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Floyd the Barber: 17 Hair-Snipping Facts About Howard McNear from ‘The Andy Griffith Show’

Get to know just one of the eccentric characters that surrounded Mayberry's Sheriff Andy Taylor

Otis the Drunk (Hal Smith), Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) and Floyd the Barber (Howard McNear) are only a few of the pretty eccentric characters Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) of Mayberry had to deal with, but how he dealt with them is what made The Andy Griffith Show so special a television series. And while we’re dealing specifically with Floyd the Barber here, it’s important to recognize the way the show made an internal change that allowed McNear and the others to shine.

When the series’ 1960 to 1968 run began, Griffith dove into the deep end of the comedy pool with everyone else, but quickly realized that that was not the right approach. Daniel de Vise, author of Andy & Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show, points out that the second episode filmed, “Manhunt,” changed everything.

“With this episode, the first to feature Don [Knotts], the cast and crew began to sense that something special was playing out in front of the Griffith camera,” he writes. “Whenever Andy and Don would take the stage, Don’s eyes would widen and his body would tense as he transformed into Barney, and Andy’s eyes would warm with adoration, and some primal comedic force would be unleashed. ‘The Manhunt’ recast the Mayberry universe. It was still Andy’s show, but for the next five years, most of the laughs would go to Barney.

“By stepping back and retreating into the role of straight man, Andy Griffith brought balance to Mayberry and immortality to his program. As the production evolved and the cast grew, Andy Griffith would emerge as one of the hardest-working straight men on television, his timing and gravitas elevating the artistry not just of Don, but later of such comedic talents as Howard ‘Floyd’ McNear and Jim ‘Gomer’ Nabors.”

Which brings us back to Floyd the Barber, or, more specifically, the man who played him.

He was born Howard Terbell McNear on January 27, 1905 in Los Angeles, and became fascinated by the idea of performing at an early age. This would result in a career that would only span from 1953 to 1966, but in those 13 years he accomplished a great many things, as the following facts will reveal.

1. His earliest roles were on the stage

Howard McNear, 1961
Howard McNear, 1961Courtesy Allan Newsome

McNear’s first training to be a dramatic actor came from actor Tyronne Power’s mother, Patia, and he went on to study at the Oatman School of Theater and eventually joined a theater stock company in San Diego. Frankly, it’s a wonder he made it into either building at all. Speaking to the Progress-Bulletin, he explained that even though his mother agreed to let him attend the school, “I was so shy I walked up and down in front of it for three days before I had the courage to go inside.”

2. Being shy was a real problem

George Lindsey, Howard McNear and Andy Griffith, 1961
George Lindsey, Howard McNear and Andy Griffith, 1961©CBS/courtesy

“I was painfully shy,” he admitted to the Los Angeles Times. “I really feel at home only when I’m on stage. Meeting people is far harder for me than being behind the footlights; perhaps that’s because I can feel I’m someone else when I’m acting.”

3. In a way radio became his safe place

Behind the scenes of the radio drama Gunsmoke, 1952
Behind-the-scenes of the radio version of Gunsmoke, 1952Courtesy RetroVision Archives

For someone who suffered from shyness, finding work on radio seemed to be ideal for Howard McNear. In 1937 there was a seasonal fantasy show called The Cinnamon Bear, for which he voiced Samuel the Seal. He spent 1938 to 1940 voicing Clint Barlow on the radio drama serial Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police. After that, he starred with William Conrad (later of the TV series Cannon) and Parley Baer in an audio version of The Count of Monte Cristo.

He would have to put his radio career on hold to serve in World War II and the U.S. Army Air Cops, after which it was back to vocal performances on a number of syndicated show, among them The Cavalcade of America, The Shadow of Fu Manchu and The Lux Radio Theatre. Many others would follow.

4. Voicing Doc on Gunsmoke

The cast of radio's Gunsmoke, the actors dressed in character, 1952
The cast of radio’s Gunsmoke, the actors dressed in character, 1952Courtesy Allan Newsome

Fans of classic TV know that Gunsmoke was one of TV Westerns’ biggest success stories, running from 1955 to 1975, plus several reunion television movies. What tends to get lost to time is the fact that there was a radio series version that preceded it, running from 1952 to 1961. William Conrad voiced Marshal Matt Dillon, with Georgia Ellis as Kitty Russell and Howard McNear as Doc Charles Adams (played by Milburn Stone and Galen Adams on the TV version).

“[He] brought the character of ‘Doc’ to life from the very first episode as a man delighted by the thought of all of the money he stood to collect from the number of men Marshall Matt Dillon sent to Boot Hill,” commented Radiospirits. “William Conrad was so tickled by McNear’s wickedly ghoulish take on the character that he suggested Doc’s real name by ‘Dr. Charles Adams,’ a reference to macabre cartoonist Charles Addams.” (creator of The Addams Family)

5. Welcome to the big screen!

Elvis Presley and Howard McNear
Elvis Presley and Howard McNearCourtesy Allan Newsome

It wasn’t long before his comic talents were recognized by Hollywood, and McNear found himself starring in movies. In fact, there were 28 of them between 1953 and 1966. The most recognizable are probably Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’ The Long, Long Trailer (1953), the sci-fi film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1960) and no less than three Elvis Presley films: Blue Hawaii (1961), Follow That Dream (1962) and Fun in Acapulco (1963).

