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More than a face in the crowd

For anyone who was ever a child, the passing of Andy Griffith this week was more than just another death of an older celebrity who'd been out of the public consciousness for a while.

Griffith ... sorry, can't do it. Despite the gnashing of teeth of copy editors everywhere, there's just no way to write about this in proper journalistic fashion by referring to him by his last name.

To generations, he was Andy, and Andy he will be for the next few hundred words. Even when he was Ben Matlock (which he was for 10 seasons), he was Andy, all gussied up in his Sunday suit and getting the best of those cityfolk in the courtroom.

Andy belongs to a small circle of television icons about whom there is no evil twin. Lucy, of course. Waltercronkite (which was always said as though it were one word). Johnny.

Andy's singularity came from his subtle confidence and laid-back charm. Kids were a tiny bit envious of Opie for having such a knowing, authoritative, fun-loving Pa. He couldn't be their father; but maybe an uncle, or the nice guy down the street.

Or, as Saul Hudson said this week after news of Andy's passing, he was "the next step after Mr. Rogers." Who's Saul Hudson? You might know him better as Slash, lead guitarist for Guns 'N Roses. That was the reach of Andy Griffith.

Which leads us, of course, to Charlie Sheen.

It does so.

Sheen (no nomenclature problems there), you might have heard, stars in a new sitcom named "Anger Management" as Charlie Goodson. This is after he left his role as Charlie Harper on "Two and a Half Men," which began after his three seasons as Charlie Crawford on "Spin City."

You get the idea that if they didn't name his characters "Charlie," he might not catch his cues from the rest of the cast. It's a variation of the old Tony Danza Rule, in which Danza would always portray characters named Tony. Tony Banta, Tony Micelli, Tony Canetti and Tony DiMeo, to be precise.

Viewers turned out for the premiere of "Anger Management" and advertisers have jumped on board, as well. But it's doubtful they're doing so for the writing or to see Sheen as a therapist.

More likely, they just want to see Charlie Sheen — for with all that's happened in his life the past couple of years, it's difficult to see him as anyone else.

As is the case with Andy, he's left his imprint. Perhaps the only reason the FX network didn't call his new series "The Charlie Sheen Show," is because they're hedging their bets in case Ashton Kutcher has to replace him in a season or two.

"The Andy Griffith Show," of course, actually was about Andy Taylor. As "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was about Mary Richards. And whether she was Lucy Ricardo or Lucy Carmichael or Lucy Carter or Lucy Barker, she was always Lucy.

This wasn't always the case: "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was about Rob Petrie, and while the "The Bob Newhart Show" was about Bob Hartley, "Newhart" was about Dick Loudon.

Jerry Seinfeld played a version of himself the comedian on "Seinfeld," in a tradition dating back to George Burns and carried on these days by Louis CK. (Matt LeBlanc and James VanderBeek play takes on themselves on series as well, though neither is named for the actor.)

While Newhart (the actor, not the innkeeper) once joked that after his series "Bob" that if he ever did another show, he'd call it "The," the all-time champ in this category would seem to be Betty White.

Presenting the Happy Homewrecker/Golden Girl with her Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, Sandra Bullock noted that over the years White (Betty? Have to think about that one) had not one and not two ... but FOUR series called "The Betty White Show."

She now headlines "Hot in Cleveland," another star stripped of the eponymous status.

There aren't that many television icons anymore. And seemingly few on the way that we can identify with by name. "The (Star Name Here) Show" appears to be a title construction held at this point by HBO's Ricky Gervais. No offense to Ricky (nope, mind goes first to Ricardo), by he's not an Andy Griffith.

Which brings us back to Charlie Sheen, whose father Martin prtrayed President Bartlett on "The West Wing," created and written early on by Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin's latest series is "The Newsroom," set in a TV network in the days after the 2010 oil spill in Louisiana's Gulf Coast.

Sorkin — usually a favorite or critics and viewers alike for his penchant for fast-paced, interlocking dialogue — is getting a bit of a pounding this time around from those tired of his penchant for fast-paced, interlocking dialogue.

Derogatory blogs and reviews and videos are popping up from folks tired of his "Sorkinisms," and citing motifs and riffs in "The Newsroom" that look more than vaguely familiar to those who have followed his work through "SportsNight," "The West Wing" and even the one-season "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip."

It seems some people are tired of seeing (and hearing) Sorkin being Sorkin. And once the morbid curiosity factor wears off, you might anticipate the same for Charlie Sheen — in a way America never seemed to tire of Andy.

It's difficult to imagine TV viewers of a generation ago turning away from Bob Newhart or Lucille Ball or Bill Cosby when they showed up in a new role with the same persona established earlier.

But these are different times, with more options for the impatient eye. Networks no longer need to call a series after the star, because the star is rarely the draw. Now, it's more likely a producer, or a ubiquitous "show-runner" or even a concept.

Coming closest at the moment probably is Tom Selleck — an iconic presence with a string of success who continues to be welcome into living rooms as Thomas Magnum or Richard Burke or Jesse Stone or Frank Reagan.

These days, before the Sheen curiosity wears off, maybe a few weeks of good ratings and money in the bank from advertising sales are enough.

As we've discovered in the music business, there's always more product in the pipeline, more stars to become brands. For every Madonna, there's a Britney Spears, a Miley Cyrus, a Katy Perry, a Lady Gaga, a Taylor Swift.

Every generation sends a hero up the pop charts, Paul Simon reminded us. But when it comes to finding those familiar faces on TV that we call by their names and let into our homes regardless of what character they play, it's another Simon lyric that comes to mind.

Where have you gone, Andy Griffith? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin writes occasionally about television for Tempo. He can be reached at rgalvin@mailtribune.com