Frances 'Aunt Bee' Bavier dead at 86

SILER CITY, N.C. -- America's favorite aunt, Frances 'Aunt Bee' Bavier, who took care of Andy and Opie for eight years on 'The Andy Griffith Show,' died of heart failure Wednesday night and will be buried Sunday in Siler City.

Bavier, who was 86, will be buried Sunday afternoon at Oakwood Cemetery in Siler City. A spokeswoman at Smith and Buckner Funeral Home said the service will be private.

The actress had been released Monday from the cardiac care unit of Chatham County Hospital, where she told administrator Roger Harrell she would see no visitors except Andy Griffith, Don Knotts and Ron Howard, who appeared with her on the show. None came to visit.

'She wanted to be Frances Bavier, citizen, and not Aunt Bee,' said Harrell.

But hundreds of cards and dozens of bouquets were sent to Bavier while she was hospitalized -- all of them from fans.

In the series, Bavier's Aunt Bee kept house for Sheriff Andy Taylor, played by Griffith, and his son Opie, portrayed by then-child actor Howard. Knotts played the sheriff's goofy sidekick, Deputy Barney Fife.

Richard Kelly, author of a 1981 book about the television show, said Bavier had a hard time rejecting the role of Aunt Bee because her character's stereotype left such a strong impression in the minds of fans.

'A lot of them can say, 'I have an Aunt Bee,'' he said.

In 249 episodes, Aunt Bee mostly stayed at home baking gooseberry pies and making sure little Opie washed his hands before meals and got to bed on time.

Aunt Bee was a prim and proper lady who wore sturdy shoes, white gloves and a little pill box hat whenever she left the house. But she had a couple of beaus Andy liked to tease her about and once she got 'tiddly' -- Mayberry for drunk -- after sipping some elixir from a traveling medicine man.

Aunt Bee was the epitome of warmth and human kindness, but Bavier herself was reclusive. She once said she had no friends in Hollywood and when the work day ended she did not socialize.

On the set, Bavier was moody and cast members had to be careful or they would offend her, according to Neal Brower, of Monroe, N.C., who teaches a college course about 'The Andy Griffith Show' and its characters.

'Whenever her feelings were hurt, she would call in and say she was not feeling well, and everyone would know that she was upset about something that had happened or something somebody had said,' Brower said.

But actor Jim Nabors, who played mechanic Gomer Pyle on the show, praised Bavier Thursday as someone willing to teach a young actor how to improve his craft.

'She was incredibly kind to me and extremely patient,' said Nabors. 'When I would come off the set she would make suggestions to me on how I could improve my performance. I was so inexperienced.'

Why Bavier decided to retire to Siler City remains an enigma, although the town of 5,000 is one of the few real places depicted on 'The Andy Griffith Show.' The actress had spent some time in North Carolina in 1963 while on a rice diet program through Duke University, but that was the extent of her knowledge of the state.

'She had lived and worked in a fictional North Carolina all those years, but had almost no acquaintance with the real North Carolina until she moved there,' said Kelly.

Kelly said Bavier bought the 20-room Siler City house that she shared with several cats in 1972, without ever seeing it. Her dressmaker made the purchase.

Bavier, a native of New York City, attended Columbia University, then switched to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

'With me it's always been a fight to prove something,' she explained in an interview. 'That's why I became an actress in the first place.

'I was going to teachers college at Columbia University. One day I ran into a friend of mine. She told me she was going to be an actress. I thought, 'I'm a better actress than she is,' and that's when I decided to go to the academy.'

After graduation in 1925, she joined a traveling theater group and then in World War II entertained American soldiers with the USO in Europe. When the war ended, she appeared first on Broadway then television, winning an Emmy for best supporting actress in a comedy in 1967.

In her latter years, Bavier suffered a chronic heart condition and neighbors described her as senile, saying she didn't like to wear clothing and had to be prevented from leaving home in a state of undress.

In 1986, when other members of the Mayberry cast filmed a made-for-television movie called 'Return To Mayberry,' Aunt Bee was simply written out of the script, with Andy leaving a flower on her grave upon his return to town.