Allan Newsome, a “Floyd the Barber Tribute Artist” who performs at various Mayberry-related events, one of the stars of the streaming series Mayberry Man and host of the long-running Mayberry-centric podcast “Two Chairs, No Waiting” (TCNW), comments, “His son, Kit, said he was home by himself when the phone rings. He picked it up and the voice on the other line said, ‘Hello, this is Elvis Presley. I’d like to speak to Howard.’ Kit said, ‘Knock it off, Johnny,’ and hung up on him.

“Elvis,” he continues the story, “had to call back twice. The reason he pesisted is that he really liked Howard and just wanted to call and talk to him. I guess that tells you a bit about the guy he was that people he worked with in movies and television tried to stay in touch with him after production ended.”

6. No stranger to television

One of Howard McNear's 7 appearances on The Jack Benny Program, 1957
One of Howard McNear’s 7 appearances on The Jack Benny Program, 1957©CBS

Howard McNear made his TV debut in a 1952 episode of Four Star Playhouse. This would be followed by over 90 guest spots on different shows prior to his arrival on The Andy Griffith Show in 1961. Among those shows were I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke (six episodes, all featuring him as different characters) Leave It to Beaver, The Jack Benny Program, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Mister Ed.

7. Howard McNear becomes Floyd the Barber

In 1961, Howard McNear joined the cast of The Andy Griffith Show as Floyd Lawson, better known as “Floyd the Barber.” The series, of course, was already a huge success and the actor was caught off guard by the popularity he was suddenly experiencing.

As he mused to the press, “After all these years, now people are beginning to recognize me in restaurants and on the street. My brother even gets mistaken for me and he’s quite flattered. My first TV show was with George Gobel and I was scared going out there in front of 30 million people, but he was very helpful. And then there’s Jack Benny. He’s a big star, but he took the trouble to call my wife once and tell her how well he thought I did in one of his shows. My wife was in tears afterwards.”

8. Floyd’s role on The Andy Griffith Show

Pop culture historian Geoffrey Mark, author of The Lucy Book, points out that as designed, the character of Floyd was supposed to be a generation older than Andy Taylor, even remembering both Andy and Barney Fife growing up as kids.

“He also gave another perspective as an elder of the town,” he says. “Sometimes close-minded, sometimes jumping to conclusions, sometimes judgmental and sometimes giving them some wisdom. On top of that, he gave the show a needed voice. He wasn’t always involved in the high jinks, although sometimes he was. More often than not, he was almost like a Greek chorus, commenting on the high jinks.”

9. His skills as a comedian

Allan Newsome reflects, “The more I portray him and study what he does on the show and how he behaves, the more impressed I am with the way he was able to take those sometimes minimal lines and make them so entertaining. George Lindsey, who played Goober, was teling me that even on his days off, he would go to the set just to watch Howard McNear work. He was just so much like the actual character he was playing, that it was a joy to watch.”

“If you watch all the episodes, like I have hundreds of time, Floyd the Barber really permeates Mayberry,” adds Geoffrey Mark. “A lot of the town’s attitudes get revealed through him, because that barbershop was kind of the center of town for the men to gossip in. And there were almost as many scenes in the barbershop as there were in Andy’s office. People just hung out there, so whenever anything happened to them, any storyline where something was going on, there was always a scene at Floyd’s where they discussed it.”

10. Mimicry is the highest form of understanding: Floyd the Barber

“In trying to mimic his behavior,” Newsom explains, “it made me realize how great an actor he along with the other cast members were. I have script from the show where the lines may not have much to them, but the actors took those words and made them entertaining. People who don’t act probably think actors just get in front of the camera and ‘do things.’ But that obviously isn’t the case. They actually spend time making those lines their own and turning them into something the writers didn’t even realize were going to be humorous. Howard did that again and again.”

11. Howard McNear’s view of Floyd the Barber

Andy Griffith, George Lindsey, Howard McNear and Howard Morris, 1962
Andy Griffith, George Lindsey, Howard McNear and Howard Morris, 1962©CBS/courtesy

There came a point in his career where Howard McNear lost interest in playing dramatic roles and preferred to stick with comedy — which frustrated his agent and his wife, both of whom thought he was crazy for turning down the work. “Just last week I turned down a serious thing, they wanted me for a judge who was committing a girl to a mental institution,” he said. “I didn’t think it was right for me. I prefer the specialized bits.”

He described those specialized bits, or the character he assumes to play them, to be kind of “a nervous wreck, and you can’t be on too much with it. I fit him into the part of an absent-minded lawyer in an episode of The Jack Benny Program, and he called me for another show. At first he wanted me to play it straight and that’s what I tried to do when we were rehearsing. But in the end they agreed it would be better for me to do it my own way. Jack said he thought I was a master of this peculiar thing and he couldn’t remember anyone doing a character like it.”

