 24, 1916 in Petoskey, Michigan. Taking a quick look at his background, following high school he worked as a DJ and voice talent at a Utica, New York radio station and enlisted in the Air Force in 1943, where he served in the entertainment division, planning, directing and sometimes starring in shows to entertain the troops.

After being honorably discharged in 1946, he moved to Hollywood and found himself consistently employed in film, television and (especially) as a vocal performer in animation, his career spanning from 1946 to 1993.

Yet despite all of that success, it’s likely that anyone who saw him would say, “Hey, it’s Otis the Drunk!” The irony? He only appeared in 32 episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, which says so much about the impact he made.

1. Hal Smith: lovable kook?

Andy Griffith, Don Knotts and Hal Smith, 1963
©Paramount Pictures/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com
Andy Griffith, Don Knotts and Hal Smith, 1963

When The Andy Griffith Show was being developed, producer Sheldon Leonard was determined to find “lovable-kook” characters to surround leading man Andy Griffith in Mayberry, according to Daniel de Vise, author of Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show.

“In each case, the actor was told it might be a one-off part, maybe lasting for only one or two episodes,” he says. “But when the chemistry worked, as it did with Barney Fife and Otis and Floyd the Barber, Sheldon or producer Aaron Ruben would sweep in and tell the actor that the part might just work out.”

That being said, it’s his feeling that Otis was a bit of a risky character. “Already in the 1960s,” de Vise muses, “Hollywood was starting to get sensitive about the idea of milking a person’s alcoholism for humor. Hal later recalled that someone from General Foods, the show’s sponsor, lobbied the studio to ‘fire’ the character, but the showrunners insisted on keeping him and stood up to the sponsor.”

2. A Background for Otis

Hal Smith, 1960s
Courtesy Allan Newsome
Hal Smith, 1960s

In 1964, the Tampa Bay Times offered up a profile of Hal Smith, in which they provided a bit of history for the Otis character based on the actor’s point of view: “Otis is a picked-on kind of a guy who is not understood by his wife, hence he hits the bottle. The Mrs. doesn’t allow Otis around the house when he’s sozzled, so the jail became his second home.”

3. Hal Smith felt Otis was a dignified drunk

Hal Smith, Andy Griffith and Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show, 1964: Otis the Drunk
©Paramount Pictures/courtesy Allan Newsome
Hal Smith, Andy Griffith and Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show, 1964

“It’s the best kind of drunk a man can be. It pays well and you never get a hangover. I do a show on the average of once every three weeks and I think that’s good. The town drunk could get obnoxious.”

4. In one case, Hal Smith was apparently a negative influence

The Andy Griffith Show, 1963: Otis the Drunk
©Paramount Pictures/courtesy MovieStillsDb.com
The Andy Griffith Show, 1963

Allan Newsome is the host of the Mayberry podcast Two Chairs, No Waiting, and he did an episode that was focused on Hal Smith. The first thing he points out is that the actor was not a drinker beyond, perhaps, in a social situation.

“I wanted to mention that,” he explains, “because one of the stories I’m fixing to tell you about is actually related to that. There was a great book published called More Than Otis, No Bull!, A Salute to Hollywood Actor Hal J. Smith. It’s written by John Mashad III. It’s got some nice articles in here and I wanted to read just a little bit out of one of them. It’s called ‘The Price of Fame,’ where he had talked to Hal Smith and got this information.”

“Becoming a success in Hollywood can be a blessing or a curse to personalities portraying characters,” he reads from the book. “After Hal appeared in The Andy Griffith Show as lovable Otis Campbell, he discovered a world of typecasting and was sometimes irritated by people criticizing his character. ‘I was in a hardware store one time and my son Terry was there with me,’ he said. ‘There was a guy looking through some nuts and bolts and stuff and he looked up at me and said, ‘Oh, you’re the guy from The Andy Griffith Show. I hate you.’

“Hal said to him, ‘Wait a minute, what do you mean?’ He explained to Hal that his brother became an alcoholic after seeing Otis drunk on an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. ‘You caused my brother to drink. He saw you drinking and he wanted to do it, because of you.’”

Smith, he says, defended himself, emphasizing that Otis had never been filmed drinking out of a bottle of any sort. In fact, the only time the audience ever saw him drink anything was when they gave him something to sober him up.

