I never met Andy Griffith, but for 50 years, through every stage of my life, he has been a frequent guest in my succession of living rooms.
He wasn't just another celebrity.
When he died July 3, I felt as if I'd lost kin. A lifelong friend. A mentor.
He didn't know it, but he taught me how to be a patient dad and how to tell a good yarn and how to be gracious to neighbors who got on my nerves.
He helped me see the small towns I lived in through kinder eyes.
He kept me smiling through some of my worst setbacks.
Evidently, many others felt the same way. I've been reading online commentaries, tributes and obituaries about him from every corner of the nation. Few entertainers have been so beloved.
He brilliantly played a wide range of characters in an unusually long career, from a rube drafted into the Air Force to an egomaniacal rabble-rouser to a murderous county boss to an eccentric lawyer. He was successful as a stand-up comedian, a Broadway actor and a gospel singer.
But we who admired him most knew him best as Andy Taylor, sheriff of Mayberry, N.C., in The Andy Griffith Show.
I've watched I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family and Taxi and Cheers and Seinfeld and Friends and Curb Your Enthusiasm and 30 Rock and The Simpsons.
For my money, The Andy Griffith Show is the greatest sitcom of them all.
A day or two after Griffith passed away, I was making a deposit at a drive-through branch bank when the teller, a woman about my age, and I struck up a conversation about his death.
For several minutes we wistfully recited patches of dialogue from our favorite episodes, as frustrated, impatient drivers lined up behind me.
One of mine: the episode in which Barney (Don Knotts) buys a lemon of a used car. Before learning he's been sold a piece of junk, he takes his friends for a celebratory drive. It turns out Gomer (Jim Nabors) tends to get carsick and has to sit next to a window.
During the drive, Andy asks Gomer how he's feeling.
"Sick as a dog but having the time of my life!" Gomer reports.
Across the years, I've used that line a thousand times in a hundred contexts.
I've been such a devotee of the show — I probably know every line of every episode from the first five seasons, when Knotts was still in the cast — that I've long pondered why the series had this mighty effect on me.
It was wonderfully acted and written, of course. But you could say that about all the sitcoms I mentioned above.
For me, Griffith's show had qualities those other comedies didn't.
It embodied grace, for one thing. Griffith reportedly said Andy Taylor was a lot like him, except way nicer.
I think I read somewhere — I've read so much I can't locate all my references — that Griffith said he based Andy Taylor on himself when he was at his best, or on the man he would have liked to be. Words to that effect.
Whatever his exact statement, you could say the same about why so many of us, especially small-town folks, continue to love the show a half-century after we first watched it: It represents us at our best, or at least it reminds us of who we wish we were. It makes us try to be a bit nicer, purer, more generous.
It's uplifting, in the truest and least smarmy sense of that word.
In Mayberry, people are flawed but rarely mean- spirited. If they are mean, within a 30-minute episode they see their errors and make amends. In the end, everybody does right. Mayberry's residents never damage one another permanently.
Of course, a skeptic could argue, and some have, that this is fantasy.
Real people in real towns aren't like that.
Town drunks aren't usually benign, funny oafs like Otis (Hal Smith). Flinty merchants and big-city playboys don't neatly reform themselves in a half-hour.
A sheriff who, like Andy Taylor, hires his incompetent cousin as his deputy and keeps him on the force despite his constant blunders, who arbitrarily releases prisoners whenever he pleases, ought to be voted out of office, if not indicted.
So yes, to an extent the show is fantasy. But it's not just fantasy.
There's plenty enough reality there to make it legitimate — and lasting.
We continue to respond to Mayberry and its citizens partly because they remind us of who we want to be, and who, occasionally, we are: gentle people whose hearts are in the right place, who forgive and make peace.
There's another, related key to The Andy Griffith Show's power.
According to several articles, Griffith once was asked to share the secret to his show's never-ebbing popularity.
"It was all about love," he said.
And so it was. And so it is today.