12. He attempted to dig deeper to understand Floyd the Barber

Barbara Eden guest stars on The Andy Griffith Show, 1962
Barbara Eden guest stars on The Andy Griffith Show, 1962©CBS/courtesy

In January 1960, newspaper columnist Hedda Hopper did a profile of McNear, writing, “When top comedians chew the fat about their craft, Howard McNear’s name is bound to come up. He’s played with all of them, bringing a unique type characterization to their shows which no one has succeeded in imitating … His frustrated character, who leaves sentences hanging in the air at times while pantomime finishes out the idea, is too intense to be done too often.”

McNear explained to Hoppa that that “unique characterization” wasn’t based on any one thing, but, instead, was an amalgamation of things he had heard or seen. “I think they evolve from the person himself,” he said. “Perhaps it’s my own mannerisms, exaggerated, of course. I’ve often wondered if such portrayals aren’t built up from the subconscious. I’ve worked with practically all the big comics and have arrived at that conclusion after analyzing their techniques.”

13. He suffered a debilitating stroke

Howard McNear portrait as Floyd the Barber, 1961
Howard McNear portrait, 1961Courtesy Allan Newsome

In 1963, Howard McNear suffered a stroke that had the effects of paralyzing half of his body, forcing him to leave The Andy Griffith Show — and you could definitely feel his absence.

Points out Geoffrey Mark, “Before Howard had his stroke, he was able to be both verbally and physically funny. The character of Floyd was not an airhead in the beginning. He was a caricature of all of the small-town men who had become business owners. They had grown themselves as far as they could possibly grow, which was not very much, and then kind of made themselves into town elders, commenting on everything that went on, because somehow everything in town was their business.”

14. Floyd the Barber did return to Mayberry

In 1963, Andy Griffith was definitely feeling the loss of the Floyd the Barber character, and decided to investigate whether or not Howard McNear could return to the show in some capacity.

“Andy Griffith actually contacted Howard’s wife and asked her if he would be able to come back,” says Newsome. “She said, ‘That would be amazing.’ And they made accommodations for him. He was always leaning on something or sitting down.”

Floyd the Barber makes the news
Floyd the Barber makes the newsCourtesy Allan Newsome

Adds Mark, “The very nice people at The Andy Griffith Show did not write the character of Floyd the Barber out nor did they replace Howard with another actor. They gave him the space to get better and when he was better enough that he could deliver lines reasonably well and be funny, they brought him back. He was gone for over a year — not a season, but over a year. They talked about him, they walked past his barbershop, you just never saw Floyd. And then he was suddenly back.”

“Howard’s wife credited his being brought back as something that kept him alive for a few extra years,” says Newsome. “I’ve just always thought it was an amazing story that Andy showed such loyalty to Howard.”

15. He brought what he was going through to Floyd the Barber

Howard McNear and Andy Griffith, 1961: Floyd the Barber
Howard McNear and Andy Griffith, 1961Courtesy Allan Newsome

Mark points out that by the time Howard McNear reprised the role of Floyd the Barber, it was apparent that he had been ill in that he’d lost weight and his speech had become a little stammered. “But as a good actor, he used it in the character. His disability informed who Floyd became. They never said that Floyd had a stroke or anything, but he used his stammer to the character’s advantage. They went to all of this trouble to be inclusive and maybe in today’s world, they would have written his stroke into the script and let it be real. In those days, you didn’t do that.”

16. He left the series again in 1967

Isobel Elsom, Howard McNear, Brian Donlevy and Jerry Lewis in 1961's The Errand Boy
Isobel Elsom, Howard McNear, Brian Donlevy and Jerry Lewis in 1961’s The Errand Boy©Paramount Pictures/courtesy

Howard McNear was forced to leave Floyd the Barber behind by 1967 (the season before The Andy Griffith Show morphed into Mayberry RFD), the rigors of attempting to perform just proving to be too exhausting.

“In the last shot he did,” Geoffrey Mark states, “the twitching of the face and his having trouble getting the lines out is really obvious. After that, he had more mini-strokes and it was mutually decided that he just couldn’t do the work anymore. His character was written out as having moved his barbershop to a larger city. But I have to say that I don’t know of any other series where the cast and crew went to such great lengths to protect an actor and keep him working.”

Of the series and Howard’s part in it, he muses on what makes a show — or its characters — iconic over time: “It’s that combination of incredible casting, incredible direction, incredible writing and actors who bring something to their roles that make us love them. The premise of the show also has to be good and open enough that all kinds of things can happen. It’s that wonderful stew of different details coming together that makes it so delicious. And Howard McNear was a delicious ingredient in The Andy Griffith Show stew.”

17. Personal Details

In 1926, Howard McNear married Helen Spats, and they remained together until his passing at age 63 on January 3, 1969 from complications of pneumonia in the aftermath of a final stroke. Yet so many years later, he — like Floyd the Barber and The Andy Griffith Show itself — continues to live on.

Enjoy much more about the world of Classic TV!

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