“Throughout the run of The Andy Griffith Show, Smith was plagued with restaurant bartenders and fans offering him free alcoholic drinks, and he always turned them down,” Newsome continues reading. “‘Strangers came up to me and asked me if I was sober. Others were surprised to see me walking the street,’ said Hal in a 1991 interview. ‘They sometimes thought I was a real drunk. I don’t recall the last time I had a drink.’”

5. Otis the Drunk had a negative impact on Hal Smith’s son

Newsome explains, “The character also affected the life of his only son, Terry. They used to call him ‘Little Otis’ at Brentwood Academy. ‘He never really liked that. When I took him to school, the other kids gave me funny looks. I didn’t know if they thought I was an actor or a drunk,’ said Hal Smith. ‘Finally, one day a kid asked Terry, ‘Is your dad Otis? Is he a method actor?’ Terry replied, ‘Yes, he practices every Saturday night.’”

7. “Hal Smith Day”

The town where he grew up, Massena, New York, in 1964 paid tribute to him with “Hal Smith Day.” Journalist and author Lawrence P. Gooley wrote an in depth profile of the actor, and described the event.

“Virtually every business and every family in town became involved in the planning,” he noted, “with such crowds expected that tickets and reservations for many events were in hot demand. Included in the festivities were a group breakfast, lunch, and dinner; a royal welcome that featured a crown made of (what else?) aluminum from the local plant; a visit to the hospital, where he entertained patients; an autograph session at a vacant store transformed by area merchants into a replica of the Mayberry jail; all-day limousine service; band music at several venues; the theater playing movies that Hal appeared in, and autographs for each attendee; a reunion with old schoolmates; induction as a member of the St. Regis Indians; and at the Highland Hotel that night, Hal appeared in the floor show.

“It was without a doubt one of the greatest days of his life. For a man who earned a wonderful living with his voice, he was left nearly speechless when several dignitaries and old friends spoke his praises early in the day. Deeply moved, he replied, ‘All that I can say is thank you. I can’t keep back the tears.’”

8. Embracing his inner Otis the Drunk

Don Knotts celebrated his 35th year celebration at Chasen's Restaurant with friends Hal Smith and Andy Griffith, 1984January 9, 1984 : Otis the Drunk
Getty
Don Knotts celebrated his 35th year celebration at Chasen’s Restaurant with friends Hal Smith and Andy Griffith, 1984

“By the 1980s,” says Newsome, “Hal had learned to accept the popularity of Otis. He began to attend Mayberry reunions, did national MADD commercials, signed autographs and attended charity shows. He said, ‘It took me some time to get away from playing a lot of drunk roles. I was paid good for them. People today love the character and the show. It’s unbelievable. They come up to you and they want to hug you. I enjoy making people happy as Otis.’”

9. Otis and Return to Mayberry

Hal Smith was offered the opportunity to reprise the character in the 1986 TV movie Return to Mayberry, only at that point Otis had cleaned up his act and was driving an ice cream truck.

10. The ongoing legacy of Hal Smith: Otis the Drunk

Hal Smith and Andy Griffith, 1962: Otis the Drunk
©Paramount Pictures/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com
Hal Smith and Andy Griffith, 1962

Hal Smith — married to Louise C. Smith from 1936 until her death in 1992 — died on January 28, 1994 at the age of 77 of a heart attack. It’s been 30 years, yet the character he played, and the show itself, continues to live on.

“Broadly speaking, Otis the drunk was one of several comedic characters orbiting around Andy, the nominal straight man,” points out Daniel de Vise. “But Otis also served a more specific purpose. Here’s something I wrote in Andy & Don:

‘Hal and Otis the drunk was more than a running gag. His very presence in the jail — and his ready access to the keys — reminded viewers of Mayberry’s essential benevolence, just like Barney having the one bullet that he wasn’t supposed to actually use, and Aunt Bee showing up at lunchtime with a picnic basket full of food. In the end, I think Otis was a strong enough character to become something of an archetype, like Floyd the bumbling barber and Gomer the oafish mechanic.’”

Enthused Hal Smith at one point, “It was a great role. I loved every minute of it.”

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